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Intuitions are curious things. In chapter 12 as elsewhere, Kamm makes extensive use of hypothetical experiments meant to test our intuitions and lead us to particular results. Indeed, few are better than Kamm at providing so many illuminating imaginative cases. For the most part, I believe her efforts succeed. However, if I had a criticism to state up front, then it would be my worry that Kamm makes our intuitions do too much. For one thing, the hypothetical experiments are aimed at philosophers engaging with her book. What evidence do we have that (a) the intuitions academic philosophers hold are representative of the general public or (b) the intuitions academic philosophers hold are justified independently? What to do about those of us (like me) with very different, more consequentialism-friendly intuitions? And so on. Indeed, these issues of highly imaginative hypothetical cases and extensive uses of intuitions have creeped into a few of the previous discussions of Intricate Ethics. I simply wish to state up front that this issue appears to creep into the discussion here, too.

Chapter 12 of Intricate Ethics is entitled ‘The New Problem of Distance in Morality’. The chapter is a substantially revised and enlarged version of Kamm’s previously published ‘The New Problem of Distance in Morality’ in Deen K. Chatterjee’s brilliant edited collection The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy (Cambridge University Press, 2004): 59-74. Of course, all citations below are to F. M. Kamm’s Intricate Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2007).

The first thing to notice about the chapter is that its title is slightly misleading. At first, we may be misled into thinking that Kamm denies philosophers have considered the relationship between morality and distance. If this is what Kamm were arguing, then she would be clearly wrong. There are a rich number of examples of philosophers arguing distance matters in moral theory. This is perhaps most readily apparent in debates between cosmopolitans and nationalists. Thus, Hegel will tell us in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right that states exist independently of one another without any particular duties to assist others (§330, Addition). On the one hand, some believe we have stronger duties and obligations to our nearest and dearest rather than distant others. On the other hand, others believe we have equal duties to those in need irrespective of distance. Distance has factored into moral theory for sometime. Kamm’s title may mislead some readers into thinking that she is denying this. She does not deny that previous philosophers have discussed distance and morality.

Instead, Kamm is arguing for a new problem with distance (and I suggest this may have proven a better title). The new problem is not whether distance has relevance for morality. It may turn out that distance lacks relevance, but considerations of the relevance of distance have been discussed before by Hegel and many others. What is new—and I agree with Kamm—is becoming more clear about how distance is relevant for morality, if it is relevant. This is a new way of approaching morality and a topic that has exercized Kamm for at least a decade. It is a real treat to find her most considered views detailed in this new book.

Kamm first begins with a look at what she calls the Standard View of the PDM (e.g., problem of distance in morality). As we saw in chapter 11, this view holds that the problem confronting us is ‘whether we have a stronger duty to aid strangers who are physically near to us hust because they are physically near than we have to aid strangers who are physically near (that is, who are far), all other things being equal’ (368). Kamm’s aim is to essentially refute this standard view. What follows is a dizzying array of imaginative hypothetical examples all meant to work our intuitions in a particular way, leading to further examples and intuitively-established results. I think these examples work with mixed success.

Through page 372, Kamm claims to establish that ‘at an intuitive level’ (a phrase we see a lot) ‘nearness seems to matter morally’. I believe this is absolutely correct. For example, it is certainly far easier to convince one’s non-philosopher neighbours that state aid should help those nearest and dearest than those distant and far less familiar. What is useful in the first few pages of this chapter is that Kamm established that morally-relevant distance is not simply between an agent (say, ourselves) and a victim. Instead, distance is more complex: the distance between our means of rescuing a victim and the victim (or threats) must be factored into our analysis as well. Kamm will use an example of someone in Chicago who has the ability to aid a person in Cape Cod by simply flipping a switch (373). She writes that if the agent endures ‘no further costs’ beyond flipping the switch, then she believes he is ‘strongly obligated’ (373). For Kamm, the agent’s obligation to help is not as strong as it might be if the agent were physically near the victim although what seems to do the work is that if we have low opportunity costs (such as the cost of simply flipping a switch) to aid another, then we are obligated to do so no matter the distance between ourselves and another all things considered. Such a view is stated in the following manner:

The characteristic shared by cases in which the agent’s means are near the victim or the victim’s means are near the agent seems to be that only what is pertinent to satisfying the need of the victim (whether it is a person who can be benefited or a machine that can help) is relevant to establishing an obligation (375)(emphasis given).

