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In Chapters 11 and 12, Kamm considers whether and how distance affects the duties we have to aid others. In Chapter 11, she is predominantly interested in some methodological issues about how we can use hypothetical cases to answer this question, though she does also offer some preliminary substantive conclusions.

Rather than following Kamm’s section headings, I have summarized the chapter in four sections based on the four main methodological points that she makes, with two additional sections to cover her preliminary substantive conclusions. My own comments appear in square brackets.

Before turning to Kamm’s first methodological point, though, I should say something about her introductory remarks. Kamm says that she will be dealing in this Chapter and the subsequent one with ‘the problem of distance in morality’ (PDM). She sets out two standard positions concerning the PDM:

(The Standard View) PDM “is the problem of whether we have a stronger duty to aid strangers who are physically near to us just because they are physically near than we have to aid strangers who are [far], all other things being equal”.

(The Standard Claim) To say that “distance is morally relevant implies that our duty to aid a near stranger would be stronger than our duty to aid a far one, given their equal need”

Kamm will reject both the Standard View and the Standard Claim in Chapter 12. But neither re-appears in Chapter 11.

[It is not clear how the Standard View and the Standard Claim are related to one another. The Standard Claim states an implication of distance being morally relevant, but the Standard View does not explicitly cash out the PDM in terms of the moral relevance of distance. Perhaps the PDM just is the problem of whether distance is morally relevant. In that case, we should understand both the Standard View and the Standard Claim as offering (similar though slightly different) accounts of what it is for distance to be morally relevant. However, Kamm says nothing to suggest that she understands the two positions as being in competition. Alternatively, the PDM may be distinct from the question whether distance is morally relevant. But in that case, what is the PDM?

Fortunately, since Kamm does not return to the PDM in this chapter, we can ignore it (and the Standard View about it) until next week. We cannot ignore the Standard Claim, however. Having stated that she will later deny the Standard Claim about what “distance is morally relevant” implies, Kamm uses that phrase throughout the chapter (a) without clarifying what she does take it to imply, and (b) in a way that seems to accept the Standard Claim. Only at the beginning of Chapter 12 does it become clear how Kamm is using the phrase. By “distance is morally relevant” (and “ distance matters morally”) she means something like: the distance between at least two of (i) the agent, (ii) the victim, (iii) the threat to the victim, (iv) the agent’s means of aiding the victim, and (v) the victim’s means (presumably, of avoiding the threat), may affect the agent’s duty to aid the victim. But I shouldn’t steal Thom’s thunder…]

I’ll now get on with the job of summarizing Kamm’s methodological and substantive conclusions.

Methodological Point 1. In seeking to answer the question whether distance is morally relevant, we should (a) use properly equalized cases, and (b) not infer from the fact that distance doesn’t make a difference in one pair of cases that it is not morally relevant (pp347-9)

Consider the following cases, originally suggested by Peter Singer:

(Pond) I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it. If I wade in and pull the child out, my $500 suit will be ruined.

(Overseas) I know that there is a child starving to death overseas. To save him, I must send $500.

Kamm says that, intuitively, the agent is obligated to save the child in Pond but not in Overseas. Others have taken this intuition to support the moral relevance of distance. However, Kamm notes that there are many differences between the two cases besides the distance between the agent and the victim (I’ll follow Kamm in referring to the person in need of aid as the ‘victim’) – as she says, the cases are not ‘equalized’. For example, in Pond, we assume the child has been involved in an accident, in Overseas we do not; in Pond, the ruining of the suit is a side effect of the aiding, whereas in Overseas the monetary loss is the means of aiding. For more differences see p347.

Kamm suggests some alternative pairs of cases which come closer to being equalized. The cases most relevant to the remainder of the chapter are:

(Near Alone) I am walking past a pond in a foreign country that I am visiting. I alone see many children drowning in it, and I alone can save one of them. To save the one, I must put the $500 I have in my pocket into a machine that then triggers (via electric current) rescue machinery that will certainly scoop him out.

and,

(Far Alone) I alone know that in a distant part of a foreign country that I am visiting, many children are drowning, and I alone can save one of them. To save the one, all I must do is put the $500 I carry in my pocket into a machine that then triggers (via electric current) rescue machinery that will certainly scoop him out.

Kamm thinks the agent has a stronger duty to aid the child in Near Alone than in Far Alone, and that this may be due to distance (though it also may not since, she admits, the two cases are still not perfectly equalized). She claims that if these cases were perfectly equalized and we judged the duty to aid were stronger in one than the other, then we would have shown that distance is morally relevant “at least judged intuitively”. On the other hand, finding one pair of equalized cases in which our intuitions do not track distance would not, she claims, show that distance is not morally relevant (we would simply have shown that there is at least one occasion in which it makes no moral difference). Kamm understands moral relevance such that a property is morally relevant (anywhere and everywhere) if it makes a moral difference sometimes and somewhere.

Methodological Point 2. We should define nearness, and distinguish between the possible moral importance of relative nearness and that of absolute nearness (pp349-56)

Kamm next draws a distinction between relative and absolute proximity (nearness). An agent’s relative nearness to some victim is his nearness to the victim relative to some other agent’s nearness to the victim. Absolute nearness is not relative to other agents in this way.

Consider the following case:

(Near/Far) I learn that in a distant part of a foreign country that I am visiting, a child is drowning. Someone else, just like me in all respects, is near him and also knows of his plight. Either one of us could successfully help by depositing $500 in a device, one of which is near each of us, that will trigger a machine that will scoop the child out.

If the nearer agent in Near/Far has a stronger duty than the further agent (as Kamm believes), this could be due either to absolute nearness or relative nearness. Kamm notes that to test for the moral relevance of absolute nearness, we can either:
(1) Use cases like Near Alone and Far Alone, in which there is only one agent able to aid the victim, or, failing that,
(2) Use cases like Near/Far but stipulate that both agents are absolutely near to the victim, or both are absolutely far (even though one is nearer than the other).

