1. Beneficence and the Demands of Morality
(1) Beneficence and the demands of morality
(2) Demandingness: three strategies
(3) Aggregation: Counting lives
(4) Headaches and human lives
1. Philosophy and real life
Peter Singer’s now classic paper ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ was published in an early issue of what was then a new journal, Philosophy & Public Affairs. Along with the writings of such philosophers as John Rawls, Brian Barry and Thomas Nagel (in the US) and Bernard Williams and Philippa Foot (in the UK), the work published in the journal marked a shift in Anglo-American analytic moral philosophy from the linguistic and metaethical questions that had characterised ethics in the 50s and 60s – the nature of moral language, etc – to substantive, ‘first-order’, normative questions.
Singer’s paper has some justly trenchant words for those who would distinguish sharply between theory and practice:
What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously? In this instance, taking our conclusion seriously means acting upon it. … The philosopher who does so will have to sacrifice some of the benefits of the consumer society, but he can find compensation in the satisfaction of a way of life in which theory and practice, if not yet in harmony, are at least coming together.
2. Two principles and an illustration
If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.
If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.
… if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.
Singer’s principle has been misinterpreted as an induction from a single instance (i.e. the shallow pond example); to put it bluntly, it isn’t, and it would be a sloppy argument if that were the case. It’s a deduction from his more ‘moderate’ principle, though consistent with the stronger.
The stronger principle makes much more radical demands on us, potentially requiring us to give money away until we have reduced ourselves to extreme levels of poverty. Singer prefers the strong version, but notes that even the moderate principle calls on us to make some pretty radical changes in our lifestyles.
But where’s the argument for either principle? Is it supposed to be self-evident? Maybe. It could also be the fact that if true, these principles would ground our intuitive response to the drowning child (and other examples of that sort), and explain those responses better than any alternative principle.
3. Observations about Singer’s argument
(1) Perhaps the most radical thing about Singer’s principles is not what they say but what they don’t: if those principles are right, then the mere fact of distance (spatial or otherwise) is morally irrelevant – except insofar as it makes a difference to what it is in our power to do. In the age of globalisation and ultra-fast communication technologies, we have the power to do vast deal more good than people even a hundred years ago. This, quite properly, changes what we can have a duty to do. Singer’s view is revisionary; it flies in the face of what is called ‘common-sense morality’, but that’s the point; common-sense morality can often be a polite term for mere prejudice.
(2) Singer has in his other work defended a version of utilitarianism, but makes a point of not presupposing it (or any other moral theory) in this paper. The argument and the principles defended here are supposed to be theory-neutral.
(3) Singer doesn’t think living according to his principles would be supererogatory (i.e. something it would be good, even admirable, to do, but not strictly something we ought to do); on the contrary, he thinks they’re obligations. This very probably means that not to do what his principles enjoin would be, simply, wrong. This could be because, as a utilitarian committed to the maximisation of happiness as the fundamental moral principle, he doesn’t really recognise the category of the supererogatory. But given this paper’s explicit theory-neutrality, it’s more likely that Singer thinks even our everyday idea of the supererogatory, once we properly reflect on it, will show us that
(4) The fact that not to act on Singer’s principles would be wrong does not necessarily entail that someone who didn’t act on them would be, for that reason, blameworthy. Nor would it necessarily imply anything else about their motives or characters.
(5) Singer is open-minded about how best to respond to the ethical demands he has tried to show we have; he thinks it an empirical question which interventions do the most good. This paper suggests that individual donations of money might be the way to go, but ultimately, this claim must be tested with rigorous social science research.
(6) Singer is focused primarily on the actions individuals can take, though this could include lobbying governments or joining a larger movement. Indeed, there is a large and flourishing movement, ‘Effective Altruism’ that has emerged in the last decade inspired in good part by Singer’s arguments. Will MacAskill’s Doing Good Better is a good recent account of the movement’s principles and aims.
4. Modus ponens or modus tollens?
P1a. If Singer’s extreme principle is right, then we are morally required to give away money until we have reduced ourselves to near-poverty levels.
P2a. Singer’s extreme principle is right.
