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Fellow Strangers: Physical Distance and Evaluations of Blameworthiness

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  1. Following Frances M. Kamm, Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm (OUP, 2006).

  2. See Constanze Binder & Conrad Heilmann, “Duty and Distance,” Journal of Value Inquiry 51 (2017): 558–561 for a further discussion of the question of distance with regards to refugees.

  3. Key texts here include Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence & Morality,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, 3 (1972): 229–243 (and many subsequent developments of this argument) and Peter Unger Living High and Letting Die (OUP, 1996).

  4. The case first appears in Singer op. cit., p. 231.

  5. See Unger, op. cit., pp. 24 and 25.

  6. Singer, op. cit., p. 232.

  7. Unger quickly dismisses the significance of distance to our intuitions, and focuses instead on the related factor of salience, to which I will soon turn.

  8. Importantly I am focusing on the question of assistance. It is far less controversial that we have negative obligations not to harm or exploit others (regardless of whether they are distant strangers), which is not to deny that we often fail with regards to these negative obligations.

  9. Kamm, in particular, has undertaken an extensive project of “equalizing cases,” constructing comparisons where all but one variable is held constant. She argues on this basis that physical distance can have moral relevance in itself; i.e. that nearness can matter from the moral point of view. (See Francesco Orsi, “Obligations of Nearness,” Journal of Value Inquiry 41 (2008): 1–21 for a response to Kamm).

  10. See Soran Reader, “Distance, Relationship and Moral Obligation,” The Monist, 86, 3 (2003): 367–381 and Diane Jeske, “Special Obligations,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall Edition, 2019), Edward N. Zalta (Ed) for overviews.

  11. See Kamm, op. cit.

  12. Unger, op. cit., p. 28.

  13. See Unger, op. cit., p. 41.

  14. Singer, op. cit., p. 233.

  15. See Judith Lichtenberg, Distant Strangers (CUP, 2014), p. 120.

  16. These costs needn’t be construed in a consequentialist sense. Singer’s proposed principle holds that if we can prevent something very bad from happening without sacrificing anything of (comparable) moral worth, you ought to do it. Singer’s phrasing is deliberately ambiguous on the question of what constitutes moral worth. Singer has offered the principle in various strengths, and the weaker iterations do not require a comparable sacrifice.

  17. See, for example, Samuel Scheffler, “Relationships and Responsibilities” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 26, 3 (1997): 189–209.

  18. See Unger, op. cit.

  19. See Lichtenberg, 2014, p. 125. Conversely, though more controversially, some have argued that one can be blameworthy even when you have done no wrong (See Peter A. Graham, “A Sketch of a Theory of Moral Blameworthiness” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 88, 2 (2014): 388–409).

  20. For instance Liam Murphy has argued for far less demanding moral requirements than those proposed by Singer and Unger, on the grounds that morality must be responsive to concerns about fairness. Drawing on the distinction I am emphasising here, Murphy evokes the concept of “blameworthy right-doing” when considering actors who decline to assist (though they could easily do so) beyond their fair share. According to Murphy, what they have done (the act) is permissible, but it is callous and otherwise deficient in ways that render them blameworthy. (See Liam B. Murphy, Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (OUP, 2000), p. 132; See Richard J. Arneson “Moral Limits on the Demands of Beneficence?” in D. Chatterjee (Ed) The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy, (CUP, 2004), pp. 33–58 for a response to Murphy on this question).

  21. Though, as Judith Lichtenberg has argued, even this negative requirement is very difficult to meet in an increasingly extractive and exploitative globalized economy (See Judith Lichtenberg, “Negative Duties, Positive Duties, and the ‘New Harms’” Ethics, 120, 3 (2010): 557–578).