Kamm also notes that even if the duties of the agents in Near Alone and Far Alone were the same, a difference in the duties of the two agents in Near/Far might be due to the moral relevance of absolute, rather than relative, distance. This is because absolute distance might be relevant only in the following sense: an absolutely near person’s obligation should be satisfied in priority to an absolutely far person’s obligation, however if the near person does not satisfy this obligation, the far person acquires an obligation of the same strength. This sort of relevance would not show up as a difference in duties between the agents in Near Alone and Far Alone.

There follows (pp352-356) a discussion of how we should understand this possibly-morally-relevant notion of absolute nearness (which I’ll henceforth refer to simply as nearness). This discussion is noteworthy for the number of exotic cases is contains – my personal favourite postulates the existence of an agent with arms that can reach much of the way across India – however the main conclusion is quite sober: we may understand nearness as straightforward spatial (non-temporal) proximity between the maximally extended parts of persons.

Methodological Point 3. We should ensure that intuitions ostensibly about nearness are not in fact about salience. (pp356-359)

It seems possible that Kamm’s intuitions about cases such as Near Alone and Far Alone are tracking not nearness but the salience (obviousness, inescapability, persistent imposition in our minds) of the victim’s need. Thus, Kamm sets out to show that our intuitions [to the extent that they agree with hers] are not only tracking salience but also in part nearness. [It is not clear from what Kamm says whether the ‘only’ and ‘also in part’ are required. Kamm says at the outset that she will argue that our intuitions track nearness and not salience, but she later seems to allow that they may track salience to some extent.]

[It is also not clear to me whether Kamm thinks that what is important is salience for the agent or salience for the judge: if I am considering whether John has a duty to help Jane, is it the salience of Jane’s need for John, or for me, that my intuitions may be tracking? In most of her examples, Kamm takes herself to be both the agent and the judge, thus obscuring this issue.]

Kamm begins by distinguishing between subjective and objective salience. Roughly, need is subjectively salient when it is both obvious and cannot be put out of one’s mind, and is objectively salient when it when “it would attract and hold the attention of a normal (or ideal) observer”. Kamm offers two considerations in favour of the view that our intuitions do not merely track subjective salience. The first consideration (“the key point”) appears in the following passage:

The mere fact that we cannot take our mind off of someone’s need does not mean that we would think it impermissible to do what would take our mind off of it, if we could, even though this would interfere with our aiding. If we do not think that there is some other reason besides [subjective salience] for why we have a duty to aid, we should believe intuitively that we may eliminate [subjective salience] even if this interferes with our aiding. This indicates that [subjective salience] alone is not generating the intuition that we have an obligation to aid, for if we believed that [subjective salience] gave rise to an obligation, we would think it wrong to alter the salience if this reduced our tendency to help (p357).

To be clear, Kamm is here imagining a case in which we do not take ourselves to have any reason to aid except, perhaps, a reason provided by salience. This is crucial, for as Kamm later admits: “If I think that I am obligated [for some non-salience related reason] to help someone who is near, I should not eliminate salience if it is necessary to help me fulfil my obligation” (p358). Kamm is asking us to imagine something like the following situation:

(Scenario A) Ann is in a position to aid Ben, whose need is subjectively salient for Ann. Ann has no obligation to aid Ben except perhaps one that arises from the subjective salience of his need. Ann can take steps to diminish the subjective salience of Ben’s need, however doing so will reduce her tendency to help him.

If our intuitions about permissibility were tracking salience, Kamm thinks that we would intuitively judge it wrong for Ann to attenuate the salience of Ben’s need since this would reduce her tendency to aid. But in fact her intuition is that, in such cases, it is permissible for the agent to attenuate the salience of the victim’s need. This indicates, she thinks, that our [her] intuitions are not tracking subjective salience.

[This argument seems to go wrong in at least two places.

First, Kamm appears to assume that if our intuitions about permissibility tracked subjective salience we would believe that subjective salience generated obligations to aid. For it is only our holding such a belief that would commit us to judging it impermissible to attenuate subjective salience in cases such as Scenario A. But surely our intuitions could track subjective salience (so that salience explained our intuitions) without us believing that subjective salience generates obligations. Certainly, our responses to subjective salience need not be mediated by beliefs about the normative significance of subjective salience (there could be some non-cognitive mechanism via which we respond to salience in making judgments of permissibility). Moreover, we might reflect on the fact that our intuitions tracked subjective salience without being led to believe that subjective salience actually does generate obligations (since we might lack Kamm’s tendency to take first order intuitions as a good guide to the normative truth). Thus it is possible that our intuitions track salience while we nevertheless believe salience to be entirely irrelevant to obligation (and therefore share Kamm’s intuitions about scenarios such as Scenario A).

Second, it may be possible to re-run Kamm’s argument with nearness in the place of subjective salience, thus undermining Kamm’s own view that our intuitions track nearness. This criticism takes a bit of explaining, so I have put my discussion of it in an appendix at the end of this post.]

In the second part of her attempt to show that our intuitions do not merely track subjective salience, Kamm returns to the familiar territory of intuitions about the permissibility of failing to aid: “suppose that a person I see through my long-distance vision is truly striking, dressed in vibrant colors, and dramatically exhibiting his need. He stands out from a few other equally needy people”. Kamm’s intuition is that she has no greater obligation to aid the strikingly dressed person than the others, and she takes this to undermine the view that our intuitions track subjective salience.

[It seems possible that Kamm’s intuition here reflects a higher order intuition that neither the strikingness of ones appearance/behaviour, nor the psychological salience that this induces, could be a morally relevant consideration. (Alternatively, she could be appealing to the difference between two separate first-order intuitions, one about how strong an obligation she would have to aid the person of striking appearance, and one about how strong an obligation she would have to aid one of the persons of non-striking appearance.) But many people have precisely the equivalent higher order intuition about nearness: intuitively, nearness is not the sort of thing that could be morally relevant. (Kamm moves on to these higher order issues from p379 in the next chapter.)]