Ca. Therefore, we are morally required to give away money until we have reduced ourselves to near-poverty level.
P1b. If Singer’s extreme principle is right, then we are morally required to give away money until we have reduced ourselves to near-poverty levels.
P2b. It is not the case that we are morally required to give away money until we have reduced ourselves to near-poverty levels.
Cb. Therefore, it is not the case that Singer’s extreme principle is right.
These are both valid arguments; at least one of them must be unsound. Which one is it likelier to be? And which premise(s) are the dodgy ones? Logic can’t tell us that. We need to think through our substantive ethical commitments.
5. Possible reasons to favour the modus tollens
Some philosophers have accepted P2b on the grounds that not to do so would make morality excessively demanding. This can be expressed as an internal constraint on what could be a true (or valid or acceptable) moral principle; i.e., it counts against a moral principle that it makes excessive demands on those whom it applies to. Morality can’t be that demanding!
Alternatively, one might accept that morality can be demanding in just that way, but so much the worse for morality. Rather than trying to gerrymander our moral principles so that they fit with our ‘intuitive’ sense of what is and isn’t a reasonable demand, we should accept simply that this is what morality requires, but that this gives us reason to reject morality.
Suggested reading for next week
Liam Murphy, ‘The Demands of Beneficence’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 22 (4): 267–292 (1993). [JSTOR]
Susan Wolf, ‘Moral Saints’, Journal of Philosophy 79 (8): 419–439 (1982). [JSTOR]
Martha Nussbaum, ‘If Oxfam ran the world’, London Review of Books, Vol 19 No 17, 2 September 1997: 18–19. [URL]
Larissa MacFarquhar, ‘Extreme altruism’, The Guardian 22 September 2015. [URL]
2. Demandingness, Fairness and the Authority of Morality
- Recap: Two principles and an illustration
‘If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.’ (aka the Extreme Demand)
‘If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.’ (aka the Moderate Demand)
The Shallow Pond. ‘… if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.’
The stronger principle – radically individualist in its emphasis on what the individual moral agent is required to do and making no concessions to our commonsense ideas of what morality may reasonably ask us to give up – demands much more sacrifice of us, potentially requiring us to give money away until we have reduced ourselves to extreme levels of poverty. Singer prefers the strong version, but notes that even the moderate principle calls on us to make some pretty radical changes in our lifestyles. It has been alleged that this is excessively demanding. Is it?
- The life-saving analogy
Singer’s example of the drowning child is presented in his original 1972 essay as entailed by both his extreme and moderate principles, but it has come to enjoy a prominence disproportionate to its role in his original argument. The example has haunted readers since the paper’s original publication and is one of the few pieces of analytic philosophy to have had widespread influence on non-academic culture. An excellent recent book by Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning, has profiles of a number of people who’ve been shaken by Singer’s argument to change their lifestyles.
As Garrett Cullity puts it in The Moral Demands of Affluence, the general structure of the example is this:
… if I were confronted directly by the great need of someone whom I could help at negligible cost to myself, it would certainly be wrong not to help. So unless being confronted directly makes a difference – and why should it? – the same should be said about giving money to aid agencies.
According to the life-saving analogy, it is wrong not to donate your time and money to humanitarian aid agencies, because refusing to do this is, in a morally relevant way, like failing to save someone’s life right in front of you. … these two sorts of inaction are morally analogous because both amount to a failure of practical concern for others’ interests – by definition, a failure of beneficence.
- How helpful is the life-saving analogy?
There are several ways in which donating to charity is not like saving a particular person’s life, and as such, the shallow pond scenario doesn’t quite map on to international aid.
– No simple relation between rescuer and rescued
– Indirect causal relationship
– Bystander is alone, and uniquely placed to help
– Emergency situation
Could the analogy be revised? E.g. Imagine a large pond where there are hundreds of children drowning, but several bystanders who can all help without sacrificing anything of (comparable) moral importance. Using this as our analogy brings in a new consideration: fairness. What would be a fair way of distributing the burden of helping among all those in a position to help?