This is one view (or perhaps intuition) of justice I share with Kamm and I suspect most readers will largely agree with the analysis thus far. What is important about this discussion is that it establishes the title of the chapter. Kamm says that the ‘New PDM [Problem of Distance in Morality] should be understood as whether we can justify our intuition that we have a greater responsibility to take care of what is going on in the area near us or near our (efficacious) means’ (376). The question is not if distance can matter for morality: distance can figure into our moral theorizing. Instead, the question remains hows distance matters.

The rest of Kamm’s chapter is concerned with spelling this out, although it is here that her intuitions and my own intuitions did not always meet. For example, take Kamm’s Near-then-Far case:

I am passing near a child drowning in a pond, a child whom I am able to help. But, through no fault of mine, all of the following are true: I do not know that I am near the person, I do not know that he is in danger, and I do not know that I can help. After I am far away, I learn that I was near him when he was in danger, and I could have helped. I can still save him from that danger, in the way I could have when near, by putting $500 in a device that will activate a machine to scoop him out (377-78).

Kamm then claims: ‘I believe that, intuitively, the obligation to help is stronger than it would be if I had never been near’ (378). This alleged intuitive support for her view leads Kamm to make a series a remarks that I am not sure follow because I do not share her intuitions.

For example, I have travelled to many countries in the world. One of them is Sweden (one of my favourite countries, in fact). The fact I have travelled to Sweden (and always enjoy my travels) offers no obligation to help Swedes in need of aid who I had no obligation to help if I had not travelled to Sweden. With Kamm’s Near-then-Far case, what seems to do the work is that I can help this person at little cost (£250 + international exchange bank charges in my case) to myself. For Kamm, it seems always best to offer aid not least when it is at little cost to ourselves. The fact I was in one place versus another seems completely irrelevant to me.

Let us change the Near-then-Far example to something slightly different. Imagine that the example holds with one exception: the device requires $50,000 and not merely $500. If the Near-then-Far case worked intuitively for you, then do you still feel the obligation when the costs have been raised in this way? I doubt it although I do not want to linger on the costs because it distracts from Kamm’s main point.

The main claim is that distance can matter. Kamm states this in the following way: ‘A past tie based on nearness seems to linger once it exists, but a future tie does not obligate before it exists’ (379). Of course, Kamm does not address the question of how long this tie based on past nearness lingers. If we have such a tie (which I doubt intuitively anyways), then does it last for a day? A week? Three years? More? Less? This is left open. (I would be interested on guesses on how long this tie should linger: if anything lingers, then I suspect circumstances and the aid required may affect the time frame. Perhaps a new poll question….?)

Whilst I agree that a future tie does not obligate until it takes effect, I cannot see why a past tie as understood as walking near a person unknowingly counts as a past tie. Do we get some ethically-relevant significance upon our philosophical walking shoes when we stroll through the park? It all strikes me as implausible. Instead, I would be very happy to grant that past ties can matter, but not a past tie as weak as Kamm is willing to allow. Past ties based upon love, friendship, or fellow members of a profession may bring special obligations to others irrespective of distance. Mere proximity need not.

I hope these comments are useful in highlighting what is distinctive in Kamm’s account of morality and distance in this chapter. I do not claim the account I have offered is complete and I look forward to seeing how others dealt with the problems and proposed solutions in this chapter over the following week.


