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Grouping and the Imposition of Loss

  • F. M. Kamm (a1)


In this article, I critically examine Peter Unger's arguments for the claim that there is a duty to cause physical harm to oneself and others in order to save lives. This includes discussion of his view that when the method of cases involves several rather than merely two options our intuitive judgements support his radical thesis. In conclusion, I consider his attempt to reconcile his claims with common sense moral judgements.



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1 Unger contrasts his position on intuitions with what he calls negativism, at least in so far as he describes the latter as the complete denial that intuitions about cases reveal any moral truth. See p. 13n. In the same paragraph, however, he also describes negativism, not as a methodological principle about intuitions, but as the attempt to bring about consistency between seemingly conflicting intuitions by denying the duty to aid quite generally, rather than extending the duty to aid quite generally. This makes negativism a substantive position about aiding: we need not suffer any loss to reduce mortal loss. Substantive negativism also liberates us from what it takes to be negatively distorted (i.e., non-truth tracking) intuitions about cases, only it sees these as the ones that tell us to aid. These are the very ones that Unger thinks are positively (i.e., truth tracking) distorted.

2 I owe this summary description to Ghopal Sreenivasan.

3 Consequentialists have often accused non-consequentialists of being inconsistent. For example, why, they ask, do non-consequentialists say that we may redirect a trolley to save six from being killed by it when we foresee this will kill one, if we may not save six from the trolley by pushing someone in front of it? As we shall see, Unger repeats this criticism but goes beyond it. He tries to show that sometimes we would say it is permissible to push someone in front of a trolley to save six and sometimes we would say it is impermissible, and this (he claims) is a clear inconsistency. In so far as he tries to change our responses to acts on the basis of altering what he thinks are morally irrelevant features of the context, his technique is like ‘framing’ used by cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. See my Moral Intuitions, Cognitive Psychology, and the Harming-versus-Not-Aiding Distinction’, Ethics, cviii (1998).

4 LHLD, p. 37, n. 7.

5 See sect. Ill of ‘The Problem of Distance in Morality and Singer's Ethical Theory,’ in Singer and His Critics, ed. Jamieson, D., Oxford, 1998, and ‘Rescue and Harm: A Discussion of Peter Unger's Living High and Letting Die,’ Legal Theory (forthcoming).

6 LHLD, ch. 5.

7 I focused on this ‘flip side’ aspect of the Trolley Case in my first attempt to explain it in Harming Some to Save Others,’ Philosophical Studies, lviii (1989).

8 See LHLD, pp. 101–3.

9 Ibid., p. 100.

10 The method of aptly combining cases, which he also describes (ibid., pp. 106–14), is just a way, I believe, of creating cases with several options.

11 However, it should be noted that there is, in general, no inconsistency in thinking that an act of a certain type is impermissible in one context and that an act of the same type is permissible in another context. For example, I believe intuitively that pushing a person in front of the trolley may be impermissible when it would merely paralyze him in a two-option case. But suppose it is permissible for me to redirect a trolley from five to one, thereby killing a person on the other track? I am about to do this, when I find out that if I push the person in front of the trolley instead, it will only paralyze him. Since it is better for him if I throw him than if I redirect, it is permissible in this context to do what it would not have been permissible to do in another context, where I had no option of redirecting a trolley that would kill him. I refer to the principle which accounts for the change in permissibility as the Principle of Secondary Permissibility. In these cases, however, unlike what is true in Switches and Skates, there is a morally important difference produced by doing the act in one context rather than in another, i.e., someone will suffer less harm.

12 A form of argument Unger is famous for using in his early sceptical work in epistemology.

13 This is one of Rawls's, John objections in A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Mass., 1971.

14 In Morality, Mortality, vol. 2, pp. 160–2, I consider a possible exception to this, where the determination of who is uninvolved or involved precedes and determines permissibility.

15 I owe this case to Michael Otsuka.

16 I should point out that my intuitions do not agree with Unger's in some of the cases he uses to support his theory about protophysical distinctions. For example, he says that if there is a resting bomb that will explode and kill five, we think it is not permissible to start it rolling away from them when it will foreseeably kill a bystander. By contrast, he says, we think it is permissible to redirect a bomb that is already in motion away from five it will kill, though we foresee that it will kill a bystander. But I think it is perfectly all right to start the first bomb moving; it is a threat and may be moved.

17 LHLD, p. 98.

19 I first discussed the Susan, Lazy cases in ‘Harming Some to Save Others,’ and again in Morality, Mortality, New York, 1996, vol. 2.

20 In his review of Unger's book in Eureka Street, vi (1996), David Lewis accepts that varying grouping and protophysics accounts for our intuitions, but he denies that these factors are morally irrelevant. I deny that the factors account for our intuitions.

21 For more on such status, see Morality, Mortality, vol. 2.

22 I have described this principle in detail in Morality, Mortality, vol. 2, and in ‘Nonconsequentialism,’ in Blackwell's Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. LaFollette, H., Oxford (forthcoming).

23 See Foot, Philippa, ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect,’ in her Virtues and Vices, Oxford, 1978.

24 LHLD, pp. 121–3.

25 He notes that we might not redirect when on balance we only maximize utility by a smaller amount than a foot. I have discussed the question of what is an ‘irrelevant utility’ in such cases (and in others as well) in detail first in The Choice Between People, Common Sense Morality, and Doctors,’ Bioethics, i (1987), and then in Morality, Mortality, vol. 1.

26 LHLD, pp. 126–8.

27 In ‘Harming Some to Save Others,’ and in Morality, Mortality, vol. 2.

28 LHLD, pp. 139f.

29 Possibly, if I see my refusal as a way of stopping a plan that he already had to give to the stranger – and I see this as a form of making the stranger worse off than she would be without my role – I will intuitively think I should allow Strangemind to take my money. But if Strangemind puts the offer as a case in which he will follow my lead, i.e., if I am willing to lose money, he will lose some money too, I do not think our intuitions suggest a stronger obligation to aid than we think exists in Envelope.

30 LHLD, pp. 136–9.

31 See n. 5 above.

32 Ibid., p. 155.

33 Suppose I realize this and when I see that I will be the one, I decide not to redirect at all, but when I see that someone else will be the one, I do decide to redirect. Have I then violated the PEI because I respond differently to a situation as a function of whether I am in it or not? But then I might as well violate the PEI and also reduce the total number harmed by turning only from six to three, and not onto myself.

34 Interestingly, I do not think that the one may use means that will stop the trolley redirected to him if as a side effect this harms the six, unless this is a substitute for turning back the trolley that would have done the same or lesser damage to the six. (This makes it secondarily permissible.) Nor may he necessarily turn the trolley away in a direction where it harms six people who were not originally threatened by the trolley. He would also not be permitted to redirect a trolley that was originally coming at him foreseeing that it will then do more damage.

35 However, suppose Strangemind had redirected a threat from harming people in Africa to imposing a loss on my bank account – a property damage. I do not believe I also am permitted to redirect back. Property versus mortal loss makes an intuitive difference here.

36 A claim I discuss elsewhere. See n. 5 above.

37 LHLD, p. 166.

38 I am grateful for comments on this article to members of the Philamore discussion group and to members of my graduate classes at New York University and UCLA. This article is dedicated to Mala Kamm, whose persistence, strength, and values inspired it.

Grouping and the Imposition of Loss

  • F. M. Kamm (a1)


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