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