Saving People and Flipping Coins

By Bradley, Ben | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Saving People and Flipping Coins


Bradley, Ben, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


SUPPOSE YOU FIND YOURSELF IN A situation in which you can either save both A and B, or save only C. A, B and C are relevantly similar--all are strangers to you, none is more deserving of life than any other, none is responsible for being in a life-threatening situation, and so on. John Taurek argued that when deciding what to do in such a situation, you should flip a coin, thereby giving each of A, B and C a 50 percent chance of survival (Taurek 1977: 303). Only by doing this can we treat each person with the appropriate degree of respect. Taurek seemed to be employing the "Equal Greatest Chance" principle (EGC), according to which, when deciding whom to save, one must give each person the greatest possible chance of survival consistent with everyone else having the same chance. An obvious alternative (not the only one) is the "Save the Greater Number" principle (SGN), which needs no elaboration.

There has been robust discussion of this sort of example in recent years. (2) This discussion has usually focused on the question of whether it is permissible to aggregate claims. In what follows, I ignore most of this interesting discussion. I describe an example that shows that EGC is false. I show that the example also demonstrates the falsity of other related views, including Jens Timmermann's "Individualist Lottery Principle" (ILP). I conclude that SGN is true. And I extend the argument to other kinds of cases, showing that which person should be saved may depend on whether some additional well-being may be gained for someone in the process.

Some preliminaries are in order. First, note that EGC and SGN are principles that emerge far downstream of the level of general criteria for moral rightness. They apply only to the particular sort of situation just described, and it is not obvious how one should generalize to other sorts of situations. Each principle might be supported by any number of general criteria. SGN follows most obviously from utilitarianism, but is also accepted by, among others, contractualist T.M. Scanlon (1998: 234). Wasserman and Strudler (2003) have argued that nonconsequentialists have failed to make the case that SGN is compatible with the rejection of consequentialism. If they are right, then we must choose between two competing packages: a consequentialist moral theory that entails SGN, and a nonconsequentialist one that entails EGC or some variant. I won't take a stand here on whether Wasserman and Strudler are right. But I will say that it would be a mistake to allow phobia of all things that smell vaguely utilitarian to cause us to resist a knockdown argument for SGN.

Second, note an important difference between SGN and EGC. SGN is a principle about what the agent should do in the end: save the greater number. EGC is a principle that is at least partly about how one should decide what to do in the end: flip a coin. It is also a principle about what to do in the end: whatever the coin says to do. We might say that EGC, unlike SGN, is partly a decision procedure rather than a criterion of rightness. But I think it is more helpful to see both principles as evaluating complex courses of action that an agent may engage in when confronted with this sort of situation--where action is understood to include deliberative procedures such as coin-flippings. SGN evaluates these courses of action by looking only at one feature: how many people are saved? The agent can flip a coin, sing a song or whatever she likes, as long as the greater number is saved. EGC evaluates these courses of action according to the deliberative process used (e.g., a coin flip) and its fit with the action done subsequently. One is permitted to save the greater number only if the coin flip says to do so. But more than that, the coin flip must be what guides the decision. It's not enough to flip a coin and then coincidentally do what the coin says to do. Imagine, for instance, that Raul finds himself in just such a situation. …

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