  1. 1. Posted by Fiona Woollard | September 21, 2007 5:06 pm

    Dear Thom,

    Thanks for a helpful summary. I agreed with many of your points, especially about the relevance of past nearness. On the question of how long nearness lingers (if it does) then perhaps this would be proportional to the length of time spent near to the person in peril. Suppose that I had spent several months walking past a child trapped in a well (with a food supply). The child is from Spain. I am from Britain. The well is in Germany. I find out about his plight after I have moved back home. The only way I can save him is with Kamm’s $500 scooping machine. I think I have a stronger obligation to help him that to a child to whom I have never been near.

    Of course, it may be that my intuitions in this case are based on the sense that, having lived so closely together for several months, we are in some way co-citizens or neighbours.

  2. 2. Posted by John Alexander | September 22, 2007 1:04 pm

    Thanks for your very helpful summary. I will start my comments by quoting something your wrote:
    “I am passing near a child drowning in a pond, a child whom I am able to help. But, through no fault of mine, all of the following are true: I do not know that I am near the person, I do not know that he is in danger, and I do not know that I can help. After I am far away, I learn that I was near him when he was in danger, and I could have helped. I can still save him from that danger, in the way I could have when near, by putting $500 in a device that will activate a machine to scoop him out (377-78).
    Kamm then claims: ‘I believe that, intuitively, the obligation to help is stronger than it would be if I had never been near’ (378). This alleged intuitive support for her view leads Kamm to make a series a remarks that I am not sure follow because I do not share her intuitions.”
    This is a clear example of the underlying problem that does seem to be addressed by Kamm. This has little to do with the esoteric nature of some of her intuitions (which is a separate issue), but instead, focuses on the epistemic value and function of these intuitions in helping us to guide our actions. It is not that we may believe that intuitively ‘the obligation to help is stronger than it would be if I had never been near,’ the question is, should this intuition have any epistemic value in helping us to determine what we ought to do? You (and I) have different intuitions then Kamm’s, but which ones are the morally preferable ones to act upon. It seems to me that Kamm has risen the epistemic functioning of intuitions to the level played by beliefs in general. If beliefs are suppose to guide our actions then we ought to act upon those beliefs that we have good reason to believe are true. What reason do we have to believe that intuitions are true, or false; they simply seem to be. They seem to be on par with ‘mere’ beliefs, those that we simply hold as being true without any supporting justification for holding them so. I would suggest (certainly not originally) that if we have an intuition, then what this intuition seems to state should become the conclusion of an argument. Doing this will give us some way of determining the epistemic value of the intuition. If we can support the demand inherent in the intuition with premises that do not rely on other intuitions, then we would have a sound basis for determining how we ought to act.
    One major problem is that it seems that intuitions are not stable across populations. This can be clearly seen in the results of the three examples participants in this discussion have voted on. Which ones are the correct ones to hold and act upon in a given example? The intuitions themselves seem to offer anything of little epistemic value in answering this question. They may be a starting point, but they do not get us very far. We need to provide sound reasons based on arguments that generate conclusions upon which we can act.
    One last point about the nature of obligations; if we base our obligations on the general moral idea that we ought to eliminate harm wherever and whenever possible as long as the cost of eliminating the harm does not place the agent eliminating the harm under an unreasonable burden, then it seems to me that there are future obligations in place well before the time arrives where we have to act, or where any action on our part can take place. This general obligation is future looking and will affect how I act in the present entering into the future. I think this is one of the problems of knowing that a large number of innocent people will continue to die of preventable starvation and disease. “Will die” refers to the future, but the obligation to help them is in the present. Some people, who would die, will not die, if I act to eliminate some future harm in the present. In an important sense (and context) of giving aid, once I give aid I cannot stop giving aid if the cost of continuing to give aid does not cause me an unjustifiable burden. This obligation to continue to give aid is not based on an intuition, but on a sound (I think) argument derived from premises that do no rest solely on intuitions. I think this is consistent with the claim you are making when you wrote: “Whilst I agree that a future tie does not obligate until it takes effect, I cannot see why a past tie as understood as walking near a person unknowingly counts as a past tie. Do we get some ethically-relevant significance upon our philosophical walking shoes when we stroll through the park? It all strikes me as implausible. Instead, I would be very happy to grant that past ties can matter, but not a past tie as weak as Kamm is willing to allow. Past ties based upon love, friendship, or fellow members of a profession may bring special obligations to others irrespective of distance. Mere proximity need not.” I would simply add to your list of those we have special obligation too the group of people we know will die of preventable starvation and disease if we do not act.

