Risk Taking

In our lives, it is important to exercise self-command. However,
we should not be so concerned with the future that we stifle the present.
The question becomes what balance should we strike between self-command
and risks? What kinds of risks are acceptable or unacceptable? In this
essay, we will use two examples of risks to show the distinction between
the two and arrive at a conclusion as to the balance one should have
between risk and self command. The first example we will use is of a
person who spends his life savings on a lottery ticket and does not win
the lottery. The second is of a person who spends his life savings on a
hunch regarding a cure for AIDS, a hunch that is false. Before we make
this distinction, however, it is necessary to define the terms acceptable
and unacceptable risks.

Acceptable and Unacceptable Risks

There are several ways in which one could define which risks are
acceptable. One could say, for example, that the only acceptable risk is
one for which the odds of success are greater than the odds of failure.
Another definition of acceptable risk might be a risk that does not harm
one\'s future. We might also say that the only acceptable risk is one
where the aggregate happiness is increased, thus increasing the moral good
of the risk, an idea which is based on John Stuart Mill\'s Utilitarianism.
Finally, we might define a morally good risk in a Kantian way by saying
that the only acceptable risk is one which is rationally thought out
(Thomas, lecture).
Now that we have several definitions of acceptable risks, we may
ask how these definitions, which seem piecemeal and unrelated, can all
combine to form one definition of acceptable risk. The best way to do
this is to examine the two cases that lie before us and relate the
definitions to them. In the process of doing so, we will determine which
risk is acceptable and which is not.

Risks in the example: the lottery and the AIDS cure

If the average person on the street were presented with the case
of spending one\'s life savings on a lottery ticket and losing or spending
the same sum on a false hunch regarding an AIDS cure, he or she would
probably come up with several answers. For the most part though, all the
answers would be consistent with one idea: the AIDS cure is simply
"worth" more and thus is a more acceptable risk. There might be several
reasons for this. One could assume, for example, that the only person who
would attempt to cure AIDS would be a doctor with sufficient experience in
the field. It would follow, then, that the odds of finding a cure for
AIDS would be much greater than the odds of winning the lottery. To win
the lottery, one has to draw 6 numbers out of 46 (a probability that is
very low). However, curing AIDS with medical experience is a less risky
endeavor. In this instance, trying to cure AIDS would be a greater moral
good because it is less risk involved in it than in trying to win the
lottery. This case, although quite valid, is not very interesting. In
fact, we have solved it rather rapidly. The more interesting case, and
the one we will consider in depth here, is the case in which one has no
medical experience whatsoever, but still attempts to find a cure.
Furthermore, we will set the odds such that one has a better chance of
winning the lottery than finding a cure for AIDS. Yet, I will still
show that, regardless of the greater chance of failure, the attempt at an
AIDS cure is still has more moral worth than the purchase of the lottery
ticket, even though both result in failure.
Why does the spending one\'s life savings on an AIDS cure have more
moral worth (which makes it a more acceptable risk) than spending the same
sum on a lottery ticket, when the numerical odds of being successful are
the same? Why bother, since in the end, the result is the same? The
answer lies in Mill\'s definition of a moral good, that which is done to
increase the common happiness (Mill, Utilitarianism).
The AIDS cure is something that will increase the common happiness, while
a person winning the lottery generally will only increase his or her
happiness. This is almost obvious. Certainly, if I was to win the
lottery, I would increase my happiness greatly, but the increase in the
general happiness would be negligible. However, if I were to find