Abstract:

Suppose that five people are drowning on your left, and one person is drowning on your right. You have time to save either the five or the one, but you can’t save all six. John Taurek has famously argued that in such a case, the fact that there are more people on the left should not influence your decision about whom to save, since the aggregated loss of the greater number is not a greater loss to anyone. Persuaded by Taurek’s reasoning but not his conclusion, many non-consequentialists have struggled to find a justification for saving the five that does not appeal to aggregation.

In this paper, I argue that we can respect Taurek’s insight without giving up on aggregation. The solution is simply to aggregate reasons for acting rather than gains or losses to individuals. To motivate this solution, I first clarify the “Numbers Problem” and argue that it is a problem for everyone—not just non-consequentialists. I then explain what it means to aggregate reasons for acting rather than gains or losses to individuals. I argue that the aggregating-reasons approach vindicates Taurek’s fundamental insight and gets the intuitively right results in a wide variety of cases. Finally, I consider and respond to some objections.