Print This Post Print This Post
The Near-Then-Far Case Poll
By S. Matthew Liao

Here’s a case from Frances Kamm which we have discussed previously:

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

Is the obligation to help in this case STRONGER than it would be if you had never been near?

Thanks to Thom Brooks for suggesting to run a poll on this case. Happy voting!

Near-Then-Far Case: Is the obligation to help in this case STRONGER than it would be if you had never been near? [See The Near-Then-Far Case Poll Post for details]

  • No (76%)
  • Yes (18%)
  • Not sure (6%)

Total Votes: 101


Loading ... Loading ...


  1. 1. Posted by Thom Brooks | November 7, 2007 12:46 pm

    An excellent poll to have…and thus far the results are what I expected.

  2. 2. Posted by John Alexander | November 7, 2007 2:25 pm

    I have some questions concerning the results of the polls so far.
    1) How are we to interpret them? What is their epistemic significance in helping us understand what we should do?
    2) For those that answered ‘not sure’ in the surveys where one had to send money to save a child or start a machine that would save a child, do you think that being not sure is a good reason for sending the money or not sending the money?
    3) For those that answered ‘no’ we are not obligated to send money to save a child or to start a machine that would save a child, does that entail that one is not obligated to save a child if there is no cost to saving the child, e.g., one simply has to throw the switch to activate the machine which will save the child?
    4) For those that answered ‘yes,’ did anyone actually send some money to save a child? I have not yet done so.
    5) Has anyone’s position regarding our obligations to give aid been changed as a result of the polls or the discussion of Kamm’s arguments? If so, what about the results of the polls or the discussion initiated the change?

  3. 3. Posted by Wayne Yuen | November 7, 2007 3:49 pm

    I think you’re mis-interpreting the question. The question isn’t whether you have a moral obligation to aid the child, but rather, is the obligation STRONGER because you were close at one point in time, and now far, but aware.

    I voted no. I think the moral obligation is equal in both cases. If I had been near the child, and unaware, but now far and aware, I would have the exact same moral obligation, if I had never been near. To say otherwise would mean that my moral obligation would be somehow stronger if I visited starving children, than if I just knew about them.

    And yes, I donate regularly to famine relief. I think we all have a moral obligation to do so.

  4. 4. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | November 7, 2007 8:36 pm

    Would those who have voted ‘yes’ explain their rationale here? That’d be quite interesting, I think.

  5. 5. Posted by Thom Brooks | November 8, 2007 11:12 am

    I entirely agree with Matthew, given there are so few “yes” votes. Ideally, it would be best to hear a bit more from Kamm on why she believes our intuitions ought to lead us to a “yes” decision on this case.

  6. 6. Posted by John Alexander | November 8, 2007 4:41 pm

    The reason I answered ‘yes’ is because even if I accept the general obligation to eliminate harm, etc., I do not think I am obligated to aid the child when I am near it but unaware of it’s suffering. I do not think it makes sense to say that I somehow violated my general obligation in this type of situation. Being accountable for acting upon the obligation arise only when I know of the child’s suffering and am in a position to do something about it. Distance is not relevant, but knowledge is.

    An interesting question arises as to whether or not I should be aware of what is going on around me and am negligent for not being aware. Should we be on the constant lookout for people suffering?

    Some interesting possibilities arise for those who answer ‘no.’ This could mean either 1) the obligation is the same in both situations, or 2) there is no obligation to aid at all (because I am not the cause of the suffering)therefore the issue of it being ‘stronger’ does not arise. What do those who answered ‘no’ have in mind?

  7. 7. Posted by Jeff Huggins | November 8, 2007 5:16 pm

    When considering the poll question, I wondered whether I should consider, for purposes of the poll, the word ‘obligation’ in a hard binary form or in a more soft continuous form. I considered all answers—Yes, No, and Not sure—and found that, depending on this interpretation and a couple other factors, I could readily have given any of the answers. But, I chose “Yes” in this case. Here’s how . . .