It remains to determine whether our intuitions track objective salience. Kamm distinguishes here between need that is objectively salient in virtue of its non-moral features (e.g. because it is eye-catching) and need that is objectively salient due to moral features (e.g. it’s being such that it ought not to be forgotten). She rejects the view that our intuitions only track objective salience due to non-moral factors by appealing again to the example of the strikingly dressed person. Regarding objective salience due to moral factors she says simply that: “it is not because a need ought not to be forgotten that we should aid; we should aid because such need has another property…in virtue of which it ought not to be forgotten (i.e. in virtue of which it has [objective salience])” (p358).

Substantive Conclusions 1. (p359)

Kamm ends the discussion of salience by suggesting that, when we equalize Near Alone and Far Alone for salience (and some other related differences) the duty to aid remains stronger in Near Alone. Thus, she now asserts boldly that our intuitions about these cases are tracking distance and that therefore “at least intuitively, we care about distance”.

She considers two objections to this last claim. First, our nearness-tracking intuitions might be debunked by claiming that we have developed these intuitions only because nearness has normally tracked effectiveness of aid (what we really care about is effectiveness of aid). Kamm’s suggests that we could respond to this objection by finding another explanation of why our intuitions have come to track distance, or by denying that we are so hardwired that we cannot properly respond to factors presented in a hypothetical case.

The second objection is that, since distance and aid effectiveness normally go together, we cannot properly imagine the equalized cases that Kamm is asking us to consider (we continue to associate distance with aid-effectiveness even when we are instructed not to do so).
Kamm thinks that this objection relies on “a too-depressing view of our ability to imagine and respond to unrealistic cases”. She notes that we seem to be able to imagine and respond to unrealistic cases in some non-moral areas [but that we can properly imagine some unrealistic cases surely does not show that we can properly imagine all such cases – whether we can imagine a particular case may just depend on whether that cases provokes any strongly entrenched (perhaps ‘hardwired’) intuitions.]

Methodological Point 4. We should distinguish the role of proximity in relation to aid owed in accident from its role in relation to aid for basic justice (pp360-1)

Consider the following two cases, suggested by Peter Unger:

(Sedan) We are driving by some stranger who is near us. He needs to be taken in our car to the hospital, but he will bleed over the seats and this will result in costly damage to our car.

(Envelope) We are asked to send money to needy strangers who are far away.

Intuitively, we have a stronger obligation to aid in Sedan than in Envelope. And this might be thought to support the moral relevance of distance. But as Kamm notes, Sedan and Envelope are not equalized. She suggests that the difference in our responses to Sedan and Envelope may be explained by the fact that in Envelope we assume the need for aid is the result of basic [institutional] injustice, whereas in Sedan we are more inclined to assume that it stems from some accident. The methodological upshot of this is that to equalize cases, we must ensure that they lie at the same point on the on the institutional justice-accident spectrum.

Substantive Conclusions 2. (pp361-3)

Kamm then suggests that in drawing a morally significant distinction between basic justice and accidents, she may be taking a Rawlsian position on the ‘two-subject’ question. This is the question of whether the principles for guiding individual conduct also cover institutional design (and vice versa). Liam Murphy argues that they do, Rawls argued that they need not.

[It seems to me that Kamm confuses the role that social institutions may play in the generation of need with the role that they may play in alleviating need. The view that Kamm has just defended is a view about how the fact that social institutions generated need might affect our duties to aid. But insofar as the Rawls-Murphy debate bears on duties to aid, it bears on questions about how we should alleviate that need: through the reform of institutions, or through the direct provision of assistance? Murphy’s position would be that if we should aid in one way, then we should also aid in the other, whereas Rawls would have denied that this. But Kamm may hold that our duty to alleviate some need depends on whether social institutions generated that need without thereby committing herself to any view about the role of social institutions in alleviating the need. Perhaps, however, Kamm also thinks that if social institutions are causally responsible for some need, then social institutions should be used to alleviate it. This is a natural extension of the view, already briefly defended by Kamm (and elaborated more fully elsewhere by Thomases Nagel and Pogge and others) that it is more important that individuals and institutions alleviate need that they have caused than that they alleviate comparable need that they have not caused. See, Kamm pp295-296 and Rebecca’s summary of Ch 9.]

Kamm ends the chapter with some substantive points relating to two puzzles raised by Unger. I will mention just the first puzzle: someone who has just given a lot of money to Oxfam feels morally free to refuse a further request from Oxfam for life-saving aid. However, she does not feel free to ignore a person that she meets on the street who needs life-saving aid. Since Unger denies that distance is morally relevant, he has to claim (contrary to intuition) that the agent has as strong a duty to give more money to Oxfam as to save the life of the person on the road. Kamm claims, however, that she can respect the agent’s intuitions: since distance is morally relevant, the agent’s duty to give to Oxfam is of a different type than her duty to aid the roadside victim. Having given to Oxfam, the agent has done enough to fulfil duties of the first type (so need not give more to Oxfam) but has as yet done nothing to fulfil duties of the second type (so must still aid the roadside victim).

[It seems to me that Unger could avail himself of the same explanation, it is just that he could not appeal to differences in distance to distinguish different types of duty. But there are many other grounds on which he could classify the duty to give to Oxfam and the duty to aid the roadside victim into different types. And once he had done this, he could appeal to Kamm’s thought that one is obligated to satisfy only a sufficient number of duties of each type.]

Appendix

Consider again my Scenario A: Ann is in a position to aid Ben, whose need is subjectively salient for Ann. Ann has no obligation to aid Ben except perhaps one that arises from the subjective salience of his need. Ann can take steps to diminish the subjective salience of Ben’s need, however doing so will reduce her tendency to help him.

