What is the point of helping?
In some cases, a group of people can bring about a morally bad outcome despite each person’s individual act making no difference with respect to bringing that outcome about. Since each person’s act makes no difference, it seems the effects of the act cannot provide a reason not to perform it. This is problematic, because if each person acts in accordance with their reasons, each will presumably perform the act—and thus, the bad outcome will be brought about. Recently, Julia Nefsky has argued that this problem is solved by rejecting the assumption that if an act makes no difference with respect to an outcome, then the act cannot do anything non-superfluous toward bringing that outcome about. Nefsky suggests that, even if an act makes no difference, the act may nevertheless help: it may make a non-superfluous causal contribution. If this is right, it means that the potential effects of an act may give us a reason to perform the act, even if the act wouldn’t make a difference. In this paper, I offer some reasons to be wary of Nefsky’s approach. I first argue that her account generates problematic results in a certain range of cases, and thus that we may have no reason to help in any case. I then argue that, even if we do sometimes have a reason to act when it seems we cannot make a difference, this reason cannot be the one that Nefsky identifies.
KeywordsCollective harm Collective impact Collective action Difference-making Helping
Many thanks to an anonymous reviewer for truly helpful comments. And special thanks to Cheshire Calhoun and Doug Portmore for extremely helpful comments, discussions, encouragement, and advice.
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