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Relief from Rescue

A Correction to this article was published on 03 October 2021

This article has been updated


Moral extremists argue for highly demanding duties of beneficence on the ground that accepting a more moderate position commits us to denying the common-sense moral intuition elicited by easy rescue cases (such as Singer’s famous drowning child case). I argue that a moderate duty of beneficence is consistent with this intuition in light of what I call aggregationism, the view that the large aggregate cost of performing many low-cost acts of beneficence is relevant to what moral agents may do in cases where they face multiple low-cost occasions to rescue. After demonstrating how the debate between moderates and extremists turns on the truth of aggregationism, I defend aggregationism against the challenge that it is inconsistent with respecting the separateness of persons.

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  1. 1.

    More specific (and permissive) versions of this claim are defended by various people in various ways. See for instance, Garrett Cullity (2003, 2006), Barbara Herman (2001), Violetta Igneski (2008), Richard W. Miller (2004), Liam Murphy (1993), Bernard Williams (1973) and Fiona Woollard (2015).

  2. 2.

    I borrow these labels from Shelly Kagan (1991).

  3. 3.

    Peter Singer (1972) defends the most well-known argument of this kind, though he does not go so far as to conclude that the relatively affluent must sacrifice all self-interested pursuits in the name of helping others. For more recent defenses of extremism that attempt to leverage the ostensible inconsistency of Demandingness and Rescue, see Andrew T. Forcehimes and Luke Semrau (2019) and William Sin (2010). Shelly Kagan (1991) defends a more sophisticated extremist argument by appeal to Rescue.

  4. 4.

    This is not to say that a defense of aggregationism is the only possible way in which moderation could be defended against the extremist’s challenge. But it is, I think, the moderate’s most desirable option, for it would be a defense that grants the extremist everything he thinks he needs, namely the truth of Rescue and the claim that our relationship to the distant needy is relevantly similar to the relationship between the agent and the child in Drowning Child. For an argument challenging this ostensible similarity, see Jordan Arthur Thomson (2020).

  5. 5.

    To my knowledge, only Garrett Cullity (2003, 2006) has devoted significant attention to defending something like aggregationism. Cullity defends what he calls ‘the aggregative approach’ to the question of whether and when beneficent activity would be excessively demanding for an agent. According to this approach, we may answer this question by appealing to the aggregate burden of multiple past acts of beneficence. The aggregative approach therefore presupposes what I am calling aggregationism. Cullity defends the aggregative approach by arguing that if we pursue the alternative ‘iterative approach’, we are forced to accept the absurd conclusion that we can be morally required to assist people in pursuing morally impermissible ends. For replies to Cullity’s reductio, see Richard Arneson (2009) and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard (2005).

  6. 6.

    Cullity believes this question admits of a satisfactory answer, though he opts to argue by reductio that this must be so rather than answer it directly (see note 5). I don’t think the question does admit of a satisfactory answer. Later in the paper, I explain why the question carries a misleading implication that makes it unreasonable to expect the moderate to be able to answer it.

  7. 7.

    Singer (2007, 480).

  8. 8.

    Singer explicitly denies that he offers Drowning Child in support of Sacrifice. Instead, he refers to the intuition that we must rescue the drowning child as the result of an “application” of Sacrifice. However, as Anton Markoč (2020, 1958 fn5) correctly notes, there can be no doubt that the rhetorical appeal of Sacrifice is owed in large part to Drowning Child, which Singer routinely presents alongside (and prior to) Sacrifice in various fora. Indeed, Singer is so often taken to argue for Sacrifice on the basis of Drowning Child that it would be appropriate to regard this as the standard interpretation of his argument. Fortunately, my argument does not turn on facts about how Singer himself sees the relationship between Drowning Child and Sacrifice.

  9. 9.

    Singer is committed to an even stronger principle according to which we are morally required to prevent bad things from happening whenever the costs of doing so are not “nearly as important” as the bad we would prevent (Singer 2009, 15). Here, I focus on the weak version because it is more directly supported by Rescue and because it is sufficient to generate demanding duties of beneficence given the sheer number of poverty-stricken individuals whose suffering is preventable at insignificant cost to relatively affluent individuals.

  10. 10.

    Rather than accept extremism, Fishkin believes that the extremely burdensome implications of The Principle of Minimal Altruism should lead us to reformulate at least some of our ground-level assumptions about “the ethics of individual responsibility and obligation” in order that our moral commitments be applicable to large-scale issues. It does not occur to Fishkin that we could consistently accept Rescue and deny The Principle of Minimal Altruism (at one point, he explicitly conflates the principle with the intuition). But we can accept the intuition without accepting the principle, as I argue below.

  11. 11.

    To make the analogy with the copyright law more straightforward, we could rephrase the easy rescue principles as exceptionless restrictions on failing to perform the act-type low-cost rescue.

  12. 12.

    Of course, this does not demonstrate that the easy rescue principles are false. At this stage, I am merely pointing to a gap between Rescue and the principles. Later, I will argue that the truth of aggregationism fills this gap in such a way that the extremist cannot found his position upon Rescue.