  3. 3. Posted by John Alexander | September 22, 2007 3:41 pm

    I was rereading chapters 11 and 12 and the following problem came to mind. Regarding Kamm’s Near-to-far example, I was wondering if, in fact, we have a obligation to know what is going on around us? It is difficult to imagine being obligated to aid a person if I do not know that person is in harm’s way. However, if I intentionally choose not to know what is happening around me am I somehow responsible for the harm continuing to happen that person? It seems to me that in some of the examples used by Kamm one can argue that based on the cases being equalized that I have no greater obligation to those that are distant from me then those that are near. In those cases the intuiton that we should aid those closer may be relevant in deciding what we do. However, if we modify the example above to suggest that the agent has choosen to remain ignorant of what is happening around him and he then walks past someone who is being harmed, he is resposnbile for that harm continuing. I think that he would be for reasons, for example, that Kamm mentioned earlier, based on our duties to others. In the near-to-far example the descriptions of what is occuring regarding the agent who could aid another are not equalized. In one, the near, I do not possess knowledge of what is happening so I am not responsible for aiding the person. Later on, I do have this knowledge and am obligated to act, and it seems to me that it is this knowledge, not the location, that gives me the obligation to help.

    Consider this modified near-to-far example: A person in my community is facing ongoing harm and information regarding this person has been printed in the local paper and reported on the local news. I have $500.00 in ahsoebox that I have saved for a rainy day that could help this person, but becasue I do not know this person needs the $500.00 I do not sent it to him. Another person, living in another community, reads my local paper and learns about the person in need and sends $500.00 to that person. Regardless of whether or not we think the person in the other community is obligated to help, it is certainly praiseworthy that he does. But, what about me? Is my not knowing about the plight of the person in my community blameworthy? Am I responsible for that person’s on-going suffering if the $500.00 would have helped eliminate, or at least minimize, the suffering?

  4. 4. Posted by Jeff Huggins | September 22, 2007 6:52 pm

    There is a way, I believe, to place all of these questions and intricate considerations within a larger (and more grounded) context and argument, allowing them to be addressed within a more informed context.


    As I have written in earlier posts, the most foundational ‘effective’ function of morality itself is to facilitate continuing human survival from one generation to the next, and so forth. (This argument, I believe, can be supported with science and logic, which I won’t go into here for reasons of scope and space.) Because we humans also understand the concept of time (albeit imperfectly), survival from one generation to the next is not really sufficient: Our (moral) aim should be sustainable survival. And, because we humans understand ourselves to be ‘equal’ in important senses (based on a number of arguments, or at least based on considered agreement), our (moral) aim should be to achieve sustainable survival in ways that view and treat other humans as equals in that quest. This is a simplification, but enough for current purposes.

    Because (or if) morality itself, at its most foundational level, is ‘about’ achieving sustainable survival in ways that treat other humans as equals in that quest, (and this also includes and requires, of course, preserving biological diversity and a healthy planet), most other issues involve the question of how. In answering the how question, we must consider not only the aim but also basic aspects of human nature, human abilities, human limits, and so forth.

    Put another way, because of rather fundamental human limits, resource limits, and so forth, not every human can immediately and successfully ‘save’ any other human who might be a stranger, living 5,000 miles away, and so forth. While the foundational ‘effective’ function of morality, or its aim (if you want to put it that way), is as mentioned above, and this provides vital context, human individuals are not all-knowing, all-seeing, all-capable, all-rational, beings with unconstrained time, energy, and resources. Thus, the particulars of situations, including distance, prior relationship, etc., enter into the equation when it comes to specific moral situations and questions.

