Paper #1 Philosophy 450

Numerate Ethics

Tom Coghlan


then. Thus. a greater evil. it is convincing. the death of 5 innocent persons is a worse thing. I Because Taurek’s view is very implausible (in light of the fact that it denies some of our most deeply held intuitions) that we may be able to deal with some of his points by making sacrifices in other areas.” (Taurek 1977) Thus. his arguments that A: suffering cannot be added in a morally relevant way. As Taurek himself says. However. Unfortunately. that adding suffering is difficult or a bizarre way of doing morality. if we can show that we can somehow fix up ideas regarding adding suffering in an acceptable way. and B: that morality is interested only in how outcomes affect people rather than whether or not they are simply better.Numerate Ethics The paper I am considering is “Should the Numbers Count?” by John Taurek. a greater loss. apart from such considerations. or adding to our morality. For instance. but they are implicitly shown throughout his work (as an analysis of the text will make obvious). However. because the paper is rife with what I would call mistakes (and what Taurek would likely call “insights”) I doubt that given the space afforded to me for this paper I will be able to combat each of his arguments rigorously. I’ll have to take only a few: namely. if we . “The thinking here is that. would constitute a rebuttal of his paper. than the death of one innocent person…I find it difficult to understand and even more difficult to see how it is to be reconciled with certain other convictions widely shared by these same people. Taurek doesn’t explicitly make either of these points. perhaps. we ought to have no qualms about saving 5 rather than 1. I think that claim is just about as obvious as the fact that saving 5 is better than saving 1.

can make moral mathematics understood and reconcilable with our other views. paraphrased) His argument then extends to a case in which the headaches are spread out among people: we think the outcome in which 50 people suffer headaches is more suffering. 1977) This argument needs some explaining. but that is because we care about principles like Maximin. because he believes it would be less bad. We need not admit to any of the problems Taurek claims we ought to. This argument holds for all of the cases in which Taurek considers one suffering more than a members of a group each suffering a little. depending on the amount of headaches and so on. then neither Taurek nor anyone else ought to have a problem with our intuitions in that area. So my goal in this paper is primarily to defend a numerate ethics. I think Taurek argues a different case for the permissibility of choosing 1 over 5. which ask that we seek the best for the worst off rather than the best for the group. However. He chooses the migraine. and expose problems with Taurek’s view. In his criticism of the paper. Taurek believes that there is no morally relevant difference between one person suffering a great harm and any . His point is brought out by the following case: John has two options: he can either suffer 50 headaches over the course of a few days. or one migraine. We might still prefer that the 50 suffer headaches rather than the one suffers a migraine. (Parfit 1978. we think it is equally bad or worse. The discomfort of each of a large number of individuals experiencing a minor headache does not add up to anyone’s experiencing a migraine. Taurek believes that suffering cannot be added in a morally relevant way: “Suffering is not additive in this way. and thus worse.” (Taurek. Parfit (1978) points out that people that hold that suffering can be additive do not hold that it can be additive in the sense that Taurek argues they do. Parfit says that we don’t think that a large amount of headaches is the same as a migraine.

Let’s consider his arguments in favor of this view: Suppose that you are faced with a choice: you can either save 1 person that you know and like. But since preferences are not morally relevant factors. Since we think that it would be permissible to save David. since they know and like him. and that clouds our judgment. paraphrased) I’m informed that most people think it would be permissible to save David. This isn’t because one person is equally as important as the group: it’s because we empathize more easily with single people. although we are excused from blame. or 5 people that you do not know. not because we think numbers don’t matter. We believe we are permitted to save David because we make a mistake in our moral calculation. there are no morally relevant factors that distinguish David from any of the other 5. In light of that fact. then Taurek believes you must not think that numbers matter. With that in mind. His argument runs as follows: by stipulation. (Taurek 1977. and our empathy is what drives us to donate. they donate more when there is a single person in the commercial than when there is a large group. Facts about our biology that make us care more about certain individuals often cause us to make bizarre . However. because we have greater empathy for David we think we are permitted to save him. named David. people have a preference towards saving David. if numbers mattered then we should think that we ought not save David. apart from their number. I think we do something impermissible when we save David. I think Taurek is incorrect. but if you do.number of other people suffering the same harm. I don’t share that intuition. consider a similar case: when people make donations to charity. We care more for him. Note that essentially everyone thinks that we ought to save the 5 over the 1 when we don’t have a preference for the 1. we must think our preference is more important than the fact that there is a greater number of people who would die if we saved David. but in reality there is nothing special about him that gives him greater moral value than the other 5. Similarly.

