The Standing Invitation

Archive for August 15th, 2011

The Set of Everyone

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A few years ago, the abdominal ticking timebomb that was my appendix started to rebel against the system, and I was rushed to hospital. The offending organ was removed, and my life was saved. When I left the hospital, I did not receive a bill; the doctors didn’t give me a receipt for my bursting bits. Thanks to my country’s healthcare being publically funded, I was spared the unpleasant knowledge of the exact monetary value of my life.

But in a very real sense, I did pay for the operation. The tens of thousands of pounds my surgery cost were taken from me, a bit at a time, through taxation. My kamikaze appendix represented a return on my investment, since from birth to the moment I walked into the doctor’s office, this was money lost.

If the illness justifies the money I lost, would I have considered myself cheated if I never once got sick?

The problem is that we never know in advance that we will get ill. The money deducted from my income was spent on a probability. How likely am I to fall ill in the next year? In the next ten years?

A hypothetical situation: you know for certain that there is a fifty percent chance of catching a fatal illness in the next ten years. The illness is treatable, but the payment is expensive ­– and you have to pay it in advance.

You have two choices: you don’t pay, and hope you get lucky; or you do pay, but risk having spent your money on nothing. You decide to pay, just to be on the safe side. But ten years later, you are still in perfect health. You were lucky. Do you feel cheated? If yes, it is only because you are unaware of the other you, the probabilistic ghost of you, that could have been you.

Your decision to pay for treatment could be seen as paying for a probability, but it can also be seen as paying for a certainty ­­– the certainty of health for the set of all possible yous.

In order to act self-interestedly in an uncertain world, you need to consider not just who you are now, but who you might be later – and, by extension, all the people you might have been. It’s impossible to know which of the set of possible yous you will be in ten years time; it is in your interest to have a healthcare system that will take you in, whoever you happen to be.

I have no children, but someday I would like to. I have no idea what they will be like: boys or girls, healthy or unhealthy. But I know that I would want them to be born into a world where they are taken care of regardless of what bodies they were born into. I consider it the mark of a functioning society that the set of all possible mes, the set of all possible people everywhere, is looked after. It’s looking after Number One; but it’s doing so recognising that Number One being bigger than you are.


This is all very Rawlsian; google the Veil of Ignorance. The ideas of probability and certainty are derived from Taleb’s wonderful The Black Swan.


Written by The S I

August 15, 2011 at 11:59 pm