    That said, I think that, in most cases, within the context of the overall aim of morality, the particulars that matter most (and that shed the most light on the most moral actions in a particular situation) are those associated with the situation itself and with a knowledge of how humans work, and of human limits, i.e., from a scientific standpoint. Put another way, I doubt that there is a way to define pure logical ‘principles’ based mainly on ‘pure logic’ to define specific solutions to moral dilemmas, on a stand-alone basis, and without reference to the most foundational aim of morality and to the capabilities and limits of human beings: In other words, principles must consider the function (or aim) of morality and the abilities and limits inherent in being a human being. Principles must represent solutions that satisfy the aim of morality and that do so in ways that take into account basic aspects and limits of human nature. For example, I (a human being) have some sons who depend on me somewhat, so I can’t (realistically) hop on a plane today, fly to Darfur, and throw myself in front of an unjust bullet that has just been fired at a poor farmer there. There are other things I can (and should) try to do about the situation, to the best of my ability, but distance does matter. Why it matters has a lot to do with human abilities, limits, and the dynamics of human life. How it matters has to do with these things as well as the specifics of the situation in question.

  5. 5. Posted by Tom Douglas | September 23, 2007 10:30 pm

    Thanks for your excellent summary Thom.

    I’d like to have a stab at what is going on in Near-then-Far. My unreflective intuitive response to that case is the same as Kamm’s: that I have a greater obligation to help the stranger than if I had never been near. However, I suspect that my intuition here is being driven by my belief that I would, upon discovering that I could easily have saved the stranger, be inclined to judge that I had done something wrong, and thus to experience some kind of regret, remorse and/or a desire to make ammends. So I think my intuition is tracking the perceived wrongness of my past action (or the feelings that accompany this), not my past nearness to the victim.

    But there are strong reasons think that I have not, in fact, done anything wrong, since I was blamelessly ignorant of the stranger’s predicament. It thus seems likely that my intuitions are tracking an incorrect judgment (or the feelings associated with an incorrect judgment). This surely gives me a strong reason to reject as misguided my initial intuitive response, just as I would have a strong reason to reject an intuition if it was based on a false empirical belief. Does this sound right?

    To test this explanation (for my intuition, or anyone else’s) we could consider a case in which regret/remorse/perceived-wrongness-of-past-action comes apart from past nearness. Unfortunately, I am unable to think of any such case…

  6. 6. Posted by Thom Brooks | September 24, 2007 8:58 am

    First, let me thank each of you for the terrific comments: I am unsuprised to find disagreement about my assessment of Kamm’s views, but relieved that I have not been seen to distort her views along the way.

    Jeff and John raise several interesting points, but let me focus on something that comes across all posts and is the focus of posts by Fiona and Tom: the Near-then-Far case.

    I think Fiona and Tom seem to hit the nail on the head. What seems to do the work (the ‘why I agree I should save the person once near that I did not know was near but is far now that I have travelled far away, realizing his/her former nearness just now along with my ability to effortlessly help him/her’) is that we can help another at little cost to ourselves.

    The trick is if it were not at little cost to ourselves, would we still help the person once near now far? I doubt it. (By little cost, I don’t mean something relatively trivial such as throwing even an expense jacket into the water.) I am from a small town outside New Haven. Whenever I see news items (very rarely) about the New Haven area or Connecticut, I stop and listen: much of my family remains. Of course, I would go to extremes to help my family: I love them very much (and fortunate to have such a family). Would I help others?

    I would if it were at little cost to me. If I were open to spending £10 or $20 per month on an aid agency and my choices were my childhood town or somewhere unknown, then my closer bonds of affection would lead me to choose the former over the latter. This is only true because I have a positive view of the town.

    I would not if it were of greater cost to me. Why not? Well, if I needed aid, would anyone from my old hometown choose to help me? Why would they? At little cost, we have a sound moral reason to help anyone anywhere. At greater cost, near-then-far fails.

