Saving Humans by Numbers: Part 2 Saving fewer people

Dr Jussi Suikkanen


In this series of posts, I am considering how numbers count when we have to make decisions about whom to save. In yesterday’s introduction, two things happened. First, I introduced a simple case in which you have to choose between saving one person and saving five other people, other things being equal. Second, I said that intuitively in this case we should save the five people from drowning rather than just the one person from the other boat. This intuition is supported by utilitarianism which requires you always to choose the best outcome. In this case, if you sum up the survivals and deaths on both sides, you might think that it is better that five people survive than just the one.

Today I want to focus on John Taurek’s attempt to challenge this orthodoxy. Taurek published his famous paper “Should the Numbers Count?” on this topic in 1977. This incredibly rich paper has become a classic in moral philosophy and yet its main arguments are still often ignored.

Taurek’s paper is incredibly sophisticated. It discusses a number of life-saving cases in which other things are not equal. In these cases, your options are to save different-sized groups where some of the members of these groups are your friends, family, people you have made promises to, people you happen to like more and so on. Taurek uses our intuitions about these complex cases to argue that even in the basic case you aren’t required to save the bigger group.

Imagine that the single person on the other boat is a person you know and happen to like. Taurek’s intuition is that you are permitted to save this person instead of the other five (in the same way as you are allowed to save your friend in the same situation). He then claims that the fact that you happen to like someone can’t make a genuine moral difference and for this reason you must be equally permitted to save a single stranger instead of the group. If this were true, then you would not be required to save the bigger group.

I don’t think that this is a very good argument. I don’t share Taurek’s intuition that you are allowed to save the single person just because you happen to like them. And, contrary to what Taurek says, you could still think that special relationships or promises would make a genuine difference in the same situation. Even if you are not allowed to save a person you merely like, it would still be consistent to think that you would be allowed to save the person you have promised to save.

However, there is also a much better argument in Taurek’s paper. If you save the five people, then one real person dies as a result of your choice. This is a very bad thing for that person, and so they will definitely protest if you plan to save the group. At the very least, this person is entitled to be given justification for why they have to bear the most serious burden of dying in this case. That much at least we owe to that person.

The question then is: what can you say to single person who dies when you save to group to justify your choice? It seems like the only thing you can say is that there’ll be a better outcome if you save the five. Taurek’s fundamental point is that it is reasonable for the single person not to accept this justification. She can ask: for whom and in what way is it better that the five people are saved? What is the concrete good that she can compare in her own very personal perspective to her own burden of facing a certain death?

Any one of the five people in the group can say that if the large group is not saved they will die. But, crucially, the one person on the other boat can say exactly the same thing: she will die if she is not saved. So no individual person in the group can say that something worse will happen to them than what is about to happen to the single person. In addition, there is no bigger entity that can put forward their more serious burden as a justification that would speak to the one person who dies if we save the group. The group as such or the universe as a whole cannot file a stronger claim for being saved than the single person can file for the requirement to save her.

This means that nothing anyone could say seems to be able to trump the single person’s demand for being saved. From both sides, there are just equally valid claims which individuals can make. If this is true, then we cannot justify to the single person our plan to save the larger group on grounds we can reasonably expect them to accept. Furthermore, it is natural to think that if you can’t justify your plan of action to everyone then it would be wrong to follow that plan. This is the best argument I know against the requirement to save the bigger group. Tomorrow we will look at its consequences.


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