I would disagree with Taurek that the action was permissible. Those facts don’t make actions permissible. but it might obligate a third party to save the greater number. My point is essentially as follows: we make a mistake when we think that we are permitted to save David. or do things we find reprehensible (Perhaps the theory itself can survive such objections by talking about the best dispositions or best rules. it’s difficult to see that you would have more reason to do so.moral choices. but they may often make them excused. We aren’t. Any reasoning towards that end would have to rely on the biological confusions argued against above. but even if you think it’s permissible to donate to charities that are less effective than others. Utilitarianism is often criticized on the grounds that the manner in which its principles are formed would require us to sacrifice too much. I’ll consider this below. As a result. but I agree that we ought not to blame anyone for making a decision. This seems bizarre. but our predilection towards things we feel empathy for confuses the issue. Taurek disagrees with this view because he doesn’t think that the loss incurred by someone in doing an action should be morally relevant in . But then what can allow us to make a sacrifice on his behalf? Why ought we sacrifice David when he isn’t required to sacrifice himself? One plausible answer is that morality ought not to ask too much of someone. as the donation case showed. But the principles that Utilitarians formulate are often susceptible to this criticism. based on the idea that to sacrifice one’s own life is too great a requirement for any morality to obligate. Taurek makes a further argument: is David obligated to save the 5 and sacrifice his own life? Very few think so.) Perhaps morality ought not to obligate someone to allow themselves to die to save 5 others. But Taurek can’t reasonably claim that misplaced empathy should be a deciding factor in moral cases: he would then have to commit to saying that we have a greater obligation to donate when there is a single child on a commercial for charity than when there are many.

But perhaps Taurek has another move here: he can claim that outcomes are irrelevant to moral decision making. The reasoning goes as follows: I am performing a superogatory act. I both further explain why I think Taurek believes that and defend a view of outcomes against such a claim in section II. he thinks that if the loss incurred by someone is enough to make it permissible to not do an action. the loss incurred by them should be enough to make it permissible for a third party not to do an action. This is not purely because of numbers. unless it would unduly endanger your life. Consider that a child is drowning directly in front of you. You can save any of the groups. Or. you ought to save that child. Whether this argument is comparable to the cases Taurek is considering is questionable.deciding whether or not they should do an action. Perhaps there is a further defense Taurek could have made. Since I need not have done this act. I need not do it to the best extent possible. I believe in both cases you ought. The reason for this is not purely because of numbers. I believe you have a stronger reason to save the 5 people than David. but an even stronger reason to save the 6 than to save the 5. and an additional 6 people. Given that it strikes basically everyone as obvious that we ought to save 5 over 1 all things considered but nevertheless we don’t think that the 1 ought to sacrifice himself for the same outcome. Before you is David. it seems as though you are dealing with an aid-situation. Most think that. if you act. at the very least. Many people believe that when they donate to charity. But this is not charity. Nevertheless. It is . Consider the following case: You have a life saving drug. There is a difference between aid and charity. It would be wrong to let the child drown. In the case of 6 people dying directly in front of you while you have the means to save them. they are not obligated to donate to the most effective charity. I think my account is significantly more plausible. to cause the best outcome. Charity is purely voluntary and non-obligatory. the 5 people from before.

II Given the arguments in his paper. But this argument is particularly directed at my rationality requirement above.because once you have decided to save anyone at all. The rationality forms the basis for making an ought claim. But if you are concerned for the well being of others. Since to save 6 would be better than 5 by the reasons above. This goal can be for any number of reasons. It might be argued that my argument takes a bizarre form: ought I not provide a moral reason to save the most over the fewer? I believe I have. you have formed a goal. but the moral reasons form the basis for why rationality dictates which choice we ought to make. Taurek would likely subscribe to the following: 1) Effects on people. but the morally relevant one is that you are beneficent and are concerned for the well being of others. and would require the same resources. you are bound to my conclusions. and it is rational to act in the way that you have most reason to act. When you ought to or decide to act. such as Taurek considers. you ought to pursue the path that fully maximizes that goal with equivalent losses to you in terms of resources. you ought to save 6. This argument applies most convincingly to cases where you have already decided to act. The question is whether we ought to save 5 when we have preference to saving the 1. or at least to the extent that they are correct. are relevant moral factors. but I need not commit myself to that conclusion. We do. and deserves mention. rather than the goodness of outcomes. etc. because we have greatest reason to save 5 (given some counter argument against why we might choose the 1). Why? Because any other action is irrational. This creates certain problems in charity cases: don’t we have greatest moral reason to donate to charity all the time? Perhaps. It is a core tenet of the concept of rationality that you maximize your goals with minimal cost to yourself. .

He believes that the only manner in which one can measure outcomes is whether they are good for some person or bad for some person. . we continue to use resources at the rate we have. Finally. and in 500 years quality of life will sharply decline. Taurek’s point is that the relevant concern is not with some abstract idea of an “outcome” but rather for whom the outcome is bad for. they are not comparably better or worse than one another. In another plan. Since choosing the five is bad for the one. called Lesser Depletion. we will conserve energy. Call this plan Conservation. but it will still be lower than Conservation. Can we say to David that our decision is right because it is “better for the world” and then be satisfied? Taurek is committed to the view that outcomes cannot be better or worse than another (at least in terms of well being). as compared to the value of himself alone?” (Taurek 1977) In essence. This view will fail to give us answers to very important moral questions: Suppose the government is choosing between energy policies. or he would have to acknowledge that we have moral reason to choose the 5 over the 1: that reason is that the outcome would be better from the perspective of the world. quite apart from considerations of their happiness. and choosing the one is bad for the five. a third plan. Call this plan Depletion. will reduce quality of life in 1000 years by less than Depletion. just what kind of reasoning would sound less absurd? Is it less absurd to ask him to focus on the large sum of intrinsic value possessed by five human beings. In one plan.I assume this is a fairly good representation of his argument based on the following passage: “…if we recognize the absurdity of trying to sell David on the idea that it would be a worse thing were these five persons to die than it would be were he to die by suggesting he focus on the large sum of their added happinesses as compared to his own. and quality of life will improve at a steady rate ad infinitum. Taurek’s perspective is different.

