Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Do Numbers Count?


Suppose you had a drug that six people need to stay alive. But the amount each one of them needs is different: one needs the whole dose that you have while the other five only need one-fifth each. So you can save one person or you can save five people.

Most of us think it’s obvious that you should give the drug to the five people who each need only one-fifth of your supply. Taurek disagrees. He thinks you may give the drug to the one person who needs it all. You may give it to the five too, of course. His point is only that you are not required to do so.

Taurek’s discussion falls into two parts. One is about individual decisions; it is centered on the drug example described above. The other is about political institutions; the relevant case here is the one about saving people on the island with the volcano.

Individual Decisions and the Drug Case

It seems to me that Taurek has two arguments here.

The first argument goes like this (see Taurek 1977, 295–98).

  1. If you were required to save the greatest number of people, you would not be permitted to make an exception for your friends.

  2. You would be permitted to give the drug to the one person who needs it all if that person is your friend.

  3. Therefore, you are not required to save the greatest number of people.

Simon was unsatisfied with this. What Taurek is doing, he thinks, is taking two different beliefs (or “intuitions”) and showing that they conflict with one another: the belief that we are required to save the greatest number and the belief that we can favor our friends over strangers. But, Simon said, it doesn’t follow that we are wrong to think that we’re required to save the greatest number. It might well be that we aren’t allowed to favor our friends. All he has shown is that they conflict with one another and a conflict can be resolved by abandoning either of the conflicting beliefs.

Zane and Zoë asked what my rights are in this situation. Is it my drug, to use as I please? Do I happen to have the key to the cabinet where it is stored, even though it isn’t mine? Am I a doctor who is charged with managing the hospital’s resources? This strikes me as an important question but I don’t think Taurek gave us much guidance in answering it.

Another question you might ask is whether the first premise is true. If a stranger had to be pulled from a burning car, I think I would be required to do that (assuming I could, the risks aren’t too great, and so on). But if I could only pull out a stranger or my son, I think I would be allowed to prefer my son. As I understand Taurek’s first premise, if I’m allowed to prefer my son, then I would not have been required to help the stranger. But that doesn’t strike me as right. On Thursday, Ariel and Zoë both said basically the same thing. So I’m in good company.

Emma asked whether you can act on wicked personal preferences. Say I want to give the drug to the one because I am a racist. Would that be OK? I think this question helps to clarify what Taurek is doing. I think he would say that he’s not trying to spell out when it is and is not OK to prefer one person over others. He is trying to say that the numbers do not necessarily matter; you do not have to prefer the greater number. His idea is that if you are sometimes permitted not to save the greater number because of your personal preferences, that shows that you were never required to save the greater number. I think that’s compatible with saying that many personal preferences are not acceptable grounds for preferring one person over others.

Whew, that was a lot. On to Taurek’s second argument! This one is harder to summarize (see Taurek 1977, 299–301). Here is my attempt.

  1. If it were better to save the greater number of lives rather than the smaller number, then there would be a perspective on the world from which we could metaphorically see how the value of different lives is added together.

  2. But there is no such perspective. That is why we would not expect the one who needs all of the drug to agree that it would be better for him to die and the others to live. There is just each person’s perspective on the world and from these individual perspectives, death is pretty much equally bad.

  3. Therefore it is not better to save the greater number of lives rather than the smaller number.

I agree with Zach that Taurek’s most compelling way of explaining this point was to contrast people with objects (see Taurek 1977, 306–9). If you had to save art works of equal value from a burning museum, you would grab the greatest number you could. That’s because you can add up the value of objects. But, Taurek believes, you can’t do that with people. Zoë, however, didn’t buy this. She thinks you can distinguish between more deaths and fewer deaths: it’s bad if a fire kills one person while everyone else escapes and it’s worse if the rest of them don’t escape.

Chris pointed out that the numbers can get very high. One against five is one thing. One against a billion is another.

Political Decisions and the Island Rescue

Suppose the people who live on an island bought a boat together. It would make sense for them to stipulate that the captain should use it to save the greatest number if she has to make a choice. Why? Because, as Zach noted, that maximizes each individual’s chance of being saved. If people move around on the island in unpredictable ways and there are eighty people on one end of the island and twenty on the other when the local volcano starts to blow, then you have an eighty percent chance of being in the larger group.

If they have made a decision like that, then that is a reason for the captain to favor the larger number. If they haven’t, he should flip a coin.

I toyed with the idea of applying this to individual morality. If you buy the idea that “it’s what you would have wanted me to do” carries significant weight, you might find that persuasive. I’m not sure myself.

Key Points

These are the points from today’s class that you should know or have an opinion about.

  1. Why Taurek thinks that if you can give the drug to your friend then you are never required to give the drug to the greatest number.
  2. Taurek’s argument about perspectives on the world and how people are not like objects.
  3. How Taurek analyzes the island rescue case, where the people on the island bought the boat and have a policy for its use.


Taurek, John. 1977. “Should the Numbers Count?” Philosophy & Public Affairs 6 (4): 293–316.