Department of Philosophy
Saving Lives and Statistical Deaths
Kantian contractualists, like Rawls and Scanlon, claim that aggregate benefit and burden, the currency of consequentialist reasoning, has no role to play in determining what it is morally permissible for a person to do. Call this the ‘irrelevance thesis’. Whether it is remotely plausible has been widely discussed. But the discussion has largely focused on highly idealized cases, in which we face a choice of benefitting a few or a great many, and we also know, with certainty, what the implications are of different choices for the distribution of benefits and burdens across the population in question. In this paper, I take up a distinct, but related challenge to the irrelevance thesis: that when we make the more realistic assumption that all we know is the likelihood, or probability, of any given person ending up better or worse off as a result of a choice, consequentialist reasoning about what morality requires we choose starts to look like the only game in town. I argue that this challenge can be met, but doing so requires re-thinking how contractualism is widely understood.
200 University Avenue West
Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1