The Survival Lottery is a thought experiment, espoused by British philosopher John Harris. The premise of his idea would be to ask people to imagine whether organ donation should be expected to save more individuals than it would kill.

Imagine for example that all individuals are assigned a number that is drawn by lottery whenever an organ donation is required. The ‘winners’ of this lottery would then be expected to give up their lives to allow two or more people to live.

At the heart of this moral dilemma is the value of human life. We are all brought up to consider life to be sacrosanct. What would happen though if you were called upon to make a decision over who lives and who dies?

Should you kill the fat man?

Many of you may be aware of the ultimate moral dilemma of ‘should you kill the fat man’ (developed by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, in 1985).

the survival lottery - should you kill the fat man

In this hypothetical problem, you are asked to picture yourself standing on a bridge overlooking a railway line. In the distance, you spot a runaway train speeding down the tracks. Tied to the tracks are five people, all of them unable to extricate themselves from their bonds. Standing next to you on the bridge is a fat guy.

Neither you nor the fat guy would be able to reach the people tied to the rail tracks in time to free them. As the runaway train gets closer, you realize that the only way to save the people tied to the tracks is to throw the fat guy from the bridge. The result of doing this is that the train would hit the fat guy instead and his bulk would derail the train saving the others. Another consequence, of course, is that the fat guy dies.

What do you do?

At the root of the problem is how you as an individual value human life. Do you sacrifice one guy to save many? Or, do you (as most of us would) consider that the taking of human life is never justified? Should you just leave everything to fate or should you intervene?

The survival lottery throws up the same sort of questions. If called upon to make a decision on the validity of human life, how should we approach this?

The essence of the survival lottery is that it takes any kind of decision out of the hands of individuals. Instead, it sets a rule which everyone understands from the outset.

The argument for the survival lottery

  1. Imagine that organ donation was perfect.
  2. There is no difference between killing and letting die.
  3. Given 1 and 2 we should adopt the Survival Lottery.

John Harris’s article is a direct challenge to the belief that there is a difference between killing and letting die. Furthermore, it explores the moral consequences that follow.

The survival lottery relies on the following assumptions

  1. Each life (killed or allowed to die naturally) is of equal value.
  2. Two lives saved are of more value than one life killed to save them.
  3. That two lives saved would be completely cured or sufficiently cured to show a quality of life greater than the healthy life killed to save them.
  4. That two lives saved would be able to live long enough as a result of the transplanted organs to show a quantitative gain over a completely healthy life randomly chosen to be killed.

So, how do you feel about the survival lottery? It might well be one lottery that you would not want to be involved with. If you have an opinion on the survival lottery then please discuss this in the comments section.

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It is important to note that the subject of this blog post is merely a thought experiment. The Survival Lottery is NOT a real thing! No organ donor is entered into a ‘life or death lottery. To learn how YOU could help to save lives or to register as an organ donor visit https://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/

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