    I think Tom hits on a good example that might make this more clear. If only I could come up with the case…

  7. 7. Posted by John Alexander | September 24, 2007 1:40 pm

    Interesting discussion

    There are some other interesting problems in the near-then-far example. One is whether I create an ongoing obligation to give aid if it is of little cost to me? What happens if I can come up with $500.00 per month, do I have to continue to send it to those in need?

    Another problem is, what counts as nearness? Am I near the people suffering if I see them suffering on a news report, or on the internet, or in a picture in a newspaper, etc., or am I only near if I am physically in the same location as they are in? What do I learn about their suffering from being in the same physical location as opposed to simply seeing it or reading about it. I do not see any relevant difference. If this is the case, then the near-then-far example is moot; we are all near, and knowingly so, someone who is suffering.

  8. 8. Posted by Jeff Huggins | September 24, 2007 4:19 pm

    Thom, Tom, John, and others:

    Your recent posts make some very helpful observations that all shed light on the issue. One key point, of course, is illustrated in John’s question, ‘what counts as nearness?’ Consider: Humans evolved, for the most part, during periods when fast means of transportation and communication didn’t exist. The life-relevant and important idea of ‘near’ was not influenced or confused by an ability to travel thousands of miles and back in a day, or by an ability to see pictures (still or moving) of people thousands of miles away, or hear of their travails (except, in the case of hearing news of others’ travails, this sometimes happened, but usually long after-the-fact, because of slowness of the means of communication). Today, as John points out, we are exposed to the news, images, and even details of the travails of others in an instant via the media, internet, telephony, and so forth, or in a near-instant via our own travel. My point here is not to directly address the issue: Rather, it is to point out that the very fact that we find this issue so confusing and difficult in some ways (that is, the near-far issue and its moral implications) is a result of the fact that we evolved in situations where ‘near’ was (relatively speaking) easier to understand, and ‘near’ was also very relevant from a life/death/mating/birth standpoint, while, in contrast, many people today live in situations where ‘near’ is not so clear, where ‘far’ is often very relevant, and where ‘far’ impinges on our senses (in many cases). I guess, in some sense, one could say that we are intellectually ‘frustrated’ because ‘pure reason’ (if there is such a thing?) and idealism would cause us to want to help everyone everywhere equally and immediately, whereas the limits of human energy, time, resources, and etc. (on the individual level) require that we retain and have some means of prioritization (though we can, of course, refine how we prioritize, but we can’t eliminate the need for prioritization).

    Thom’s point that a not-unimportant factor is whether the help can be offered ‘at little cost to ourselves’ is a good one. If a brother/sister, or other relative, or close friend, or neighbor, or fellow home-town citizen, needs a kidney, some (or many) people might be willing to donate one in that situation. But, fewer people are willing to donate their kidneys, I’d guess, to distant strangers who they don’t know, unless those donors have a special empathy for kidney patients in general. On the other hand, if we are talking about giving $25 a month to some cause, the number of people willing to give to far-away causes is probably more similar to the number who give to ‘nearer’ causes, (in my guess).

    I also think that, these days, special personal empathies and interests can also make one feel more ‘near’, emotionally speaking, to some causes than mere physical nearness might do. Many people, because of their life experiences or other factors, have special empathy for specific causes: curing cancer; preventing driving under the influence of alcohol; alleviating poverty; removing land mines; etc. So, those people might donate generally to those causes (even though they benefit strangers in a very broad geographic area) rather than to a different cause in their own community. This is just another valid means of personal prioritization. One can’t be ‘all things to all people.’