  13. 13.

    Let me emphasize that I do not take this by itself to establish the truth of moderation. I remind the reader that my goal is to defend the appeal to aggregate cost in defending moderate duties of beneficence. Specifically, I aim to show that the moderate need not deny the truth of Rescue. This is a significant step in the direction of defending moderation given that the most common and intuitively damning charge the moderate faces is that she is committed to denying Rescue.

  14. 14.

    I interpret Forcehimes & Semrau as presenting arguments meant to challenge aggregationism. This is actually a slight mischaracterization of their target, though it is well-motivated. Forcehimes & Semrau’s explicit goal is to undermine a claim they call “Agglomeration Matters” according to which “The deontic status of a particular Optimific Saving token is partly a function of what one has done before or will do after” (19). Agglomeration Matters is similar, but not equivalent to, the view that I have been calling ‘aggregationism’. Agglomeration Matters is broader in a way that makes it far less controversial than aggregationism. To see how, suppose that Lisa could save more children per day if she took a five minute break every hour to rest her weary arms than she could if she rescued children continuously until her muscles were too fatigued to rescue any more. Plausibly, Lisa may take the breaks. If this is right, it follows that Agglomeration Matters. The fact that defending Agglomeration Matters by appeal to welfare gains to patients does not advance the dialectic in the moderate’s favour demonstrates that Forcehimes & Semrau have set their sights on an unnecessarily broad target. Moreover, the details of Forcehimes & Semrau’s criticism of Agglomeration Matters make clear that their real target is the idea that one can legitimately appeal to aggregate agential burdens in the name of defending moderate duties of beneficence. In short, their real target is aggregationism.

  15. 15.

    Forcehimes & Semrau also claim that some such views will be problematically arbitrary in that they will lack a principled means of accounting for the fact that they demand X number of low-cost life-saving acts rather than X+1 or X-1. I do not have the space to give this worry a detailed treatment. It will have to suffice to say that (a) views which posit a moderate threshold need not be arbitrary [Forcehimes & Semrau explicitly recognize that Liam Murphy’s (1993) view is not subject to an arbitrariness challenge] and (b) my argument for the consistency of Demandingness and Rescue does not commit me to a view that is arbitrary in this way.

  16. 16.

    I assume that significant fat and sugar consumption is a (more-or-less) direct cause of diabetes. Whether and to what extent this is true is an open scientific question. Thankfully, this fact is irrelevant with respect to the philosophical point I aim to make.

  17. 17.

    For that matter, neither will one cigarette.

  18. 18.

    If that were the case, then Augustus would be permitted to refuse every offer he receives (since every offer would involve a significant burden, namely a severe stomachache and indigestion).

  19. 19.

    Here, I assume that people have a pro tanto moral reason to bear minor burdens for the sake of saving others from disappointment, showing appreciation for their hospitality, and so on.

  20. 20.

    See footnote 1 for arguments in favour of limits on the demands of beneficence in the context of global poverty.

  21. 21.

    Many celebrities, in fact, find themselves in just such a position. They have so many fans requesting to pose with them for ‘a quick photograph’ that they could spend their entire lives in front of a camera. Clearly, it is permissible to refuse some such requests.

  22. 22.

    Surely, we have a pro tanto duty to avoid turning up our noses at our neighbour’s hospitality (or our colleague’s generosity, etc.).

  23. 23.

    It has been suggested to me that we could interpret Cullity’s Question in such a way that “the next person” does not pick out a unique claimant in a sequence but simply whomever would be helped if the agent in question were to help one more person. On this reading, the question becomes, “Why not one more?” which is a roundabout way of asking for a justification of a particular threshold (relative to others). Any complete moderate theory must defend whatever threshold is being proferred. My goal here is to defend aggregationism so as to position the moderate to make that defense. As things currently stand, her extremist opponent is not interested in hearing any such defense because he is convinced that no moderate threshold whatever could be consistent with Rescue. My goal here is to defend the moderate against this charge. Demandingness is perfectly consistent with Rescue.

  24. 24.

    I borrow this credit metaphor from Sin (9). Cullity (2006) also uses it in passing, acknowledging that it is an “odd sounding idea” (84).

  25. 25.

    This sequential way of framing things is hard to resist. Sin adopts it in assessing Magic Button as a situation which presents the holder of the button with a decisive reason to press it every minute. Forcehimes & Semrau also commit themselves to it in assessing Timmerman’s Drowning Children case, explicitly characterizing it as a case which “iterates [Singer’s] Drowning Child” (18).

  26. 26.

    See the references in footnote 1 for relevant discussion.


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For their insightful comments and advice, I am grateful to Shruta Swarup, Sergio Tenenbaum, Richard W. Miller, and two anonymous referees at Philosophical Studies.



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Thomson, J.A. Relief from Rescue. Philos Stud (2021).

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  • Moral demandingness
  • Moral extremism
  • Moral moderation
  • Beneficence
  • Poverty
  • Separateness of persons