It also brings into focus something many people find missing, or not adequately accounted for, in Singer’s approach and that of the Effective Altruist movement, namely, that international poverty might need not just an individual ethical response but a collective, political one. Attempts to politicise the question may well be used as excuses for inactivity, but must they be only that?
The new analogy also makes it natural to ask structural questions about why people need rescuing in the first place. E.g. why are all these children drowning? Where are the grown-ups? Why hasn’t someone built a fence around this dangerous pond? Couldn’t we add some warning signs, and employ a lifeguard near the lake when the park is open? It is not that Singer’s views can’t accommodate these thoughts; it’s simply that they point towards various possible courses of action that could all have some claim to embody his basic insight, but are quite different from his principle.
- Iterative and Aggregative Approaches
Cullity distinguishes between an ‘iterative’ and an ‘aggregative’ approach to beneficence. By an ‘iterative approach’, Cullity means one that treats each additional threatened life as if it were the first – insofar as this is relevant for calculating just how much an affluent agent owes. An ‘aggregative approach’, on the other hand, limits the affluent agent’s obligations by reference to the aggregate cost of his contributions so far.
A representative view in the debate on beneficence that adopts the aggregative approach is the ‘Fair Share view’ defended by (e.g.) Liam Murphy, Moral Demands in Non-ideal Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). On such a view, the overall burden of contributing to the collective action of helping the world’s poorest is to be divided fairly among all those on whom it (i.e. the burden) falls; beneficence is a co-operative project. This is because – Murphy thinks – demands of beneficence need to meet a ‘compliance condition’: principles of beneficence should not demand more of agents as expected compliance by others decreases.
Cooperative (as opposed to ‘Simple’ or ‘Individual’) Principle of Beneficence: each person should perform the action, of those available to her, that will make the outcome best except in situations of partial compliance, when the agent is only required to sacrifice as much as she would have been required to sacrifice in a situation of full compliance.
In other words, we are obliged to give only our fair share of what would be required if everyone were giving, even if very few are actually giving. Given how affluent the world’s affluent are, this could be as little as £300 a year.
Questions: What do we do about the fact that most people aren’t giving their fair share? If there were five bystanders and five drowning children, and four of them walked away, would it be enough for me to stop at saving one?
- The Presuppositions of Beneficence
‘What are the presuppositions of supposing that—not just others’ interests, but—any consideration provides me with a good reason for acting?’ [Garrett Cullity, The Moral Demands of Affluence, 104]
Cullity draws on elements of Bernard Williams’s views of practical reasoning:
‘A man may have … a ground project or set of projects which are closely related to his existence and which to a significant degree give a meaning to his life’; ‘[these] do not have to be selfish … Nor do they have to be self-centred’. [Bernard Williams, “Persons, Character and Morality,” in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 1–19)]
Cullity argues: If these commitments [i.e. to the pursuit of my ground projects] are a precondition of my recognizing a reason to do anything, I cannot coherently accept that I have good reason to abandon them. A view that gives me no greater reason to pursue my own fulfilment than anyone else’s is simply unlivable: for if I recognize practical reasons at all, I cannot adopt this view of them.
But it may be objected: can’t a life meeting Singer’s extreme demand (or something like it) still have some substance? The principle ‘does allow us to remain committed to personal projects and relationships: it is just that it instructs us to restrict our pursuit of these commitments as much as we bearably can.’ [Cullity, Demands, 105]
If Williams’s view is taken to its natural conclusion, it cannot be read as an attempt to limit the demands of beneficence while accepting the rest of ‘common-sense morality’. It involves a radical challenge to at least some elements of common-sense morality, in particular, its commitment to there being something that’s right for everyone, no matter what they happen to care about. On this view, the trouble with these arguments is not that they demand too much of something. It’s rather that they demand the wrong sort of thing, something morality lacks the (rational?) authority to demand.
Next week: Paradoxes of aggregation
Reading: GEM Anscombe, ‘Who is Wronged? Philippa Foot on Double Effect: One Point’ [PDF]
III. Counting Lives: The Problem of Aggregation
- The problem of aggregation
Philosophical questions about beneficence frequently run into deep problems about the possibility or defensibility of aggregation (of people, interests, utility, rights, etc).