Kamm would say that it is impermissible for Ann to diminish the subjective salience of Ben’s need, and claim that this supports the view that our intuitions do not track subjective salience. But I think we might be able to re-run this argument with ‘nearness’ substituted for subjective salience. Kamm seems to believe that this argument would not be plausible. She reports that “once I am near someone who needs help, I do not think I am permitted to move myself from him to a greater distance merely in order to avoid being near in order to avoid an obligation” (p358). The scenario alluded to here seems to be something like:

(Scenario B) Ann is in a position to aid Ben, who is near, but Ann could move further away from Ben “merely in order to avoid being near in order to avoid an obligation” to help him.

Kamm would, it seems, claim that Ann may not move away from Ben in Scenario B, though she may reduce the subjective salience of Ben’s need in Scenario A.

Note, however, that Scenarios A and B are not equalized. In Scenario A, it is specified that Ann has no obligation to aid for reasons other than subjective salience. But the comparable assumption is not made in Scenario B. Thus, it could be that Kamm intuits that Ann should not move away from Ben in Scenario B because this will make Ann less likely to satisfy an obligation that she has to aid Ben independently of her nearness to Ben. Moreover, in Scenario B Ann’s reasons for moving away are specified, whereas in Scenario A her reasons for attenuating salience are not.

To ensure that we are comparing equalized cases, we should compare Scenario A with the following scenario, which is simply Scenario A with ‘nearness’ substituted for ‘subjective salience’:

(Scenario B’) Ann is in a position to aid Ben, whose is near to Ann. Ann has no obligation to aid Ben except perhaps one that arises from her his nearness. Ann can move further away from Ben, however doing so will reduce her tendency to help him.

It is not clear to me that it would be impermissible for Ann to move away in this case (precisely because it seems intuitive to me that if Ann has no non-nearness-based duty to aid, then she in fact has no duty to aid – nearness could not make a difference). Of course, we do not know what Kamm’s intuition about this case would be…]


Comments

  1. 1. Posted by John Alexander | September 15, 2007 3:37 pm

    Thanks for your wonderful summary of this chapter. It helped to clarify some issues.

    I must admit that I have a great deal of difficulty understanding the importance of many of the examples (cases) that Kamm raises in order to make points that seem to me to be wrong. Obviously she is arguing against consequentialism and for some version of deontology. However, her arguments against consequentialism do not seem to be very convincing, at least to me (of course, I tend towards utilitarian consequentialism). Hence, I feel the need to defend the utilitarian consequentialist. First of all, a consequentialist would not accept the following observation as being at all relevant to understanding our obligations: “ For example, in Pond, we assume the child has been involved in an accident, in Overseas we do not; in Pond, the ruining of the suit is a side effect of the aiding, whereas in Overseas the monetary loss is the means of aiding.” The consequentialist is not concerned with how the situation arises, etc., only in the consequences of our acting or not acting within those situations. I understand Singer to be trying to elicite an intuition from the reader as to what ought to be done in the ‘pond’ case and extend that intuition to the ‘overseas’ case. The intuition is that we ought to eliminate suffering (harm) if we are in a position to do so and the cost of doing so does not impose an unreasonable burden on us. Singer wants us to intuitively understand that the $500.00 suit that is ruined in saving a child’s life is not an unreasonable cost for a person to bear to save a life. (Obviously, he does go beyond the intuition to argue for his position, but we need not address his arguments here. Like many philosopher, including Kamm, he relies on intuitions as a starting point.) Now, the question is, does the same intuition arise in the ‘overseas’ case. Some informal studies that I have conducted in my classes indicate that it does not. Most of my students will intuitively accept the results of the ‘pond’ case, or some version thereof, but will not accept the idea that we our obligated to send $500.00 to save the live of a distant child. Now, the question is why because from a strictly consequentialist point of view it seems that the intuition should arise. Hence we have the start of an argument that attempts to explain why we should send the $500.00 to save the life of a child, all things being equal. (Now the fact that they are poor college students may explain why they resist the conclusion in the ‘overseas’ case, but that is another issue.) If we are focusing on outcomes, as a consequentialist would maintain that we should, then what are the morally relevant differences between the two cases. There does not seem to be any. In both cases we have the option to save a life at some cost to us. If we can save the live of a child and the cost is not a burden to us, then it seems that we ought to do so because from a strictly consequential point of view the saving of the life relative to the cost is the only important normative issue. If sending $500.00 is not an unreasonable burden to us, then we should do so. From a consequentialist point of view there is no difference between ruining a $500.00 suit and sending $500.00 if ruining a suit and sending the money does not present us with an unreasonable burden. They are both a cost. Singer would argue, correctly I think, that distance is not a morally relevant issue, all things being equal.

    I want to conclude by commenting on some of the examples that Kamm raises in order to make distinctions/points. Many of examples used by Kamm seem to me to be problematically esoteric—that is, they deviate too much from our common ethical experiences. In fact, I think that provided that they deviate so much from our more garden-variety ethical scenarios that some justification for utilizing them needs to be presented. For example, in chapter 11 she gives the example of putting $500.00 into a machine the will mechanically save a child. This example, and others, are so far fetched that it does not have any normative value for me—I simply don’t have the relevant intuitions at this stage because I cannot relate to these types of examples. I can relate to ruining a suit or sending some money to save a life. Many of Kamm’s examples are like so many thought experiments that philosophers find interesting, but the important question is how will the general public react to them. It seems to me that if the study of ethics is to be of value it ought to help us to live better lives from a defensible moral point of view. If this is correct then the examples used should reflect the lives that people are actually living and the options/ choices that are really available to us. The problem with more esoteric thought-experiments is that they serve only to make philosophers and philosophy seem to be ‘in the clouds’ to borrow a famous metaphor. This type of doing philosophy seems to me to create a serious disconnect between philosophy/philosophers and the actual lives people are living which we should be serving. If we are engaged in doing ethics then I think we need to be able to demonstrate how what we are doing is applicable and relevant to the average reasonably intelligent person’s ethical deliberations. How can what we are doing positively impact lives actually being lived? We should all remember that as we are reading this people are dying of preventable diseases and starvation, women and children are being raped and abused, and people are dying in wars that seem to be unjust, etc. The type of doing philosophy exhibited by Kamm (and others) may play well in professional academic circles, but please explain to me how you think it will play to the reasonably intelligent prson trying to find out what it means to live a moral life? Here is my challenge: how can we make our ideas clear so that they resonate with people of average intelligence and understanding? Do we not have an obligation, as philosophers, to try and make our theories and arguments accessible to the reasonably intelligent person? I am sure that Kamm has important points to make, but they are obscured by the way they are presented. Am I the only person who feels this way?