even in a case like depletion I think we can be confident in saying they will likely be happy to be alive. Does this work for the above case? Is it wrong to bring people into existence with a lower but still worth-living quality of life? The following case ought to show this sometimes doesn’t make much sense: John is a doctor operating on a genome before using it to create a person. Some believe that is it wrong to bring people into certain states. Can Taurek then say that any action here would be permissible? I think that would be strange. It is wrong to bring someone into existence in that state. But then there is no one for whom any of these outcomes is worse. there will be no one on the earth who would have existed in the other options. Each of their existences depends on it. This is to say that the person has been non-comparatively harmed. A plan that cuts back on gasoline will reduce people’s ability to go on extended trips. Can we say that Conservation will be best. Lesser Depletion second best. in each case the situation of the future people would not be so dire as to say that their lives are not worth living. Different people will meet different people. Note that this action violates no rights: no one is enslaved. anyway. even thankful. and change people’s locations. Energy plans are extremely important parts of public life. despite the fact that the person would only exist in that state. In fact. I think we cannot. Eventually. even if they still have a life worth living. damaged. Furthermore. and will be very good looking. This operation will . even if it is their best state available. different couples will marry. and different children will be born. or in any other way treated as unworthy of infinite respect or used as a means to an end. reduce job opportunities. The genome he is operating on will be born with an IQ of 170. because the people will be different in each case. and Depletion worst? I assume this is the intuitive response to the case.Let’s take a Taurekian view of this case. He reduces the person’s IQ to 120 and makes him only fairly good looking by manipulating certain gene patterns.

Then what did John do wrong? One possible explanation is that the doctor makes the outcome worse by creating a child that is less intelligent. imagine that the human race undertook a policy to reduce the average IQ and disfigure the faces of future generations. even if it determines who they are. The person with . This account would have an intuitively appealing solution to the above problems: we ought to choose conservation because it keeps up high quality of life for people in the future. and consider themselves exceptionally lucky. we would think that that is right. yes. But these considerations ought to be more than enough to suggest that no matter what. Is it non-comparatively bad to be only pretty good looking and have an IQ of 120? I think not. we need a theory of the moral status of outcomes that gives them considerable weight. On the other hand.sufficiently change the person’s genetic structure to make him a totally different person than he would have been. We ought not to create people who are less intelligent or less good looking than other live options because it makes the outcome worse. most people would be very happy with this life. In fact. There are certain problems with this account. and less capable (as a result) of having a good quality of life than the child would have been. But when the act is identity determining and fully compensating (the person will have a life extremely worth living) it seems as though consent can be assumed. To bolster this point. because it is the best outcome to do so. We would think this is certainly wrong. and that there is a strong reason to do so. Can we account for this problem by appealing to rights? In some cases of the non-identity problem. less good looking. The doctor didn’t make anything worse or better for the child: he actually caused that child to exist. and I certainly don’t claim to have the right ideas regarding what theory of outcomes we ought to adopt. if the human race undertook the goal of making future generations more perfect and capable beings.

and may be counter intuitive to some. and that that addition matters morally. We’ve distinguished between types of actions that can be permissible or excused and impermissible. Perhaps the person with the 170 IQ would object. It matters whether or not an action is good or bad for the world in making moral decisions. This. . I think that those options are implausible. and that we ought to consider that when choosing between outcomes.120 IQ can have no objection. that doctors have no moral reason not to mentally or physically cripple future children at will. However. and that we care about them when making moral decisions. but should we listen? Then any public policy choice of sufficient magnitude would be subject to the same objections from the literally infinite amount of people who will not exist as a result. and we’ve argued that suffering can be additive in groups. Some of these things may strike many as odd: why should I care about the state of the universe when making moral decisions? Why should I think that suffering is something that can be added up? I think these decisions may ask that we complicate our morality. Specifically. the other options are quite bad: if we sacrifice these options we’re forced to think that we should flip a coin between saving 1 or a million. then. should be taken as a strong reason to choose the 5 over the 1: it is better for the world. I think that we need to believe that there is an impersonal dimension to well-being in addition to a personal one. III So where does this leave us? We’ve posited that there are things called ‘outcomes’. I advocate that we adopt a theory of outcomes to handle this situation.

Taurek. Derek.6 1977 293316 Parfit. “Innumerate Ethics” in Philosophy and Public Affairs vol. John. 7 1978 285-301 . “Should the Numbers Count?” in Philosophy and Public Affairs vol.