If you could accomplish any of the following for the same cost, which would you choose?
(1) Prevent 100 deaths-in-infancy, knowing that in all likelihood these 100 people will grow up to have consistently low income and poor health for their ~40-year-long lives.
(2) Provide consistent, full nutrition and health care to 100 people, such that instead of growing up malnourished (leading to lower height, lower weight, lower intelligence, and other symptoms) they spend their lives relatively healthy. (For simplicity, though not accuracy, assume this doesn’t affect their actual lifespan – they still live about 40 years.)
(3) Prevent one case of relatively mild non-fatal malaria (say, a fever that lasts a few days) for each of 10,000 people, without having a significant impact on the rest of their lives.
For me, the answer is definitely #2. I am very excited by the idea of changing someone’s life in a lasting and significant way (2); I’m much less excited by the idea of a temporary, less significant life change (3), and I don’t think that the quality of a life equals the sum of the quality of the days in it. (1) excites me the least – I just don’t put that much value in “potential lives” (I think the death of a 20-year-old is more tragic than the death of an infant), and I especially don’t put much value in saving “potential lives” riddled with health problems.
I’m not interested in having a long philosophical argument about the validity of my views. I believe that different donors likely have fundamentally different values that you can’t change by throwing any number of thought experiments or philosophical abstractions at them. Our research will aim to serve as many different sorts of donors as possible, rather than holding up one philosophical value set as the “rational” one. But I am interested in what others think, and whether my attitude is common or rare.
To give a quick sense of the practical relevance of this question: programs targeted directly at under-5 mortality (including some vaccination programs and some micronutrient programs) are much more likely to get you (1)-type results; programs that distribute bednets or other health materials en masse are more likely to get you (3)-type results; an economic empowerment program (particularly focused on improved farming techniques) may aspire to (2)-type results, but I believe that these types of results are the most difficult and expensive to bring about.