Great Risks from Small Benefits Grow: Against the Repetition Argument


Tom Dougherty (2013) argues that the following moral principles are inconsistent: (α) it is impermissible to benefit many people slightly rather than save someone’s life, and (β) it is permissible to risk someone’s life slightly to benefit them slightly. This inconsistency has highly counterintuitive consequences for non-consequentialist moral theories. However, Dougherty’s argument, the “Repetition Argument,” relies on a premise that ignores the moral distinction between acting with statistical knowledge and acting with individualized knowledge. According to this premise, if it is permissible to make it near certain that a distribution obtains, then it is permissible to bring about that distribution. I will argue that this premise proves too much for the Repetition Argument, and so we should reject it. Finally, to further motivate my argument, I show that a recent objection to the Repetition Argument by James R. Kirkpatrick (2018) does not resolve the alleged inconsistency, whereas my argumentative strategy does.

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  1. 1.

    I am grateful to Tom Dougherty for raising this objection.

  2. 2.

    Thanks to anonymous referee for raising this additional concern.

  3. 3.

    This distinction can be found in the relevant literature on non-consequentialist ethical theories and risk imposition. It may be that further contact or engagement with that literature would yield further insight into the nature and import of the conflict between beneficence and chance that Dougherty alleges. Yet my objection to the Repetition Argument shows that it threatens both consequentialist and non-consequentialist ethical theories. As such, it may be that further engagement with the relevant literature on ethical theories and risk imposition will not give more context to my objection. That said, I acknowledge that non-consequentialist ethical theorizing may be implicated by my use of that objection as a reason to reject Premise III. Thanks to an anonymous referee for bringing this point to my attention.


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Correspondence to Sayid R. Bnefsi.

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Bnefsi, S.R. Great Risks from Small Benefits Grow: Against the Repetition Argument. Philosophia (2020).

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  • Risk
  • Beneficence
  • Chance
  • Aggregation
  • Nonconsequentialism
  • Permissibility