Saving Humans by Numbers: Part 1 – Introduction

Dr Jussi Suikkanen

Image: Jingpo Lake, rowing boat

When it comes to saving humans, the sad truth is that we cannot save everyone from everything bad that is going to happen to them. For one, we have limited resources and there are just too many people we could help. This is why we must make difficult choices: which groups should we save and from what? These decisions are common in both policy-making and everyday life. Who should we help with the money we spend on healthcare? Should I drive fast so as not to keep my family waiting or slow down and save the local cyclists from a higher risk of death?

Philosophers have always been interested in how you should make these choices. They tend to use the following traditional method. You start from a very basic case first. After figuring out what you should do in that case, you then consider what kind of special considerations might be relevant in more complicated cases and how these additional considerations should be taken into account.

Let’s consider the following basic case. Imagine that you are walking on a bridge. You suddenly notice that two rowing boats are sinking below you and the people on them are about to drown. You can see that there is just one person on the other boat whereas there are five people on the other. Luckily you happen to have a rope, which you could use to either save the one person who is on his own or the five people from the other boat. Sadly you know that you won’t have time to do both. What should you do?

At this point, in order to keep the case simple, I have to rule out certain things. You don’t know who the people are: they are not your friends or family. You also don’t have any other special relations to these people – you didn’t hire a boat for them, you haven’t made any promises to them or anything like this. The people on the boats are also equally healthy, old and wealthy. They have no special skills or jobs (none of them will go onto invent a cure for cancer). All other things really are equal here.

This case is so interesting because it allows us to focus purely on the question of how numbers count in life-saving decisions. We should also of course think about the cases in which the previous special considerations are present – many of them will make a difference to what we should do. But, even if we knew what to do in those more complicated cases (save your loved ones first perhaps), we still need to know what to do in the most basic case in which the only difference is the numbers.

At first sight, the answer to the previous question is easy: of course we should save the five people instead of the one. More generally, given a choice, the right thing to do is always to save as many people as you can, other things being equal. This is why an ethical theory called utilitarianism is so appealing. The thinking here is the following: death is bad and survival is good. We then have a choice between a lot of badness (five deaths and one survival) and a lot of goodness (five survivals and one death). Given that we should prefer good outcomes to bad ones, of course we should save the five. Thus, the utilitarian first adds up the harms and benefits that follow from our options to different people and then she tells us to make things go best. This line of thinking usually recommends saving the big groups because by doing so you do more good.

Thus, that we should save as many people as possible at least in the simple cases seems both intuitively and theoretically attractive. In the blog posts this week, I want to consider whether this really is what we should do. I will start tomorrow by focusing on John Taurek’s attempt to argue against the previous orthodox view. Taurek made this argument in his famous paper “Should the Numbers Count?” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1977).  On Wednesday, I will consider Taurek’s own view according to which you should flip a coin to decide whom to save in the previous case.  On Thursday, I will explain why the reasons why Taurek thought we should have the lottery in fact support the more intuitive view that we should really save the bigger group. Finally, on Friday, we will start to think about what you should do in the cases in which other things are not equal.

Dr Jussi Suikkanen is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham.

Useful Links:
Utilitarianism and the Virtues- P Foot

Image Source:,_rowing_boat.jpg

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: