Philosophical Studies

, Volume 174, Issue 11, pp 2743–2767 | Cite as

How you can help, without making a difference

  • Julia NefskyEmail author


There are many cases in which people collectively cause some morally significant outcome (such as a harmful or beneficial outcome) but no individual act seems to make a difference. The problem in such cases is that it seems each person can argue, ‘it makes no difference whether or not I do X, so I have no reason to do it.’ The challenge is to say where this argument goes wrong. My approach begins from the observation that underlying the problem and motivating the typical responses to it is a standard, intuitive assumption. The assumption is that if an act will not make a difference with respect to an outcome, then it cannot play a significant, non-superfluous role in bringing that outcome about. In other words, helping to bring about an outcome requires making a difference. I argue that the key to solving the problem is to reject this assumption. I develop an account of what it is to help to bring about an outcome, where this does not require making a difference, and I use this explain our reasons for action in the problem cases. This account also yields an error theory that explains why the standard assumption is so tempting, even though it is mistaken.


Moral reasons Collective impact Collective harm Difference-making Overdetermination 



I owe special thanks to Niko Kolodny, Alex Rennet, Sergio Tenenbaum, and R. Jay Wallace for extensive discussion of and comments on earlier drafts of this work. I am also very grateful to Joe Campbell, Candice Delmas, Thomas Dougherty, Luke Elson, Elizabeth Harman, Tom Hurka, Ewan Kingston, Markus Kohl, Melissa Lane, Mark LeBar, Alex Madva, Parisa Moosavi, Andrew Newton, Douglas Portmore, Hamish Russell, Carolina Sartorio, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Holly Smith, Tatjana Visak, Henry West, Seth Yalcin, and an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies for helpful comments. Finally, I would like to thank the participants in the 2014 Colloquium in Legal, Political and Social Philosophy at NYU; audiences at Berkeley, McMaster University, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, the 2013 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, and the 2015 APA Pacific Division meeting; and the participants of my 2012 graduate seminar at the University of Toronto.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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