  2. 2. Posted by John Alexander | September 16, 2007 3:44 pm

    Matthew Liao
    I think the ‘pond’ and ‘overseas’ examples would be interesting to take a poll on. In so far as Kamm is suggesting that our intuitions suggest that we have an obligation to the child in the pond but not to the child starving overseas, it would be intersting to test this claim.

  3. 3. Posted by Tom Douglas | September 16, 2007 8:59 pm

    Matthew, I agree, Pond and Overseas would be good candidates for a poll.

    John, thanks for your comments. You raise some very interesting points.

    I agree with your interpretation of Singer’s purpose in discussing Pond and Overseas. Many people will, I think, find the following three (apparently inconsistent) claims plausible.
    (1) the agent must bear a cost of $500 to save a life in Pond
    (2) the agent need not bear a cost of $500 to save a life in Overseas
    (3) distance cannot make a difference to our duties to aid.
    I think that Singer is, as you suggest, using the intuitive plausibility of (1) and (3) to argue against (2). (He also has other arguments against (2).) But Kamm notes that someone who found (2) highly plausible might combine that with (1) to undermine (3). Similarly, one might combine (2) with (3) to undermine (1).

    Kamm’s purpose in noting the various disanalogies between Pond and Overseas is, I think, to show that none of these arguments can succeed since (1)-(3) are not, in fact, inconsistent. One can accept that the agent in Pond must aid, and the agent in Overseas need not, without committing oneself to the moral relevance of distance. Instead, the intuitive difference between Pond and Overseas can be explained by appealing to the moral relevance of one of the other disanalogies that Kamm mentions (side-effect vs means, accident versus non-accident etc.).

    You suggest that a consequentialist would not think that any of these other disanalogies are morally relevant either, being interested only in the consequences of aiding or not. I’m not sure about this. Consequentialists generally deem the consequences of an act to include the act itself and they might also (in theory) accept, say, that acts of aiding accident victims are intrinsically better than acts of aiding non-accident-victims. In any case, I suspect Kamm would respond to your point by (a) asking why we should allow consequentialist theory (rather than intuition) to determine which disanalogies are relevant and which are not, or (b) claiming that, since she is attempting to develop a version of nonconsequentialism, she is entitled to assume that consequentialism is false. The consequentialist could reply to (a) by claiming that, intuitively, none of the Kamm’s disanalogies between Pond and Overseas are morally relevant. It would be interesting to know how Kamm would incorporate such intuitions into her theory if she shared them, but I suspect she does not.

    Regarding your second point, I also found that many of Kamm’s examples in this chapter stretched my ability to conjure up intuitions to breaking point. An obvious way to avoid having to resort to such intuitionless cases while maintaining a intuition-based approach would be to appeal to higher order intuitions (such as intuitions about whether distance is the sort of thing that could be morally relevant) and I find it strange that Kamm does not appeal to such intuitions more often. One problem with appealing to those intuitions might, I suppose, be that they may be heavily polluted by theoretical commitments. Thus, when a consequentialist intuits that distance cannot be morally relevant, perhaps this intuition is driven by her commitment to consequentialist theory. If so, it presumably could not be adduced in favour of consequentialism. It’s not clear to me, though, that first order intuitions are any less polluted by such commitments.

  4. 4. Posted by John Alexander | September 17, 2007 2:05 pm

    Tom
    Thanks for your responses. They helped, again, to clarify what Kamm is doing. A couple of comments:

    I am not sure that the accident/non-accident distinction applies to the ‘pond’ or ‘overseas’ cases (or for that matter ‘sedan’ or ‘envelop’ cases). Granting that one can say that the baby being the pond is the result of an accident (although one might suggest that it was thrown into the pond to kill it) why should we simply assume that the starving child is not? It might be argued that the child is starving as a result of where she was born which would make her starving in that time and place an accident of birth.

    I agree with your comment regarding the possibility that one’s intuitions may be polluted by one’s theoretical perspective. Both consequentialist and deontologist should be aware of this possibility. But this ‘pollution’ may well happen when one is making distinctions to try and demonstrate that cases are not equalized. The problem with drawing distinctions is that one often uses as a criterion for making such distinction, the very point that is controversial. Granting that Kamm is arguing against consequentialism and developing a deontological theory, I would suggest that she is using her deontological perspective to provide warrant for these distinctions. From my perspective as a consequentialist this is begging the very question that is being disputed. I think that a better approach for Kamm would be to demonstrate that consequentialism is self-defeating and then move on to develop a deontological alternative. She may be attempting to do this by arguing for the distinctions that she is arguing for, but this argument is weak if it requires that the deontological perspective she is trying to defend warrants it. I would still argue that the ‘pond’ and the ‘overseas’ (and possible the ‘sedan’ and envelope’ case) are in fact equalized if we recognize that the underlying issue is simply the elimination of (unnecessary and avoidable) harm versus the cost of doing so.

    As far as methodology is concerned, sooner or later, those who use intuitions as having some epistemic force in explaining and justifying what one is doing are going to have to defend their use of these intuitions. The problem with using intuitions is that we are simply reporting the psychological state of the person who has it. Simply having an intuition x is not the same as arguing that x is epistemically important and justified as an explanation and/or justification for how we act. Singer certainly does not rest content with intuitions. He uses a thought experiment to elicite a particular intuition, but then he argues for the intuition as a conclusion without using that intuition as a premise. I do not see this happening with Kamm, but this may simply be my inability to follow her where she is going. However, if the polls so far conducted by Liao demonstrate anything it is that there are no clearly preferable intuitions that can help us to determine what we should do in the various scenarios investigated. We have different intuitions as to what is permissible that lead to contradictory actions. If we think that we should utilize our intuitions as explaining and justifying what we do, then I think we are falling into an extreme form of relativism, where, to borrow another phrase, ‘nothing is true, all things are permitted.’ This is certainly not what Kamm (or Singer for that matter) wants.

