Thursday, January 4, 2007

Was Mr. Autrey Rational?

You've probably read about this. Not surprisingly, the guy is being rewarded for his heroics. Strangers are handing him $10 bills. Surely he'll get a lot more once his movie deal is in place. Obviously I don't think he jumped because he calculated the expected utility from the chance of death and the chance of movie deal, but it may have been ex-post individually rational. When you think this through, you have to wonder why we consider this such a great and honourable move on Mr. Autrey's part. He greatly endangered his own life, which is valuable to society (especially to his young kids, I assume), and the best outcome from the risk was saving an individual whose only known trait at the time was that he suffers from seizures. Whose life, under that veil of ignorance, was more valuable to society?

If it is not maximizing the social surplus that we find inspiring, then what is it? Why is it so great to see people act in a literally selfless manner, instead of in a way that maximizes the greatest common good?

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