Peter Singer’s book called The Life You Can Save is about one of his most famous thought experiments:
Suppose on a walk you notice a young girl drowning in a lake. If you can swim, and you can save her life if you immediately jump in, you will feel some obligation to do so even if that will ruin a new suit worth $500. Singer points out that we wouldn’t think twice about ruining a pair of shoes that costs us hundreds of dollars. Peter Singer points out that it is irrational that people don’t feel any responsibility to spend the same amount on charities that can save the life of a child in a developing nation when we wouldn’t hesitate to ‘spend’ that amount by jumping into a lake to save a child. Most of us in the rich world have the power to spend a few hundred dollars on those kinds of charities and instead we buy expensive clothes and other luxuries.
If you do not have hundreds of dollars to give to these charities, you have no responsibility just like you would have no responsibility to save the drowning girl if you could not swim. You obviously have no responsibility to do something if you don’t have the power to do it. Thus power creates moral responsibility and the absence of power absolves it.
I’ve been documenting the lives of some remarkable people who have probably saved millions of lives through a breakthrough like vaccines and oral rehydration therapy and sanitation. Today those breakthroughs have given us both the power and the moral responsibility to use them rather than stand by and let millions of people die.
If someone had come up with these breakthroughs thousands of years ago, hundreds of millions of more lives could have been saved over the millennia.* For similar reasons, we now have an obligation to speed up lifesaving breakthroughs by spending a lot more on research to save more lives in the future. If we could produce another millionaire superhero a year sooner, it could save thousands more lives.
We aren’t doing nearly as much as we could be doing. Federal R&D spending was over three times higher in the 1960s as a percentage of national income. Plus, the majority of federal R&D spending has always been spent on a combination of military and space research which probably has a lower payoff for health and wellbeing than research on health and wellbeing.
For thousands of years there was no sustained progress in median living standards nor life expectancy until a couple centuries ago beginning in Europe. Then know-how began growing faster than ever before and that changed everything. Now productivity is stagnating again and part of that is due to stagnating investment and stagnating research.
Just as people don’t feel the responsibility to save a child on the other side of the planet, we don’t feel the responsibility to save lives in the future by investing in our capacity to save lives and technologies to make the future better. We even feel little responsibility to stop our environmental destruction that is making the future worse!
*Ok, some of you are probably thinking about the Malthusian equilibrium and worried that reducing mortality earlier might have caused overpopulation earlier, but I doubt it would have been much problem because there was always tremendous overpopulation. The world was close to the Malthusian equilibrium for almost all of history until a couple centuries ago. Plus, a reduction in mortality rate naturally brings down the human fertility rate because families adjust when more kids survive and when mortality declines, people naturally invest more in education and are more attracted to urban living which also reduces fertility and increases productivity. It is a virtuous cycle with little demographic risk given that overpopulation was always a serious issue.