[This is intended as a rapid, rough blog response. It is unedited and unrevised and no doubt contains many errors of spelling, grammar and argument.]

In this chapter, Frances Kamm contrasts her own non-consequentialist ethical theory with Peter Singer’s version of consequentialism, utilitarianism. She examines his general ethical theory and its implications for killing/letting die, treatment of the disabled and animals, and famine relief. I will only offer a skeletal summary of the first half. I will focus on the second half, which for me is incredibly rich and stimulating and more oriented to practical ethics. I will attempt to give a consequentialist response to her arguments in the latter half of the chapter. The first half, however, is of great interest to those involved in normative theory and its foundations. For those interested in more detailed analysis and response to Kamm’s arguments, please move straight to the section 1. The Principle of Irrelevant Goods.

The Overseas Case Poll
By S. Matthew Liao

The Overseas Case is from Peter Singer, as is the

The Pond Case: 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.

See, e.g., Singer, P. Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

These cases are here by popular demand (John Alexander and Tom Douglas). Comments on these cases are welcome here. See also Kamm Chapter 11 for some discussions of these cases. Happy voting.

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.

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.

Just got notice of this intriguing event on Kamm’s book:

The Rutgers Institute for Law and Philosophy, based at the Law School in Camden, is pleased to announce a two-day symposium on F. M. Kamm’s Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm (Oxford, 2007). The symposium will take place on Friday, February 22nd and Saturday, February 23rd, 2008.

Frances Kamm, Littauer Professor Philosophy and Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government and Professor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, will attend, and presentations will be given by Shelly Kagan (Yale), Jeff McMahan (Rutgers), Gideon Rosen (Princeton), T. M. Scanlon (Harvard), and Seana Shiffrin (UCLA).

The purpose of this chapter is to show that concerns focused on the agent can supplement concerns focused on victims in bolstering the conclusion that agents ought not to infringe negative rights, even when the consequences of doing so are clearly better than the consequences of not infringing negative rights. That is, agent-focused considerations can bolster the case against consequentialism.

The chapter focuses on examples originally due to Bernard Williams; Williams himself advanced them to a similar end. The first is the well-known case of Jim and the Indians:


Chapter 9 builds on the topic, introduced in chapter 8, of what happens when there are conflicts between different rights. Previously, Kamm has considered what we (or, ‘an agent’) ought to do when faced with a conflict between different people’s negative rights, and has argued that we should minimise transgression of rights. The discussion of rights becomes more complicated in chapter 9, as she introduces consideration of positive rights, and also looks at the factors (including, but not limited to, interests) that should sway us in the direction of according one right rather than another.

Chapter 8 is intended to give some account of rights based on an independent, and hence potentially explanatorily prior, account of non-consequentialism. Non-consequentialism is to be understood as Kamm defined it early in the book: the denial that right and wrong action is determined by the goodness and badness of states of affairs, where states of affairs need not be pure outcomes but may include acts which have value or disvalue. The chapter is very long, with arguments, examples and bare assertions of intuitively plausible claims densely interwoven. In places this makes it difficult to follow the precise dialectical role that is being played by the assembled components and to decide whether one is being offered a single argument that extends over several pages, or a number of distinct arguments all for the same conclusion. For these reasons, whilst I shall try to give some flavour of the direction of the chapter as a whole, it will be a severe abbreviation, with significant omissions, and the arguments I extract may only partially represent the considerations that Kamm assembles.

The Switches and Skates Case:

By sheer accident, an empty trolley, nobody aboard, is starting to roll down a certain track. Now, if you DO NOTHING ABOUT the situation, your FIRST OPTION [sic], then, in a couple of minutes, it will run over and kill six innocents who, through no fault of their own, are trapped down the line. (So, on your first option, you’ll let the six die).

This chapter on moral status is very short, and also mercifully short on intricate imaginary examples. Kamm quickly takes us through a number of relatively familiar normative distinctions and I will try to be brief in recounting them here.

In the broadest sense, moral status simply refers to, roughly, an entity’s moral properties:

Moral status in the broad sense X’s moral status = what is morally permissible/impermissible to do to X

Now in this broad sense, rocks also have moral status: we’re permitted to do to them whatever we like. In common use, moral status refers to something narrower. Kamm thus turns to:

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