    My last comment (for the time being) is that the consistency or inconsistency between a set of statements is not, in itself, that epistemically interesting. I agree that statements 1-3 (in your response) are not inconsistent, but neither is the set that results if we change 2 to read, “the agent needs to bear the cost of $500.00 to save a life in overseas.” The problem is which one is the morally preferable one? I am not sure that Kamm has provided any reason for choosing one over the other that does not beg the question by relying on intuitions that have not been shown to be epistemically warranted.

  5. 5. Posted by Toby Ord | September 17, 2007 3:16 pm

    Thanks for that summary Tom. I have to say that I agree with you on almost all of your square bracketed comments. After reading the chapter, I really can’t see that we should trust our intuitions that nearness matters. Instead, it seems to me to be a great moral error to just trust our intutions on the individual cases. Even if our first order intuitions do track nearness, most first order intutions of 100 years ago also tracked whiteness. Our intutions on animal welfare track size of the animal’s eyes and other cues for cuteness, but we are right to reflect that skin colour and cuteness are not morally relevant factors and to thus treat like cases alike. Singer’s arguments are just like this, telling us that we should treat pond and overseas alike (and moreover that the obligation exists in both). I find his arguments on this point much more convincing than Kamm’s.

  6. 6. Posted by Mark Sheehan | September 20, 2007 1:50 am

    Tom,

    This is a nice summary with lots of interesting points. I thought that the salience stuff was most interesting in the chapter and in your remarks so I’ll say most about them. First though a couple of smaller comments about some of your bracketed remarks:

    You’re worried about the Standard View and the Standard Claim. As I understood it, the Standard View is the standard view of the problem (of distance in morality) and the Standard Claim is the standard response to the standard view. Kamm thinks that both are mistaken. I understood Chapter 11 to be concerned primarily with correcting the Standard View – that is, beginning to show why the usual way of conceiving of the problem of distance in morality is mistaken. The chapter is then primarily methodological.

    You were also worried about whether the salience that matters is salience for the agent or the judge. I’m not sure that there’s an issue that is obscured here. Salience is on the ‘same level’ as distance and ‘taking John to have a duty.’ Of course there are various ways of understanding what we are doing when we are thinking about what John ought to do, but in each of these the question concerns the way in which our taking John to have a duty is connected to distance and, here, the salience of Jane’s need.

    Finally, you were wondering about Kamm’s intuitions about someone who is ‘strikingly dressed’: I would have thought that the methodological considerations applied to the distance case apply here also. That is, in order to determine whether being strikingly dressed matters morally we should consider equalised cases that differ only in this respect. It seems likely to me that the result of this process will suggest that being strikingly dressed is not morally relevant. I’m not sure what to say about the higher order intuitions that you mention. I guess I’m a bit worried about whether they can be intuitions at all. Perhaps they are something like proto-theoretic generalisations or, as the reference to the next chapter suggests, justifications or explanations of (first-order) intuitions.

    On to salience… There is a whole nest of issues in this part of the chapter that I don’t want to get too involved in. I have to say that I would have liked Kamm to have said a bit more on the nature of salience. In particular, I’m not sure that the two senses of salience are best called ‘subjective’ and ‘objective.’ Suppose that something is salient to an individual when they notice it. ‘Being noticed’ I think captures and includes the various ways in which Kamm explains subjective salience (including Unger’s – though it need not be as forceful as Unger’s case). This is contrasted with the second ‘sense’ of salience: what should be noticed (i.e. “what should attract and hold one’s attention”). This second sense is normative in a way that the first sense is not. Moreover the normative sense of salience can only be called objective if the appropriate work had been done to establish the objectivity of the normative claim – I.e. if I really ought to have noticed such and such. I would have thought normative and descriptive (or non-normative) kinds of salience would have been a more natural set of terms. [Further, there may be a case for saying that the second sense is not really a sense of salience at all, but as above, an assessment of our obligations to be aware or to notice certain features of our circumstances.]

    Here’s how I see the more general issues: Kamm is interested in what grounds (‘generates’ in your and perhaps her terms) our obligations and specifically here whether being near (or distance generally) can be the ground of an obligation. Intuitions are, in a certain way, indicators or evidence of obligations but in order to isolate the genuine ground of the obligation we need to isolate the appropriate feature. The method of equalisation of cases and the elimination test are two methods for determining when a feature of a situation is playing the role in our intuitions that could make it the ground of the obligation. The question here then is whether it is salience or distance that is doing the work in the ‘distance-related’ cases – which of these two features could be the ground of the obligations that we intuitively take ourselves to have.

    I think this specific case is complicated by two facts. First, when we become aware of our being in a situation in which we have an obligation and that we have an obligation, both the feature of the situation that is the ground of the obligation and the obligation itself are salient to us along with (in the normal case) other features of the situation. This is a complication because it means that whatever feature grounds our intuition about our obligations will come to us as salient.

    The second complication is that we sometimes hold people (ourselves included) responsible for not noticing or failing to recognise that (say) such and such needed help. Relatedly, and as Kamm points out, we sometimes think that taking steps to avoid noticing or to ignore features of a situation, including those that are grounds for our obligations, is permissible and in others impermissible. This is a complication because it means that salience looks to be something about which we can have obligations. That is, there are situations in which we ought (other things being equal) to notice certain features.

    The second complication links back to the definitions of objective and subjective salience. I suspect that if we were to understand objective salience as something like ‘normative salience’ and confine our discussion to ‘subjective’ or ‘descriptive’ salience we could avoid the complication without any other ill effects. We can do this, I think, because our obligations to be aware, to notice or to ignore can, without too much trouble, be separated from our obligations to aid. So I might have failed to do as I ought because I did not notice something important. But, it is a further question whether I ought to have noticed what I failed to notice.

