When numbers feature in morality


0113 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Okay, well suppose that I knew and were certain somehow that both groups were made of “selves” instead of strangers. In which case, I would want to help my other selves — and because they are selves, I would have a right to help them (not a duty). (Even if “help” is considered good general, I don’t think that I have a right to help strangers in a similar way, however. Or even a duty to help strangers, for that matter — unless I chose to belong to a religion that said that I have such a duty. But in that case, my duty is to my religion, and not to the strangers.) I suppose in that case — a case in which the groups weren’t made up of total strangers — then I’d go for saving the larger group ceteris paribus. I think that I’d still consider other impersonal factors, such as efficacy, proximity, etc. Interestingly, these factors may make my initial inclination begin to lean towards saving the smaller group, if the saving is difficult and I think that I can be more effective in saving a smaller group, rather than to try to save a large group and perhaps foresee failing to save anyone.

Yet Scanlon writes this:

“In any class of cases in which we must decide between providing a good to one group and providing it to another, if a given principle would decide the matter in favor of one group, then the members of the other have a reason to prefer that the matter be settled by a lottery (even one weighted against them). They have this reason no matter how strong the case for the given principle may be, but it does not follow that they have reasonable grounds for rejecting the principle.” (p.234)

His point being that the larger group is the one that gets choice preference over the smaller group.

But, I don’t see why the reason of “efficacy” that I gave above, is not a good reason to choose the smaller group over the bigger one. Wouldn’t both groups of selves agree with me? Obviously, strangers wouldn’t. (And that’s why I don’t have a right or a duty in regards to them.)

I’m puzzled again.


0930 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

Scanlon says,

“contractualism supports a principle according to which, in situations in which aid is required and in which one must choose between aiding a larger or a smaller number of people all of whom face harms of comparable moral importance, one must aid the larger number.” (p.238)

I don’t understand why numbers must be so prominent. Numbers can feature in moral reasoning, but when numbers feature in morality at all, it must be the last thing to be considered, ceteris paribus. But often, there are many other things that must be considered before numbers are, and it should rarely be a determining factor in making moral decisions.

Besides, even if my inclinations are in general to favor more good, how do I know what is always good? A moral theory that says one MUST choose the greater number, isn’t what I truly want; I couldn’t live with such an outcome. I think that for me, the numbers cannot play the role of deciding factor. If they must factor at all, they can only factor last of all.

I think that a moral theory that permits numbers to be the deciding factor, having prominence over other perhaps more relevant factors, is an immature moral theory.

In the spirit of Plato’s helmsman example, I think that one could travel a thousand miles in ignorance, and it would not be better than if one traveled only but a step in full knowledge.

Perhaps Scanlon is only claiming that contractualism has the potential to take numbers into consideration — but not necessarily that numbers have priority in his moral theory.