Philosophy & Public Affairs 31.1 (2003) 71-94
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Can a Nonconsequentialist Count Lives?
David Wasserman and Alan Strudler
Imagine that people are stranded on two sides of an island. You can embark on a rescue mission to only one side, and you must choose which one; unless you act, all the stranded people will die. The people on the two sides are the same in morally relevant respects, but there are more people on one side than the other. Which group of people should you rescue? John Taurek memorably argued that there is no moral reason to pick the side with the greater number—the numbers should not count. 1 Taurek's arguments persuaded few philosophers but vexed a great many, giving rise to a sustained debate about the moral significance of numbers. 2 Eventually, that debate flagged, perhaps more from a sense that it had been played out than from a conviction that it had been successfully resolved. Recently, however, the debate has been revived by several philosophers who have attempted to defend the moral relevance of numbers without recourse to consequentialist reasoning. 3 In this article, we appraise their most promising arguments. 4 [End Page 71]
In making choices about saving people from death, what moral significance should attach to the fact that one choice involves saving more people than another? Consequentialists typically have an easy time with such questions because they believe that the morally best choice produces the best consequences and that, other things being equal, more lives saved is a better consequence than fewer lives saved. The consequentialist position involves what might be called the compensation assumption: the proposition that other things equal, the gain that comes from saving a larger group of people somehow more than compensates for the loss that occurs by not saving some other, smaller group of people. If numbers have the moral importance that consequentialists suppose, then it should be at least presumptively right to sacrifice a person to save others; for example, it is unclear why one may not simply kill an innocent person and harvest his organs if doing so is the only available way of saving the lives of people who will die without those organs. In fact, however, the prospect of saving the lives of those people seems to provide no reason, or an exceedingly weak one, for killing an innocent person, even if there is no other way to acquire needed organs.
One might respond in many ways to the apparent harshness of the consequentialist approach to choices among lives. Most obviously, one might seek to qualify or constrain consequentialist reasoning by adopting a pluralist moral theory that mixes or integrates consequentialist and nonconsequentialist elements. We cannot canvass pluralistic theories in this article, but we must acknowledge that some of them are complex and ingenious. 5 Still, we suspect that they are doomed attempts to breed species that are in essence incompatible. If one shares our doubts [End Page 72] about the prospects for modifying or constraining consequentialism, it makes sense to look to nonconsequentialist approaches to choices among lives—approaches that do not rely directly or indirectly on the claim that more people saved is a better consequence.
The nonconsequentialist approaches we consider treat the failure to save the group with the greater number as a failure to respect the value or equality of the individual lives in that group. We argue that despite their initial appeal, these approaches do not succeed, and we conclude that there does not yet exist a cogent nonconsequentialist answer to the question of numbers. We begin with an important early attempt by Gregory Kavka because an analysis of its weaknesses suggests the moral complexity of choices among lives and the distinctive character of more recent efforts to understand these choices.
Saving the Smaller Group as Disregarding Some Members of the Larger Group
Kavka was among the first to claim that a nonconsequentialist can, without appealing directly to the number of lives saved, defend a duty to save the greater number. 6 We argue that his reasons for choosing...