    If this is OK, the main question is how to pull salience and distance apart. The “key point” on p.357 is indeed the key point here but it is tricky to say the least. To my mind the central point is given in the third sentence:

    “…[salience] alone is not generating the intuition that we have an obligation to aid, for if we believed that [salience] gave rise to an obligation, we would think it wrong to alter the salience if this reduced our tendency to help.”

    And further, on p.358:

    “If I intuitively thought that such salience obligated, I would think that I’m not permitted to change it to avoid being obligated, as I believe that I am not permitted to change nearness, once it is in place, to farness merely in order to avoid being obligated.”

    The second part of this sentence looks fine – once I am next to the drowning person I am not permitted to move away so as to avoid the obligation. However in order to make the disanalogy stick, we need a case where there is an obligation to aid, there is salience of need and where it is permissible for me to change the salience (say, ignore the need or take a pill) to avoid the obligation. The problem seems to be that the cases where it is permissible to change the salience look like cases where there isn’t really an obligation to aid. [I suspect that this is a result of what I called the first complication above.]

    Kamm makes one other suggestion that is of use here. A little further down on p.358 she writes:

    “For it is not because a need ought not to be forgotten that we should aid; we should aid because such a need has another property (e.g. pain and suffering of a near victim) in virtue of which it ought not to be forgotten.”

    The important point from this is the suggestion that we might distinguish between the kinds of features of situations that are capable of being the grounds of obligation and those that are not. But we need to know more about what it takes to be the ground of an obligation in order to properly assess this route.

    If all this is correct (and I’m far from sure that it is), then Tom, I think your objections to Kamm’s argument slightly miss the mark. First, our intuitions are explained by salience but it is not the right kind of explanation – I have the intuition that I ought to help because of what was salient to me, namely that Ben needed help and I was near enough and able to provide it. In this sense our intuitions could be said to track salience but this tracking is not at issue. Kamm’s arguments are intended to show that salience is not the ground of the (intuition about our) obligation.

    Second, I’m not sure that Scenario A is quite right.

    “(Scenario A) Ann is in a position to aid Ben, whose need is subjectively salient for Ann. Ann has no obligation to aid Ben except perhaps one that arises from the subjective salience of his need. Ann can take steps to diminish the subjective salience of Ben’s need, however doing so will reduce her tendency to help him.”

    I don’t think that the second sentence should be there. As I understand it Ann, by assumption, does have an obligation and the question to be determined is from what this obligation arises. It is not at all clear to me why we would be permitted to diminish salience in a case where we have an obligation and it arises from that salience. A similar point can be made about Scenario B’ – if Ann has an obligation to aid Ben, even if it arises from her nearness to him, then she ought not to move away. This arises from the fact of the obligation rather than from how it arises. The problem here is that neither of these cases actually tests what they are supposed to. But then, as I mentioned above, I’m not sure that there is a case that does test this.

  7. 7. Posted by Tom Douglas | September 21, 2007 12:19 pm

    Thanks very much for your detailed comments Mark. You raise many interesting points. I won’t be able to respond to all of them (and in any case I agree with a lot of what you say) but I’ll have a go at answering a few….

    1. You say:

    You were…worried about whether the salience that matters is salience for the agent or the judge. I’m not sure that there’s an issue that is obscured here. Salience is on the ‘same level’ as distance and ‘taking John to have a duty.’ Of course there are various ways of understanding what we are doing when we are thinking about what John ought to do, but in each of these the question concerns the way in which our taking John to have a duty is connected to distance and, here, the salience of Jane’s need.

    Perhaps I have not understood your response, but It still seems to me that there are two different things that my intuitions about whether John ought to aid Jane might be tracking: the salience of Jane’s need for John, or the salience of Jane’s need for me. With distance, Kamm is obviously interested (in this chapter) in the distance of the victim from the agent, not from the judge. I presume she is also interested salience of the victim’s need for the agent. But there seems to be a further and interesting question about whether my intuitions about what John should do are tracking the salience of Jane’s need for me.

    2. I suggested that, in her strikingly-dressed-person case, Kamm might have been relying on higher order intuitions about whether strikingness of appearance is the sort of thing that could be morally relevant. You note that:

    [I]n order to determine whether being strikingly dressed matters morally we should consider equalised cases that differ only in this respect. It seems likely to me that the result of this process will suggest that being strikingly dressed is not morally relevant.

    You’re probably right. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Kamm should acknowledge that higher order intuitions (about whether being strikingly dressed is the sort of thing that could be morally relevant) may be playing a role in generating our intuitive judgments about such cases. This seems to me to be true both for cases involving strikingness of appearance and those involving distance.

    3. Regarding your concerns about Kamm’s classification of different types of salience: I like your distinction between normative and non-normative salience, and agree that it is probably more natural that Kamm’s distinction between objective and subjective salience. But it’s not clear to me where to place what Kamm calls ‘objective salience due to non-moral factors’ in your classification. Need would, I think, be salient in this sense when it would be subjectively salient to a normal observer, but not to an ideal one (so that it’s not the case that it ought to be salient for people).

    4. You characterise Kamm’s main question in the section on salience as follows: “The question…is whether it is salience or distance that is doing the work in the ‘distance-related’ cases – which of these two features could be the ground of the obligations that we intuitively take ourselves to have”. I agree, provided that by ‘ground of the obligations…’ you mean ‘what motivates our intuition that we have an obligation’ rather than ‘what justifies that intuition’ or ‘what actually creates the obligation’. Kamm seems to accept that, having identified what our intuitions are tracking, there is a further question about whether they are tracking the moral truth.

    You then draw attention to the various ways in which salience might play a role in our intuitive responses. You raise some interesting issues here. But I’m not quite sure about your formulation of the first complication that Kamm’s question faces. You say:

    [W]hen we become aware of our being in a situation in which we have an obligation and that we have an obligation, both the feature of the situation that is the ground of the obligation and the obligation itself are salient to us along with (in the normal case) other features of the situation. This is a complication because it means that whatever feature grounds our intuition about our obligations will come to us as salient.

