Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Do Numbers Count?


Suppose you had a drug that six people need to stay alive. But the amount each person needs is different: one needs the whole dose that you have while each of the other five only need one-fifth. 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 would do nothing wrong if you give the drug to the one person who needs it all. You may give it to the five too. His point is only that you are not required to save the greatest number.

Needless to say, this is not a utilitarian argument!

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

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 friend.

  2. However 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.

Here is a question about the first premise. Suppose a stranger has 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. So far so good. Nothing sounds controversial here.

But as I understand Taurek’s first premise, if you agree that I’m allowed to prefer my son over a stranger, then I would not have been required to help the stranger. That is, this appears to be a similar argument.

  1. If I were required to save a stranger, I would not be permitted to make an exception for my son.

  2. However I would be permitted to save my son rather than the stranger.

  3. Therefore, I am not required to save the stranger.

I am not sure that this objection works. It seems too tricky. Let’s see if we can figure out what is going wrong.

The second argument

On to Taurek’s second argument about the drug case! 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 think that Taurek’s most compelling way of explaining this point is 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.

What do we think?

Political Decisions and the Island Rescue

Let’s shift to the second case Taurek talks about.

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 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 have not made such a decision, Taurek believes, the captain should flip a coin. If it comes up heads he rescues the larger number and he rescues the smaller number if it’s tails.

Here I plan to ask whether an analog to the political institution might solve the individual level moral question. Suppose the captain heads for the end of the island with the greater number of people one it. When asked why, he says, “it’s what everyone would have wanted me to do if they had been asked in advance, before they knew how the decision would affect them; that makes it the fair and right thing for me to do now.”

Is that a persuasive argument?

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.