[Table of Contents] [Previous Page] [Links] [Next Page] [Last Section of Guide]


20. Saving Strangers

XX. If John saved the child from drowning, he'd know, when all was done, whom he saved; whereas in the case of The Envelope I don't know whom I am saving from an early death.

So, even if you donated the $100 requested in the case of The Envelope, and even if you thereby helped save some people, you wouldn't know which children you helped save from an early death, or even aided at all. In the case of the Shallow Pond, by contrast, John would know whom he aided. Can this favor a more lenient judgment of your conduct in the case of The Envelope? What does your common sense tell you? Does it matter morally whether you come to know whose dire needs you help meet? Consider the following:

The Very Special Relations Fund
Not only does the VSRF (Very Special Relations Fund) make sure your $200 will go to save the life of a certain particular child, but it makes sure you'll get to know which child that is. By providing you with her name and a picture of the child saved, you'll know precisely which child's life just your donation served to spare. Still, you don't send anything and, in consequence, one more child soon dies than if you'd made the requested donation.

Does your judgment of your own conduct in this more epistemically focused case change from your judgment of your conduct in the original case, where you do not know whom your $100 will save? Now consider the following:

The Vintage Boat
John's one real luxury in his life is a vintage power boat. In particular, he is very happy with the fine wood trim of the handsome old boat. Now, there's been a big shipwreck in the waters off the coast where his boat's docked. From the pier, in plain view several hundred are struggling. Though both Coast Guard boats and private boats are already on their way to the people, more boats are needed. Indeed, the more private boats out and back soon, the more people will be saved. But, it's also plain that, if John goes out, still, owing to all the melee, nobody will ever know which people will have been benefited by John. Indeed, for each of the people in distress whom John might bring in, it will be true to say this: For all anyone will ever know, that person might have been brought in by another boat, in which case some other person, whom some other boat rescued, would've perished. On the other hand, this John does know: While there's no risk at all to him, if he goes out, his boat's wood trim will get badly damaged, and he'll have to pay for expensive repairs. So, he leaves his boat in dock and, as a consequence, a few more plainly struggling people in distress soon drown. (Adapted from Unger)

So what are your intuitions here? Do you like John any better now?

Women in Rice Paddy, Vietnam

back to top

[Table of Contents] [Previous Page] [Links] [Next Page] [Last Section of Guide]

February 14, 1998
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Oxfam America and CARE
Andreas Teuber's Home Page