CPR: A Heroic Thought Experiment

Imagine that an all-knowing genie manifests in your bedroom.

The genie tells you that sometime in the next ten years, you will have a chance to save a total stranger from dying by performing CPR.

But you don’t know when it will happen, and there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed when the time comes.

How would you respond? How would your life change, from that moment?

Heroic Responsibility, From The Inside

I’ve written before about heroic responsibility — the feeling that we are in some way responsible for the health and safety of those around us, and that we should be ready to help if something bad happens.

But Bo Malin-Mayor points out that heroic responsibility can sound a bit robotic, as though you’re constricting your natural empathy and trying to act on the unreachable goal of being perfectly utilitarian.

As a response, I created the “Future CPR” thought experiment, as a way to explore how heroic responsibility feels on the inside.

One Response: Do Everything

Right after the genie disappears, you sign up for a CPR class. You repeat the class once a month. You start doing intense research into every aspect of CPR, from the physics of chest compression to the chemistry behind capnography. You get a CPR app for your phone, and you practice for ten minutes every single day, including mouth-to-mouth, on a dummy you bought online. You put the five nearest hospitals at the top of your phone’s contact list.

Whenever you go out in public, you’re always looking around to see if anyone seems to be on the verge of collapse. You stand next to elderly people on the subway whenever possible. You’re on edge, all the time, just waiting for something to happen.

Another Response: Do Nothing

Right after the genie appears, you do some research. You realize that worrying about CPR for ten years would be a pain in the neck, and that, on average, CPR only actually saves a life a tiny fraction of the time.

Besides, you reason, what does “a chance” really mean? If I see someone collapse while I’m hiking in the woods, maybe I save them 0.1% of the time. And the other 99.9% of the time, I’m performing compressions on a dead person, and that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Plus, the odds don’t really get much better even if I’m in a city. Not worth it.

For a few months, you’re slightly more aware of the people around you when you’re out in public. You can’t completely stop yourself from worrying. But eventually, you stop thinking about CPR altogether.

My Response: Do Something

I’d do the same research as the “do nothing” person, and I’d find the same grim statistics. But even a tiny chance of saving a life is better than nothing. So I’d also try to figure out what steps I could take, without letting the training take over my life.

In the end, I’d probably do the following:

  • Sign up for a class, to learn some mental techniques for keeping up the right rhythm and pressure.
  • Practice for a few minutes every few months, and mentally rehearse the optimal course of action: Get someone to call 911 or call the number myself, then start compressions.
  • Not worry about mouth-to-mouth, since proper breath technique is hard to practice, doesn’t add much, and frequently detracts from compression quality.
  • Look up the ideal BPM for CPR and pick a simple song I can use to guide my compressions. There’s no reason saving a life can’t be fun!

And that’s about it. (Though if I really had seen a genie, I’d spend another hour or two thinking about the problem.)

The result: While I wouldn’t be optimized for CPR performance, I’d have improved substantially on the “do nothing” option. I’d be ready to help when the moment came. And I’d only need about 10% of the work and stress of the “do everything” plan.

And when thoughts of CPR did cross my mind (as they inevitably would), I’d think something like:

“I’m ready for this if it happens! I’ll do my best!”


“Wait, have I practiced recently? Better review my compression rate!”

Instead of fear and worry, I would try to feel a sense of anticipation. I’d hope that no one around me collapsed, but I’d know that bad things sometimes happen, and I’d be ready to help.

The Heroic Mindset

That sense of anticipation is how I’d describe the “heroic mindset” — what it feels like inside to be someone who has taken on heroic responsibility. It’s a subdued version of what I imagine it sometimes feels like to be a soldier on patrol, or a nurse checking on patients.

From my experience, this is the mindset of most effective altruists.

People in the EA community know they might be able to save lives through their actions. They respond with research and careful analysis of the different ways they can help. But most of us don’t spend our entire lives trying to optimize ourselves.

To quote what I told Bo:

In the 23.8 hours per day that the average EA isn’t thinking about anything EA-related, they’re doing what anyone else would do: Working at a job, hanging out with friends, showering, etc. The hardcore calculations mostly come up when we’re deciding where to donate, applying for jobs, or making major life decisions.

The fact that rationalist utilitarians use words like “rationalist utilitarians” does tend to give off a robotic impression. But there are all sorts of emotional people in the community — cheerful go-getters, neurotic worriers, fierce advocates, and so on.

One common misconception of EA/rationalism is that everyone is intent on reaching some kind of “maximum”. Some people would apply that description to themselves, but most are just focused on doing “better”. They want to live more ethically, eat less meat, donate more, and so on. (Less Wrong, the internet’s main rationalist hub, prefers the term “aspiring rationalist” to just “rationalist”.)

In the end, I might describe heroic responsibility as an urge to do better, even if perfection is impossible to reach.

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