    If one considers the word ‘obligation’ in a sort of “hard”, binary, step-function sense, then one either has an obligation or one doesn’t. In other words, “0” or “1”. In that case, the roughly 27 people who answered “Yes” in the Overseas Case poll should probably have sent their $500 checks by now. Also in this interpretation, the wording of the present poll question is a bit odd, and the question might better have been worded, “Does the situation in this case shift you from having no (hard) obligation to help (if you had never been near) to having an (hard) obligation to help?” In other words, does having been near shift you from “0” to “1”? The word ‘STRONGER’ in the poll question, applying to the word ‘obligation’, implies matters of degree and some sort of a continuum (even if a choppy one) between “0” and “1”.

    If, on the other hand, one considers the word ‘obligation’ in a slightly softer (but still fairly demanding) analog form, involving more of a continuum of degrees of ‘obligation’ or degrees of ‘ought’ (not just one giant step-function), that can, depending also on other factors, lead more easily to a “Yes” answer in the present poll.

    The question I asked myself, essentially, was this: Should I feel at least a slightly stronger tug, a slightly stronger ‘ought’ to send the money, in the present case (having been near) than in the case of not having been near or, in essence, than in the Overseas Case poll? My answer was “Yes” to this question because, in the case of humans and human life, at least to some degree, proximity in location, proximity in time, conscience, and some sort of prioritizing mechanisms are all aspects of how humans work, and they seem to interrelate with each other.

    In a more general sense, there is some “solution space”, of course, and some sort of continuum (even if a non-linear or rugged one), between these two extremes: (A), a pure idealized rational view that we should all be nice to each other, always, and that each person should always save every other person on the planet at all times; and (B), a Scrooge-type view holding that nobody need lift a finger to save anybody else—even his own underpaid clerk’s disabled son—unless or until he has personally been shown the light by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future. Where do particular responses locate themselves, and why, in this continuum? Is the only relevant factor the indirect relationship between Tim and Scrooge via Tim’s father, or do proximity and other sorts of things matter in some way? Although we are all made up of subatomic stuff, including some very small things that seem to shift states in quantum leaps, at a more “macro” level anyhow, humans are a bit more like analog organisms than like binary devices with big step-functions, it seems to me.

    Consider: In my view, morality is most foundationally “about” the healthy and sustainable survival of the human species along with healthy biological diversity along with the sustainable health of our home, planet Earth, all accomplished in a way that respects human equality (in important senses). At the same time, however, the raw material we have to live and work with, among other things, is “human nature”, realizing that this is a rough shorthand term. How might this aim be accomplished in light of the raw material and other realities of the world (e.g., the relative size of one individual and her/his resources relative to the total size of the planet and our human population of 6.5 billion)? To me, it seems that a necessary (or at least helpful) part of the solution might well (and still) involve some role for proximity and for certain specific aspects of human feeling that seem to be tapped in this type of question (e.g., the nagging feeling associated with having been near and not having been able to help in the first place).

    I hope this answer is helpful in some way.



  8. 8. Posted by Jeff Huggins | November 22, 2007 4:46 pm

    As of this post, apparently ten (10) people have responded “yes” to this poll question. It would be interesting to hear the reasoning from some more of the people who responded “yes”. Was your response based on your initial intuition? Intuition plus reasoning? (If so, what was the reasoning?)

    Regarding those who answered “no” to the poll, I have three questions:

    1. Did you answer “no” at least in part because of a “step function” or “binary” view of the word ‘obligation’, that is, that a person either has zero obligation (to do something) or that a person has a complete, binding, and solid obligation (to do something), with no gradations in-between these two conclusions?

    2. If you answered “no” in the poll, was it essentially because you see no obligation to help in either of the situations described in this poll, i.e., whether you had been near to the person at some point or not?

    3. In such a situation as in the poll (a far-away stranger needing help), what specific circumstances do you use to distinguish between those you feel an obligation to help, those that you feel you “ought” to help (but are perhaps not obligated to do so), and those that you choose justifiably not to help?

    Thanks in advance for your time and consideration.



Post a comment

Name: (required)

Email Address: (required) (will not be published)



(Spamcheck Enabled)

This work is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0.