I once asked a boyfriend if he would give up his life for ten billion dollars. “Yes,” he said. “Because the amount of good I can do in my lifetime is probably not worth ten billion dollars, so it would be better for me to just die and donate all of that.”
I then asked my brother the same question. “No,” he responded. “Like, I also don’t believe the amount of good I can do in my lifetime is worth ten billion dollars, but I care about my own life too much, so I’ll just admittedly choose the option that isn’t utilitarian.”
Speaking rationally, my brother would be making the morally wrong choice. But how can anyone truly blame him for it?
Back in May, Olivia Rodrigo came to Boston on her sour tour. The online ticketing system was a mess: Olivia wasn’t performing at a large arena, but rather a smaller, standing-room-only venue, and this was her only performance in all of New England. In the days before sales opened, social media was alight with chatter: it was obviously going to be a vicious battle for tickets. Olivia was a teenage wunderkind who had somehow managed to strike something intimate in everyone.
I was hesitant to attend the concert, as it was the day before my midterm, but I had the entire sour album memorized. My friend Tiffany T. ’22 miraculously snagged us four tickets at face value, but then she fell sick several days beforehand and wasn’t able to go.
Were you able to sell the ticket? I texted her the day of the concert.
Yeah, she said, and then she told me how much she’d resold it for: over ten times what she had paid for it.
That . . . was a lot of money.
I did some calculations in my head. The benefit I’d get from attending the concert was reduced, since Tiffany was no longer able to make it, and part of the reason why I wanted to go was to hang out with her. The risk seemed larger, since I was becoming more worried about COVID and didn’t want to catch it right before finals. And the benefit of selling my ticket was now increased, since I hadn’t expected the resale value to be so high.
So, while I was sitting in office hours, I sold the Olivia Rodrigo ticket, twenty minutes before sales closed, since my ticket would become nontransferable four hours before the start of the performance.
Afterwards, I explained to another group of friends, “It would be like paying that much money to attend the concert. And I wouldn’t be willing to pay it, so I had to sell the ticket.”
They nodded. “That’s very rational of you,” one of them said. I got the feeling he was teasing me.
It was the rational decision, right? But I knew that I hadn’t accounted for everything. Yes, there was the money, but there was also the value of spending an evening with my other two friends who were still able to go, and the value of not letting them down; there was the feeling of being young and surrounded by magic; there was the inevitable march of time, how I could probably see Olivia again in the future but it wouldn’t be quite the same. I couldn’t quantify any of these things meaningfully. But to deny their significance, to only focus on the measurable aspects of the decision, that didn’t seem correct either.
This sort of thinking is the kind I’ve only learned to do in the last several years. Growing up, I didn’t approach my decisions as some math problem modeling the world. I had a vague goal and some immediate desires and then I did stuff based on what I wanted short-term and what I wanted long-term.
It was only after I got to MIT that I started framing my decisions around expected value, variance, risks and benefits. I can’t pinpoint a single instance that propelled me to do this. But I was tired of my own poor decision-making, which had led me to stay too long in mediocre relationships and take risks that weren’t worth the upside and invest time in activities that weren’t benefitting me. And I was surrounded by math majors.
A few days ago (to clarify, a few days ago as of the moment I am drafting this blog post; because I made the observation that my time at the beginning of the semester is less precious than the time in the middle, I pen this on September 8th but intend to publish on October 20th. Again, a decision that prioritizes measurable factors and ignores things like the instant gratification I receive from publishing as soon as I generate the last syllable of this post), two of my friends were talking about where we should allocate money to do the most good. One of them proposed bike lanes in Cambridge, which would likely prevent some deaths or injuries and also make the city more pleasant overall.
“If we want to be doing the most good, we should probably donate our money to malaria prevention,” I said. Then I opened GiveWell.org and showed it to my friends, explaining that this was a website that optimized for impact and, since our dollars would go a much longer way in some other countries vs. the United States, by donating the same amount, we would be making much more of an impact.
This was something I had learned about from the time I had spent in an Effective Altruism fellowship. Effective Altruism is, according to Wikipedia, “a philosophical and social movement that advocates ‘using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.'” Honestly, I didn’t go to that many of the meetings, nor did I find the time to read the free books that they had sent me, although they look interesting and I would one day like to read them.
“But donating to malaria prevention doesn’t account for everything, right?” I continued. “Like, it probably personally benefits me more to have nice bike lanes in Cambridge than to improve the lives of some people I would never meet. I am more emotionally invested in the members of my own community. If I were purely rational, I would weigh everyone’s lives equally.”
(I internally cringed at the last sentence, because when I hear people describe themselves as rational it has usually been from a man trying to undermine the experiences of a woman and not being rational at all, just sexist.)
But I don’t think it should be a foregone conclusion, that we should act as entirely rational agents. It is not bad to rely on emotional epistemology. It matters to me that nice bike lanes mean that I, and other college students like me, run less risk of getting hit by a car while cycling, even if the amount of money spent on this project could have been spent on saving more lives from a higher-risk threat.
I saw a Reddit screenshot a while ago about a high-earning software engineer who paid someone to clean his apartment, someone to wash his clothes, someone to cook for him . . . it made sense, right? His time was valuable and his money was abundant. But what amount of his own life was he actually living?
That’s the real problem, isn’t it? So much of life is about that which is unquantifiable. I can pay a nanny to take care of my screaming kid, but will I be missing out on the immeasurable fulfillment and joy that comes from raising a child? I can donate money to a faraway organization instead of one in my own community, but then will I be depriving myself of the satisfaction that comes from uplifting those around me? Aren’t these feelings and experiences the ones that make life so incredible, not the rational knowledge that I have helped save some number of people?
But that’s, of course, not to say that it’s bad to quantify things and act rationally, against my emotional interests. When I sold that Olivia Rodrigo concert ticket, I made the correct financial choice for myself, even if my heart yearned to hear her sing driver’s license onstage. My heart often wants frivolous or unhelpful things. It’s usually best to ignore it.
As I move forward and am required to make more and more decisions with higher stakes and longer-lasting consequences, I’m not sure how to reconcile these two modes of thinking. I’m not sure if anybody has figured out a decision-making framework that truly accommodates all the nuances of living (if you know of one, please tell me!). Maybe we are all just stumbling in the dark, or as Nick Carraway once said: so we beat on, boats against the current.