    I don’t think it’s true that whatever grounds (motivates) our intuitions will come to us as salient. Our intuitions about obligation might come about through some subconscious mechanism without our even being consciously aware of the feature of the situation that is ultimately motivating our intuition. This seems especially plausible when there is more than one feature of a case that is driving our intuition. For example, Kamm thinks that our intuitions are driven in part by both (the perception of) need and (the perception of) nearness. On your view, as I understand it, if this were true then both the need and the nearness would be salient to the agent. But I think that Kamm could be right about what is driving our intuition without nearness being salient to the agent. Indeed, I don’t think nearness is salient in any of the cases that she mentions – only need is salient.

    I think it is quite possible that I have completely misunderstood your point here however.

    You continue:

    The second complication is that we sometimes hold people (ourselves included) responsible for not noticing or failing to recognise that (say) such and such needed help. Relatedly, and as Kamm points out, we sometimes think that taking steps to avoid noticing or to ignore features of a situation, including those that are grounds for our obligations, is permissible and in others impermissible. This is a complication because it means that salience looks to be something about which we can have obligations. That is, there are situations in which we ought (other things being equal) to notice certain features.

    I think I agree with this, though I note that the same complication arises with nearness, since nearness is also something about which we have obligations (i.e. we can have obligations to make ourselves near to someone who needs our help).

    5. Kamm says (p358):

    If I intuitively thought that such salience obligated, I would think that I’m not permitted to change it to avoid being obligated, as I believe that I am not permitted to change nearness, once it is in place, to farness merely in order to avoid being obligated.

    You suggest that the problem with the argument here is that “the cases where it is permissible to change the salience look like cases where there isn’t really an obligation to aid”. (I think we could add those cases in which there is an obligation to aid, but reducing salience won’t make us any less likely to satisfy that obligation). I’m not sure that this is a problem on its own, since it is consistent with Kamm’s view that it is only impermissible to change salience when (a) there is an obligation to aid that does not derive from salience, and (b) reducing salience will make the agent less likely to satisfy this obligation. This is exactly what one would expect if we thought that salience could not ground obligations. However, I think there are at least two other problems with the argument (here, I’m just repeating my initial post I’m afraid). First, I think that the cases in which “I am not permitted to change nearness, once it is in place” are all cases in which I have an obligation to aid that derives from something other than my nearness to the victim, but which will only be fulfilled if I remain near to the victim. That is, they are just like the cases in which I am not permitted to change salience. Second, whether “I intuitively thought that such salience obligated” seems to me to be a different question than whether my intuitions actually track salience, since my intuitive judgments about obligations might track salience without my believing that salience actually grounds obligations. So even if Kamm has succeeded in showing that we don’t intuitively think that salience obligates, it might still be that our intuitions do track salience.

    6. In my original post, I introduced the following Scenario:

    (Scenario A) Ann is in a position to aid Ben, whose need is subjectively salient for Ann. Ann has no obligation to aid Ben except perhaps one that arises from the subjective salience of his need. Ann can take steps to diminish the subjective salience of Ben’s need, however doing so will reduce her tendency to help him.

    Though I didn’t make this very clear, I was trying here to capture the case that Kamm has in mind when she says (on p357) that:

    If we do not think that there is some other reason besides [subjective salience] for why we have a duty to aid, we should believe intuitively that we may eliminate [subjective salience] even if this interferes with our aiding.

    You question whether the second sentence in Scenario A should be there, noting that, as you understand it “Ann, by assumption, does have an obligation and the question to be determined is from what this obligation arises”. But if Ann has an obligation to aid, this may be a non-salience-based obligation. And if she has such an obligation then (as Kamm admits) its not intuitively the case that she may reduce salience if this will make her less likely to aid. So I think Kamm needs to assume something like the second sentence to get the intuitive answer that she wants.

    You continue: “It is not at all clear to me why we would be permitted to diminish salience in a case where we have an obligation and it arises from that salience.” I agree. It seems to me that the only case in which we would be permitted to reduce salience is where there is no obligation at all, or where diminishing salience does not diminish our tendency to fulfil the obligation. But I don’ think that this is, on its own, a problem for Kamm (see my point 5 above).

  8. 8. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | October 2, 2007 12:53 am

    Tom, thanks a lot for the excellent summary and points. I think you are right that Kamm is not equalizing her cases regarding salience, in particular in the Near Alone Cases, and that were her to do so, she may not get the results she wants. Her argument against salience may be more plausibe in the Far Alone Cases though. As you have also noted, she says that

    suppose that a person I see through my long-distance vision is truly striking, dressed in vibrant colors, and dramatically exhibiting his need. He stands out from a few other equally needy people. Further, his need should be salient and would be salient to a normal or ideal observer. It is so. I do not intuitively believe that I have a greater obligation to this person than to the others at a distance, even if I feel under more psychological pressure to aid (p. 357).

    As with Mark, I’m not sure that Kamm is appealing to what you call ‘higher order intuitions’ here. I don’t exactly know what those are.

    However, even if Kamm’s argument works against salience in this case, it need not follow that salience has no moral significance. Similarly to what Kamm has said regarding distance, someone who believes that salience is morally important need not claim that salience is always and everywhere morally important; salience need only to be morally important sometimes in some cases.

    John, I think it is important to note that the Pond Case and the Overseas Case are Singer’s and not Kamm’s, and that Singer accepts that in the Overseas Case, most people have the intuition that one is not obligated to save the starving child overseas. Kamm’s point here against Singer, which, I think, is just a methodological and not a substantive one, is that these two cases are not properly equalized. Kamm proposes for example that the Near Alone Case and the Far Alone Case are more properly equalized than Singer’s Cases. Singer and other consequentialists can accept this methodological point and still reject the substantive view that distance matters morally.

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