  22. Importantly I am exploring the relevance of these factors to evaluations of blameworthiness, rather than to evaluations of what morality itself requires, or to questions of moral permissibility and impermissibility. In contrast, Soran Reader and Fiona Woollard have both argued that factors, including proximity, are relevant to what morality requires, and to which failures to assist are morally impermissible (See Reader op. cit. and Fiona Woollard, Doing and Allowing Harm, (OUP, 2015)). Reader’s partialist account endeavours to extend what qualifies as an obligation-generating relationship so as to capture the sense in which we owe assistance (even at great personal cost) to the strangers encountered in cases like Pond and Sedan. She contends that a relationship should be obligation-generating insofar as it involves an “actual connection” between agent and patient, and she argues that physical presence is one form that this connection can take. Woollard maintains that morality is responsive to whether the potential-helper is “personally involved” in a crisis, where proximity, personal encounter, and being in a unique position to help all establish personal involvement, and are individually sufficient to require assistance (even at great personal cost).

  23. See Yotam Benziman, “The Ethics of Common Decency,” Journal of Value Inquiry, 48 (2014): 87–94

  24. See Arneson, 2009, op. cit., and Richard Arneson, “What Do We Owe to Distant Needy Strangers?” in J. Schaler (Ed) Peter Singer Under Fire: The Moral Iconoclast Faces His Critics (Open Court, 2009), 267–293. Robert Goodin has also drawn on the distinction with regard to demandingness objections. See Robert Goodin, “Demandingness as a Virtue” The Journal of Ethics, 13, 1, (2009): 1–13.

  25. See J. J. C. Smart, “Free Will, Praise and Blame, Mind, 70, 279 (1961): 291–306; see also Richard J. Arneson, “The Smart Theory of Moral Responsibility and Desert,” in Olsaretti, S. (Ed), Desert and Justice (Clarendon Press, 2003), 233–258.

  26. Arneson, 2009, p. 291.

  27. Arneson distinguishes (following Hare) between “established moral codes” and “critical level morality.” (See Arneson, 2009, p. 289).

  28. Arneson, 2009, p. 291.

  29. Ibid.

  30. See Dana K. Nelkin, “Difficulty and Degrees of Moral Praiseworthiness and Blameworthiness,” Nous, 50, 2 (2016): 356–378.

  31. See Michael Slote, The Ethics of Care and Empathy (Routledge, 2007), 21–25 for further discussion on empathy and proximity.

  32. See Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin, 2017).

  33. As before: there are complications here with regards to questions of harm or justice, which I am trying to isolate. Often nearness is also indicative of being at fault in some respect (of your material comfort being at the expense of other people’s material suffering).

  34. In Bungalow Compound Unger provides a case where you arrive at your holiday Bungalow to find a plea from a local charity asking for money to save sick and dying children, including children next door. Unger posits that our intuitions in this case do not consider failure to assist wrong (See Unger, op. cit., p. 34). Like Woollard, I think we would judge the holiday-maker in Bungalow Compound more harshly than someone in a distant land. As Woollard writes: “It is not okay to sit beside your pool, sipping a margarita, knowing that the orphans are starving next door and doing nothing to help.” Understood through the paradigm I am suggesting, the failure in this proximate case is more blameworthy.

  35. Following Andreas Mogensen, “The Callousness Objection,” in Hilary Greaves & Theron Pummer (Eds) Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues (OUP, 2019), 227–243.

  36. See Anton Markoč, “Draining the Pond: Why Singer’s Defense of the Duty to Aid the World’s Poor is Self-Defeating,” Philosophical Studies, 177 (2020): 1953–1970.

  37. Markoč, op. cit., p. 1964.

  38. See Anthony Feinstein, Bennis Pavisian, & Hannah Storm, “Journalists covering the refugee and migration crisis are affected by moral injury not PTSD” JRSM, 9, 3 (2018).

  39. Scheffler, op. cit., pp. 207 and 208.


I am grateful to the journal editor and readers for their helpful feedback, and to Anton Markoč who generously took the time read a draft of this paper.

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Correspondence to Anna Hartford.

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Hartford, A. Fellow Strangers: Physical Distance and Evaluations of Blameworthiness. J Value Inquiry (2021).

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