Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Making No Difference


Jonathan Glover explores something that we commonly say: “it would be better if no one did this sort of thing, but it would make no difference if I do it.” For instance, you might think that it would be better if no one worked on chemical weapons but also that your doing so wouldn’t make any difference since someone else would take the job in the chemical weapons lab if you turn it down. Or you might say that it wouldn’t make any difference if Jim shot one of the villagers in Williams’s example since the captain will shoot him (and nineteen more) if Jim doesn’t.

Glover defense the consequentialist view of these cases, according to which the only thing that matters for the morality of your actions is their consequences. If your action would genuinely make no difference, it isn’t wrong. However cases in which actions seem to make only an insignificant difference are often misleading, as there can be effects in addition to the initial, apparently insignificant ones. These effects can be sufficient to show that an action is wrong.

Insignificant differences and the principle of divisibility

Glover draws a distinction between cases in which it seems that your actions would make only an insignificant difference and cases in which it seems that your actions make no difference.

Sometimes when we say “my actions won’t make a significant difference” we are making an error due to what Glover calls a “size illusion.” For instance, we might think “my giving to famine aid won’t make a significant difference to the famine.” That’s usually true: you can give all you have and there will still be famine. But then we slide from this true point to one that is often false: “my giving to famine aid won’t make any significant difference to anyone.” Suppose you only save one person. That’s a significant difference even though it isn’t the same thing as ending the famine. It certainly matters to the person whose life is saved.

Sometimes Glover thinks we improperly assimilate cases that involve what he calls absolute thresholds with those that involve what he calls discrimination thresholds.

Where there is an absolute threshold there is a sharp boundary between one outcome and another. In elections, the sharp boundary is the first vote above fifty percent (or whatever percentage of the vote would represent a tie: thirty-three percent if there are three candidates, twenty-five percent with four candidates, and so on). Once that vote has been cast, none of the other votes make a difference.

When there are discrimination thresholds, individual actions contribute to an outcome, but each one is usually too small to measure. Pollution is usually like this. Glover uses an example of using an electric heater when there is limited power, causing a shutdown.

We are often tempted to say that the actions that contribute to reaching a harmful outcome with a discrimination threshold are not harmful themselves. After all, the contribution that each one makes is negligible. If no one notices the effects of what I do, how could it be harmful?

Glover thinks this is wrong. That is the point of his example of the Baked Bean Bandits (Glover 1975, 174–75). This example convinces him of the truth of what he calls the Principle of Divisibility, according to which the harm done by individual actions in these cases should be assessed as a fraction of the “determinable unit” of harm rather than as zero. In the case of the bandits, the harm is definitely determinable: the villagers lose their lunch of 100 beans apiece. Since the 100 bandits steal 1000 beans, each one’s share is 100 beans, or a villager’s lunch. It doesn’t matter that each bandit takes a single bean from 100 plates rather than taking a whole plate for himself.

No Difference

Here are some highlights of Glover’s discussion of cases where an individual’s actions make no difference to an outcome.

Glover talks about the question “what if everyone did it?”. This is sometimes used in response to “it won’t make any difference at all whether I do this.” The idea is that you should not think about the effects of your own actions but the effects of what would happen if everyone acted the way you propose to do. (This is basically what we called “rule utilitarianism” in our discussion of Mill.) Glover does not find this compelling, largely because it is not clear to him how we are supposed to describe the action that we’re imagining everyone will do. For instance, is it “telling a lie,” “telling a lie to prevent a murder,” or “telling a lie to protect my privacy” (Glover 1975, 176)?

Glover’s concept of spirals seems interesting to me. In these cases, your actions could have quite significant effects because the effects, well, spiral (Glover 1975, 179–80). For instance, as political parties lose support, they tend to spiral down. There’s no sense in voting for a party that always loses, for instance. So you might think it’s important to vote to stave off a spiral, even if you don’t think your candidate is going to win. When there are spirals, in other words, an action that seems to make no difference actually makes some difference.

Glover also talks about an argument concerning fairness. The point about fairness is that it is sometimes unfair not to do your part even when doing your part makes no difference to the outcome. Glover says there is a difference between the person who drops out of pushing a car and the person who doesn’t vote because the first one makes the others work harder while the second doesn’t. He’s assuming that the only thing that matters is whether your action makes a difference to others. But the person who is worried about fairness says that being unfair is bad entirely apart from whether it imposes a burden on others or not.

Glover also has a discussion of Williams’s integrity argument under the heading “The Solzhenitsyn principle” (Glover 1975, 184–87).

In the last section, Glover brings up what is called esoteric morality. The idea here is that the consequences would be bad if people believed that it’s OK to do things that seem wrong provided that doing them would make no difference. People would rationalize all sorts of terrible behavior with specious arguments to the effect that it won’t make any difference. The solution? Let the idea be “esoteric,” that is, “intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.” In other words, keep it a secret (Glover 1975, 188–90).

Key Points

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

  1. Size illusions.
  2. The difference between Absolute and Discrimination thresholds.
  3. The Baked Bean Bandits and the Principle of Divisibility.


Glover, Jonathan. 1975. “It Makes No Difference Whether or Not I Do It.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 49: 171–209.