Take this famous (infamous?) statement of the problem:
We are about to give to a patient who needs it to save his life, a massive dose of a certain drug in short supply. There arrive, however, five other patients each of whom could be saved by one fifth of that dose. We say with regret that we cannot spare our whole supply of the drug for a single patient, just as we should say that we could not spare the whole resource of a ward for one dangerously ill individual when ambulances arrive bringing in victims of a multiple crash. We feel bound to let one man die rather than many if that is our only choice. Why then do we not feel justified in killing people in the interests of cancer research or to obtain, let us say, spare parts for grafting on to those who need them? [Philippa Foot, ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’; emphasis added]
- Can we do wrong if no one is wronged?
And this famous (infamous?) response:
Suppose I am the doctor, and I don’t use the drug at all. Whom do I wrong? None of them can say: ‘You owed it to me.’ For there might be nine, and if one can say that, all can; but if I used it, I let one at least go without and he can’t say I owed it to him. Yet all can reproach me if I gave it to none. It was there, ready to supply human need, and human need was not supplied. So any one of them can say: you ought to have used it to help us who needed it; and so all are wronged. But if it was used for someone, as much as he needed it to keep him alive, no one has any ground for accusing me of having wronged himself.—Why, just because he was one of five who could have been saved, is he wronged in not being saved, if someone is supplied with it who needed it? What is his claim, except the claim that what was needed go to him rather than be wasted? But it was not wasted. So he was not wronged. So who was wronged? And if no one was wronged, what injury did I do? [Elizabeth Anscombe, ‘Who is wronged?’]
- The ‘Saving the Greater Number Principle’ (henceforth, SGN)
Other popular philosophical examples with a similar structure
Lifeboat: A rescuer with a lifeboat can either rescue five people, or one person, from drowning, but not all six people.
These (Lifeboat, Drug, etc) are cases involving scarcity of some valued resource, which don’t appear to involve the violation of rights. Though each individual may have a claim to be treated appropriately, it can’t be reasonably maintained that her claim isn’t satisfied simply if and because she isn’t rescued.
The saving the greater number principle (or SGN principle) will direct us to save the five in each case (so start counting heads!)
What’s the deeper basis for this principle? Consequentialist theories provide the easiest way of doing this. Following the SGN principle will allow you to maximize goodness without violating rights. (By the way: it’s unclear what’s implied by this theory in cases where there are rights violations (think: the footbridge variation on Foot/Thomson’s trolley case, Bernard Williams’s Jim having to shoot one South American villager to stop a sadistic general from ordering his minion to shoot twenty – and tend to be problem cases for the consequentialist.)
SGN seems to generate the right result for the right reasons. But does it?
- Taurek’s ‘Numbers Scepticism’
John M. Taurek [ ‘Do the Numbers Count?’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 4. (Summer, 1977), pp. 293-316] is sceptical about SGN. His classic paper, which elaborates the points of contention in the Foot-Anscombe debate has two targets.
Taurek is hostile to the SGN principle ultimately because he’s hostile to ‘the Aggregation Claim’, i.e. that we will realise more impersonal goodness by saving the five, rather than the one.
- The Equal Greatest Chances Principle
Don’t the five have, collectively speaking, a greater combined claim than the one? Taurek finds this reasoning ‘difficult to understand’ (p. 295):
Surely, say Taurek’s opponents, from ‘the point of view of the universe’, since there is nothing special about any of these six persons, it is a worse thing that these five should die while this one continues to live than for this one to die while these five continue to live.
It is a worse thing, not necessarily for anyone in particular, or relative to anyone’s particular ends, but just a worse thing in itself (p. 304). Note that these opponents are committed to something like impersonal value; things can be good without their being good for someone.
- Taurek’s reply
For each of these six persons [in a conflict case] it is no doubt a terrible thing to die. Each faces the loss of something among the things he values most. His loss means something to me only, or chiefly … because of what it means to him. It is the loss to the individual that matters to me, not the loss of the individual. But should any one of these five lose his life, his loss is not greater a loss to him because, as it happens, four others (or forty-nine others) lose theirs as well … Five individuals each losing his life does not add up to anyone’s experiencing a loss five times greater than the loss suffered by any one of the five. (1977, p. 307; emphases added)
The idea that we should save the most lives can be defended on the grounds that doing so would produce the most good: a consequentialist justification. But consequentialism is itself controversial.