    These views are all consistent with, and support, the broader points I mentioned in my earlier post (#4 on this thread). A valid understanding of morality, of universals, of what we ‘ought’ to do, must consider the most foundational ‘effective’ function of morality itself and must also fit with some basic human realities and limits. If one misunderstands or ignores the ‘function’ or ‘goal’ of morality itself, or if one ignores the most ‘fixed’ human limits and realities, then the resulting derived principles are likely to be off-mark or inaccurate in some important way, in my view. Our reasoning should be ‘grounded’ in these elements. ‘Pure reason’ that is ungrounded in these elements, or that becomes unhinged from them, (if such a thing exists), may lead us in incorrect directions or cause us to seek intricacies where no such intricacies exist.

  9. 9. Posted by Thom Brooks | September 25, 2007 11:36 am

    Again, let me thank everyone for their helpful comments. What seems to be very clear is that Kamm’s Near-then-Far example has not persuasive (at least for the very particular reasons Kamm offers for the example). The result then may be worrying for her views on how distance might matter for morality (and not whether distance matters). Kamm continues to be correct to argue (as she does in the first few pages) that relevant moral distance is not merely the space between agent and victim, but also the spatial location of the means of rescue (her scooping machine) also matters. This is an important amendment that should not be discounted. However, she does not seemed satisfied with only this result, but also the relevance of simply being in a locality at some important past time. This latter piece of argumentation does not appear as successful. Is this the proper assessment of chapter 12?

  10. 10. Posted by Fiona Woollard | September 25, 2007 3:03 pm

    Hi Thom,

    That sounds right to me!

    There also seems to be a question about whether the near-then-far links up to Kamm’s proposed justification for the relevance of distance: the requirement for an agent who takes an agent-centred view of things to see himself as having a special responsibility for those things in his immediate area. This seems to be based on an idea that some things are the agent’s particular concern. It seems plausible to me that things currently nearby or things with a special past connection might count. However, as you mentioned earlier Thom, it doesn’t seem that merely having been close by at some point in the past gives a connection. (I suggested that having been close by for a very long period of time might be enough to give a connection.)

    More generally, what do people think of Kamm’s attempt to ground the relevance of distance in the agent-centred viewpoint?

  11. 11. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | October 2, 2007 7:39 pm

    Thanks for the nice summary and comments, Thom! I had a question about something else Kamm said:

    All of this suggests that (a) we have to show that we have a special responsibility to do something about what goes on in the area near us or our means (hence, nearness is a sufficient condition for some duties), and (b) we have to show that there are some duties to aide whose origin lies in nearness, so that when nearness is not present, the duty is not present (hence nearness is a necessary condition for some duties) (p. 386).

    It seems to me that at best, she has shown (a) but not (b). In any case, I don’t see why she needs to show (b). It seems that she could appeal to an agent’s prerogatives to explain why an agent may ignore far, far away cases of aid, while accepting that those cases still generate duties.

  12. 12. Posted by Thom Brooks | October 3, 2007 10:04 am

    My thanks again, Matthew, for inviting me to take part in this terrific project. I completely agree with you. If I (and my means of rescue) am near to someone in need, then she demonstrates that I should help this person particularly if it is of little trouble to myself. While she is more explicit about the place of my means of rescue and its proximity to a person in need than is Peter Singer in his classic article, I am not entirely sure this is the distinctive contribution Kamm is aiming for (although I grant it is a distinctive contribution even if means of rescue proximity concerns are at least implicit in Singer’s account).

    What seems particularly distinctive is the view that my being near someone else at some past time has a moral residue that sticks with me. Thus, if I leave Cape Cod for Chicago (as her story goes) and can use a machine in Chicago to rescue someone in Cape Cod, then I should flick the switch…and I am morally motivated to do so (at least in part) because I had been in Cape Cod recently in the past.

    As the above posts seem to make clear, few (if any) readers of this blog share the intuition that my being at place x at time y is doing any work for Kamm. We all agree that the motivation to rescue arises from the relative ease of (and ability to) rescue. In addition, we have no further evidence that we should have this extra moral reponsibility to help beyond Kamm’s assurance that our intuitions will move in the way her intuitions presumably move: we have no evidence independent of intuitions for this view. What is more, even if we accept this, it would appear that Kamm would need to say a bit more about distance and *time*. Does it matter if I returned to Chicago from a holiday seven years ago—would my obligation to rescue due to Near-then-Far hold only if I had returned this week? And so on. So many of the substantial points at the end are left a bit underdeveloped and not entirely persuasive, even if Kamm breaks new ground with her analysis of distance and morality (even if not a new problem). Not to overstate my worries, I agreed with at least 90% of what she had to say. It is the odd 10% or so detailed above that I had trouble with.

