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NOTES AND
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FINAL PAPER TOPIC           HUMAN RIGHTS            PHILOSOPHY 19A

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18. Causally Focused vs Causally Amorphous Aid

XVIII. If John saved the child from drowning, his aid would have been causally focused on that particular needy child; whereas in the case of The Envelope , even if I'd behaved helpfully and mailed in my check, there'd never be anyone for whom I'd have made the difference between suffering a serious loss and suffering none.

A distinction between causally focused aid and causally amorphous aid is similar to several other differences that might be proposed to mark a moral difference between the case of the Shallow Pond and the case of The Envelope, but is nonethless worthy of consideration in its own right. If John had provided aid to the drowning child, his helpful behavior would've been causally focused on that particular needy person. Next, causally amorphous aid: In the case of the Envelope, even if you'd behaved helpfully, there'd never be a child of whom it would be true that, had you sent in $100, she wouldn't have died prematurely. Rather, on one end of a causal chain, there are many donors contributing together and, on the other, there are all the people saved by the large effort they together support. The more support given, the more children saved. Does this provide a moral ground for being more lenient, less hard on someone, who tosses the appeal from UNICEF into the wastebasket?

But surely, since there's nothing morally objectionable about proceeding to aid greatly needy folks amorphously, no moral weight attaches to the precise character of the causal relations between the well-off and those whom, whether collectively or not, they might help save. The morally important thing is that the vulnerable don't suffer, no? would you be more inclined to respond to UNICEF's appeal if it were causally focused, and, if so, would your becoming so inclined suddenly carry moral weight?

The Special Relations Fund
You receive material from a group that assures you they'll find a very, very ill, little child that your money, if you contribute, will prevent from dying prematurely. Since very many, very, very ill, little children are out there, this won't be terribly difficult, or costly, but neither will it be very cheap and easy to have your vital aid be causally focused: So, if you donate $100 to the SRF, while only one less child will die soon, the group will ensure that your donations makes the big difference for the one child. But, you send nothing and, in consequence, one more child dies than would have lived had you made the requested donation. (Adapted from Unger)

Mother and Child, Senegal




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February 14, 1998
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Oxfam America and CARE
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