Geach’s worry: Is there such a thing as ‘predicative’ rather than ‘attributive’ goodness? [Peter Geach, ‘Good and Evil’, Analysis, 17 (1956), pp. 32–42]
As applied to Taurek:
Taurek does not even see how speaking of ‘goodness’ and ‘betterness,’ as opposed to ‘goodness for’ and ‘betterness for,’ is to be understood in such cases. Certainly it is better for the one if he is saved and better for each of the five if the five are saved, but what does it mean to say that it is better, period, if the five are saved? [Weyma Lübbe, ‘Taurek’s No Worse Claim’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 36 (2008), pp. 69– 85]
Foot’s worry: ‘we go wrong in accepting the idea that there are better and worse states of affairs in the sense that consequentialism requires.’ [Philippa Foot, ‘Utilitarianism and the Virtues’, Mind New Series, 94 (1985), pp. 196–209.]
- Taurek’s (?) Equal Greatest Chances Principle (EGC)
Rescuers are required to assign to each person the highest chance of being rescued, conditional on everyone else having the same chance of being rescued.
Taurek’s reasoning can be reconstructed roughly along these lines (this pertains especially to the Drug case we started with).
P1. We are morally required to show equal concern and respect to each individual.
P2. If we give the drug to the five, each of them is given a 100% chance of survival, but the one is given no chance of survival.
P3. If we flip a coin (or used some such randomising device), each of the six individuals gets a 50% chance of survival.
P4. Giving each individual an equal chance of survival is a better way of showing equal concern and respect than giving a 100% chance of survival to the five and 0% chance of survival to the one.
Therefore, we are not morally required to save the greater number (i.e. it would not be wrong if we saved the one rather than the five). We should (= are required to? are permitted to?) flip a coin, or similarly randomise, instead.
Next week: Can enough headaches outweigh lives?
Recommended reading: Norcross, Alastair (1998). ‘Great Harms from small benefits grow: How death can be outweighed by headaches’. Analysis 58 (2):152–158. [JSTOR]
IV. Transitivity, Continuity and Lexical Superiority
- Lives for Headaches
Consider the following argument:
1. A headache is bad.
2. Bads can be aggregated across persons to form worse bads. (Aggregation)
3. For every bad x, there is a bad of lesser weight y, enough (i.e. a large but still finite quantity) of which will outweigh the disvalue of x. (Continuity)
4. If A is better than B, and B is better than C, then A is better than C. (Transitivity)
C. There is some number of headaches such that the relief of those headaches is sufficient to outweigh the good life of an innocent person. (Lives for Headaches)
[Based on the opening passage of Dale Dorsey, ‘Headaches, Lives and Value’, 36 itself referring back to arguments in Alastair Norcross, ‘Great Harms from Small Benefits Grow: How Death can be Outweighed by Headaches’]
The conclusion is (at least) counterintuitive. But the argument is valid. (See for yourself.) If the conclusion is false, then at least one of the premises of the argument must be too. Which one(s)?
- Denying aggregation?
(1) is pretty hard to deny. If you’re doubtful, imagine choosing between two lives for yourself: identical in every respect except that in one you’ll have one more headache. Which one is better?
Denying (2) is a possibility. But we saw last week that it is extremely hard both to deny the judgements about the betterness of saving the greater number of lives or to justify those judgements without implicitly accepting some form of aggregation. For more on this, attend the lectures on Contractualism in Lent Term.
In the form we’re considering today, the view was memorably defended by CS Lewis:
We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk about “the unimaginable sum of human misery.” Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there can ever be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain. (CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
Should we accept the italicised sentence? Derek Parfit argues not (‘Innumerate Ethics’). Why need a sum of suffering be felt by a single person any more than it need be felt by one person at one time? If suffering felt at different times is more suffering, then so is suffering felt by more than one person.
- Denying transitivity?
