What Is Wrong with Kamm and Scanlon's Arguments against Taurek

By Doggett, Tyler | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, October 2009 | Go to article overview

What Is Wrong with Kamm and Scanlon's Arguments against Taurek


Doggett, Tyler, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


If you do nothing, Alan, Bob and Christine will die. Death will cost each the same: each will lose thirty-odd years of a good life. Their deaths will cost others the same: each will be missed by friends and family. Some medicine is nearby and with it you can save some but not all: Alan needs all the medicine; Bob and Christine need only half each. It would be easy for you to distribute the medicine and you have no need of it yourself. You have no special ties to any of them: none is your relative, charge, friend, etc. What should you do? Generally, when you have a choice between saving a larger group, the many, or a smaller group, the few, where there is no overlap in members, where the stakes are the same for everyone, where saving would cost you next to nothing, and where you have no special obligations, what should you do?

According to

Must Save Many--you are required to save the many.

This view is defended quite often. Its ever being defended is surprising since it seems so obvious. But consider

Can Save Few--you are required to save someone but permitted to save the many or the few.

This view can be embellished by adding that, though you are permitted to save the many or the few, you are required to decide who to save by flipping a coin, or adding that you are required to decide who to save by holding a weighted lottery or.... These embellishments of Can Save Few, like Can Save Few itself--just focus on Can Save Few--have been provocatively defended, and those defenses have precipitated support for Must Save Many. (2) Such support has tried to explain why Can Save Few is false and why Must Save Many is true. For even if Must Save Many really is obvious, why it is true is not obvious and neither is it obvious why Can Save Few is false.

For more than twenty years, Frances Kamm and T.M. Scanlon have refined arguments explaining why Can Save Few is false and why Must Save Many is true. These arguments are important because of their influence (3) and because they are among the very few nonconsequentialist explanations of Must Save Many. But the arguments do not work. The argument against Can Save Few is unsound, and seeing why it is unsound enhances Can Save Few's appeal. The argument in favor of Must Save Many is open to three interpretations, but each is unsound, and what is wrong with the best interpretation further enhances Can Save Few's appeal.

1. Against Can Save Few

Kamm and Scanlon argue against

Can Save Few--you are required to save someone but permitted to save the many or the few

as follows. First, if Can Save Few is true, only some of those whose lives are at stake make a difference to what you are permitted to do in such cases as the one at the start of this paper. Second, a view according to which only some whose lives are at stake make a difference to what is permitted is untrue. It is untrue because such a view would be unfair to those whose lives make no difference. The true view of what to do in such cases as the one at the start of this paper must be fair. Hence, Can Save Few is not true. (4)

About the first premise: why doesn't everyone make a difference, if Can Save Few is true? What, exactly, does not making a difference come to? These questions can be answered with examples.

In the A case, Alan alone needs medicine and you can give it to him easily. In that case, you are morally required to save Alan. Hence, Alan makes a difference to what you are permitted to do: his being on the scene is what requires you to save someone. In the AB case, Alan and Bob need medicine and you can easily save one but only one. In that case, you have to save someone, but that someone can be Alan or Bob. Put slightly misleadingly, you have to save one group, and you can save either group. This differs from what you are permitted to do in the A case, and the difference is due to Bob's presence. Hence, he makes a difference to what you are permitted to do. …

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