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17. Urgency

XVII. When someone will drown very soon unless you help her, it's morally required that you aid. But, if there's lots of time before anything much happens, aiding isn't morally required.

Often, it's especially important to act when matters are urgent. Urgency is not quite the same thing as an emergnecy, but it's close. Mightn't this be a ground for judging your conduct in the Envelope case more leniently than John's conduct?

It's plenty obvious that, in the case of the Shallow Pond, there's plenty of urgency: If John doesn't get his feet wet pretty quickly, the child will die. And, it appears that, in the case of sending money to UNICEF, there's no urgency: Even if you put $100 in the mailbox just a minute from now, it will take at least a couple of weeks for that to translate into life-saving aid for anyone. What's more, if you don't send anything right away, you can do it later, say, next month. Soon or not so soon, just as many, thirty children, will be prevented from dying.

In these thoughts of a contrast, however, is there clarity or confusion? It is undoubtedly true that, in many cases, it's important both to act promptly and to have one's conduct determined by a clear sense of who's in the most imminent danger. Is it possible that just as the Shallow Pond's a case with morally important urgency, so is the case of the Envelope?

What do you think? Well, consider the following two cases. For both, we'll make these suppositions:

In room A, John is tied down with rope and, next to him, a time bomb's set to go off in just an hour. Unless he's untied and released from the room, its explosion will kill him. The same for room B, except the bomb in room B is set to go off in 24 hours and Alice is in room B. She is tied down with rope and, next to her, a time bomb's set to go off in 24 hours. Unless she's untied and released from the room, its explosion will kill her. You can save either John or Alice, but not both.

For the first case, from what you know so far, it is quite natural to assume if you save John in room A, there will not only still be time for someone to save Alice in B, but, during the extra 23 hours, Alice will enjoy extra chances for rescue that John never could have had.

But now, for the second case, make the additional assumption that there aren't any extra chances even for Alice in B and that you know this with absolute certainty, beyond what you'll do soon.

In the first case, clearly you must save John in A, but, what of the second case? Well, in some sense, perhaps it's still true that John's in a more urgent situation than Alice. But, still, there's little reason to favor aiding him. So it seems, from cases such as these, what moral weight attaches to urgency is due to the lesser chances of avoiding serious loss that, normally but not inevitably, are found in situations where there's little time to save the day. But, between the case of the Shallow Pond and the the case of the Envelope, there's never any such difference in the chances. Or is there? What more can be said to enlighten ourselves on this score?

Well, there's a continual flow of aid from some of the world's well-off folks to many of the most seriously needy. At it's far end, every day there are thousands of children on the very brink of death. Today, their vital need is a very urgent. In the case of some 40,000 of these children, this will be proven by the fact that, even as their need won't be met today, by tomorrow they'll be dead. Of course, just as urgent are the needs of thousands of others who, only through receiving today some very timely ORT, won't be dead tomorrow or, happily, any time soon. To be sure, there are many more thousands of children whose vital needs today aren't so very urgent: For over 40,000 of these, in just two days, their needs will be that urgent. And, for over 40,000 others, in just three days they'll have such terribly urgent needs; and so on. Just so, for over forty thousand still other needy youngsters, their last day alive with danger will be in 30 days, or 31, that is, just a month from now.

Consider these "monthers." In some respect, it may be true that, over the next month, their needs will become more and more urgent. But, since we can be certain that, if you don't donate to UNICEF soon, more of these "monthers" will die, what moral relevance can any such increase in urgency have for your behavior? Clearly, none at all, no?

By contrast, what matters is that, very soon, you begin to lessen the number of children who die a month from now and that, then, you help lessen the number who die shortly after that, and so on. So, facts like it's taking a month for your mailed check to have a vital impact aren't morally significant. To think otherwise is like thinking that, in the second case of the two rooms, saving John in A is morally much better than saving Alice. But as we saw, there seemed to be little reason, in the second case, to come to John's aid rather than Alice's

In morally relevant respects, it's as if each greatly needy child is like a man or a woman in a room, tied down with a rope, with a time bomb set to explode. Some children's bombs are set to go off around noon tomorrow; others' are set for five days hence; still others' are set for a month from now. But, since it's certain that, for all everyone else will do, even in a month's time many of the children still won't have their ropes untied, and so in these different settings there's precious little moral weight to saving some children right away or saving some children a little later. Because the ways of the world are slow to improve for quite awhile, remarks like these will be quite true, will they not? And, that's more certain than that you yourself will be alive a day from now. So, our moral common sense seems to deliver the message: As for morally weighty urgency, there's plenty in the case of the Shallow Pond and there's plenty in the case of The Envelope. Or is this wrong? Is this not the way to think about urgency?

Say you still think urgency is key, that it helps to explain the difference in your moral judgment of John who fails to save the child from drowning and your moral judgment of yourself, if you were to toss the Envelope from UNICEF and its contents into the wastebasket. would your judgment of your conduct in the Envelope Case change if we added a bit of urgency to it? Consider the following:

Super-Express Fund
The most bizarre thing in your mail today is an appeal from the SEF or Super Express Fund: By calling a certain number and using any major credit card, you can donate $500 to the SEF right away, night or day. The effect of such a prompt donation will be that one more child will receive ORT this very day and, in consequence, won't soon die. Of course, the SEF's appeal makes clear the reason that it will cost so much to provide ORT to just one child: Upon hearing from you, your credit card donation is attended to personally, directly, and completely. So, moments after your call, a certain ORT packet is rushed to the nearest international airport, whisked to the next jet bound for Africa, and so on. Eventually, in a remote region, a paramedic rushes from a speeding vehicle. After examining several dying children, he chooses one that, certainly, is today on the very brink of death. Then, he rapidly mixes the solution and administers it to just that most urgently needy little child. But, you don't ever make such a call and, in consequence, one more child dies than if you'd made the requested donation.

Do you think any worse of yourself for failing to contribute to the Super Express Fund than you thought of yourself for failing to contribute to the appeal from UNICEF in the case of The Envelope? Does urgency make a difference? (Adapted from Unger)

Woman in Field, Ethiopia

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