  13. 13. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | October 4, 2007 12:17 am

    Thom, I definitely think that you are onto something. Once the Overseas Case Poll has had its run, I’d like to run a poll on the Near-then-Far Case.

  14. 14. Posted by Thom Brooks | October 4, 2007 10:04 am

    I think a poll on this case would be terrific and very useful.

  15. 15. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 4, 2007 6:08 pm

    I have a question for the participants here (or anyone else who might answer):

    When participants on this thread (or Kamm) explore the ‘near-then-far’ question and, in so doing, consider the matter in terms of ‘obligations’ and so forth, are they assuming, expecting, or arguing that there is indeed a specific ‘real’ answer to the question, i.e., that there is a principle to be discovered that is burned into the fabric of the universe, or part of that fabric, or burned into human nature? OR, is the quest here to figure out where our logic leads (in terms of the ‘near-then-far’ matter) if we accept, as a given, a certain approach to morality, without expecting that the resulting conclusion is a ‘real’ or universal principle other than within the context of that theory or approach to morality?

    Some brief context to set the stage for considering the question: We humans are born with very few actual ‘rights’ from a grounded natural standpoint—that is, rooted in the warp and woof of the universe itself. The other rights that we consider we have are those we bestow on each other or agree to. And, (as mentioned in a bit more detail in post #4 on this thread), in my view, morality itself is most foundationally ‘about’ the sustainable survival of the human species, achieved in a way that views all humans as equals (in important senses) and that also maintains a plentiful and healthy degree of biological diversity and a healthy planet, which, after all, is home (in my view). We also have our ‘human nature’ (realizing that this is a broad and somewhat ambiguous shorthand term) as well as the other realities of human life.

    I ask the question because I don’t think (in my view) that there is a specific provable or discoverable (or even ‘real’) answer to the ‘near-then-far’ question, if I understand it correctly, of the sort that people seem to be seeking, especially if the question is phrased in terms of ‘obligation’, unless the answer is a simple ‘no.’ Am I missing something?

  16. 16. Posted by Thom Brooks | October 5, 2007 10:08 am

    If you see Kamm’s chapter, then her evidence for the ‘existence’ of a particular view of the Near-then-Far case rests with our intuitions. This view is not Platonist as it does not even suggest the truth is ‘out there’ in some sense. Rather, the ‘truth’ might be found within: if you think about your reponse to the case, then she expects you to move a certain way with this thought experiment.

    The criticism is that at least my intuitions do not lead me to an even similar view and this appears to be true for the others. The dispute is not over ‘right’ (or ‘wrong’) answers, but where our intuitions pull us when we think about this case. This may point towards our being wired in one way or not another–but this is a different issue.

  17. 17. Posted by Jeff Huggins | October 5, 2007 3:32 pm


    Thanks for your helpful response.

    Yes, if the evidence in support of a particular view on ‘near-then-far’ or on similar types of cases rests only on (or predominantly on) intuition, and if people’s intuitions vary widely on many cases where the answers are unclear and in dispute, doesn’t that cast a big doubt on the overall theory?

    To be clear, I’m not suggesting that intuition isn’t helpful. I think intuition is often one very helpful input in considering such cases, among several. But intuitions themselves can be analyzed and explained. We ‘know’ (approximately) where they come from and how they came to be, and why. In my view, resting an argument for a particular viewpoint on one’s intuition is a bit like thinking that the 10th floor of a tall building is really its foundation.

    Am I missing something? (I guess that’s my favorite question on this particular subject.)

    Thanks again.

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