Maybe ‘better than’ and ‘worse than’ (unlike most if not all comparative relations) is not transitive: ‘A is worse than B, and B is worse than C, but A is (or can be) better than C.’ E.g. ‘x beatings outweigh one death, and xn headaches outweigh one beating, that amount of headaches would not outweigh one death’
Difficulty: Why should ‘better than’ and ‘worse than’ be so different from ‘taller than’ and ‘shorter than’? (Apart from the need to avoid Lives for Headaches, that is!)
- Denying continuity?
Dorsey proposes denying Continuity:
Saving someone from death is lexically prior in value to the relief of headaches. In other words, [other things being equal] though headaches are bad, no amount of headaches equal the badness of death. 
What is lexical priority? Think of a dictionary. When arranging a word starting with the letter ‘A’ and one with the letter ‘B’ in alphabetical order, even if the first word is ‘azoospermic’ (one of the last A-words) and the second word is ‘babaganoush’ (one of the first B-words), the A-word will always have priority. There is, to put it metaphorically, nothing a B-word could do to get priority to an A-word.
A famous historical example: John Stuart Mill on how pleasures can differ in both ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’, which was the basis for his famous distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures.
Mill could be read as denying Bentham’s ‘monism’ about value. Take monism (as Dorsey takes it) to be the following view:
there is one index of things that are good and things that are bad, and that this index, if it includes different objects, activities, etc., is composed of things that are similar in kind. [n. 11]
Monism plays an important role in arguments for Lives for Headaches. E.g. Norcross’s argument in ‘Comparing Harms: Headaches and Human Lives’, 138–9.
For each misfortune short of the worst possible one, there is a worse misfortune that can be individually outweighed by a sufficient number of the lesser one. In particular, it seems plausible that there is some misfortune short of death, perhaps some kind of mutilation, that can, if suffered by enough people, outweigh one death. Consider now a sequence of judgments, S, that begins as follows: one death is better than n1 mutilations; n1 mutilations are better than n2 xs (where x is some misfortune less bad than mutilation). S continues with the first term of each comparison being identical to the second term of the previous comparison, until we reach the last two comparisons: nm−2 broken ankles are better than nm−1 mild ankle sprains; nm−1 mild ankle sprains are better than nm mild headaches. If we have S, we can conclude, by the transitivity of ‘better than’ that one death is better than nm mild headaches. In which case, we must reject [the view that avoidance of death outweighs any number of headache].
Dorsey points out that this argument works only if monism is true, i.e. if
the dimension of bodily injury (most plausibly, hedonism) is the only dimension along which these various states of bodily injury can or should be measured – as if there is only one underlying index of value that might operate in considering the badness of states of bodily injury.
But what if pluralism is the better view? Suppose
a broken ankle carries with it a certain degree of pain, while the next point in the sequence carries with it slightly more pain, but that a broken ankle and not the very next point in the sequence is compatible with the achievement of some other index of value [e.g. the realization of some important life plan we cherish]. […] Though on a hedonist or other monist dimension, the two points look as though they could clearly be traded off against each other, when we import a further dimension of value to which these various hedonic achievements may be instrumental, this becomes far less plausible.
If we can make some pluralist view of well-being work, then that gives us grounds for thinking that Continuity may not always be true. This is so especially if there are independent grounds for thinking (as most people’s intuitions about Lives for Headaches suggests) that not all goods are straightforwardly subject to trade-offs.
And if we can defend the ‘axiological’ claim that no number of mild headaches can outweigh a human life, that will give us a better way of defending various ‘deontic’ claims about human rights. As Judith Jarvis Thomson puts it, ‘surely it is on no view permissible to kill a person to save billions from a minor headache’ [The Realm of Rights, 169]
Papers mentioned in this lecture: Alastair Norcross, ‘Comparing Harms: Headaches and Human Lives’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 26 (1997) [PDF] and ‘Great Harms from Small Benefits Grow: How Death can be Outweighed by Headaches’, Analysis (1998), pp. 152–8 [JSTOR]. Dale Dorsey, “Headaches, Lives and Value,” Utilitas 21, no. 1 (2009): 36. [PDF]