Could facts about the spatial distance between you and someone else affect how bad it would be not to help them? Singer (1972) and many others assume not: distance is ethically irrelevant. Kamm (2008) opposes this view. Both arguments depend on a premise which, as Nagel & Waldmann (2013) have discovered, is false. Discoveries in moral psychology do undermine claims to know ethical principles unless Kamm (2008)’s broad approach is misguided.
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In a famous paper, Singer argues that ‘our moral conceptual scheme’ needs to be altered because it yields incorrect judgements.
‘I shall argue that the way people in relatively affluent countries react to a situation [of avoidable suffering and death] like that in Bengal cannot be justified; indeed, the whole way we look at moral issues—our moral conceptual scheme—needs to be altered, and with it, the way of life that has come to be taken for granted in our society’ (Singer, 1972, p. 230).
What kind of argument could show that ‘the whole way we look at moral issues should be altered’? One possibility is that Singer can identify internal inconsistency. Consider the famous example:
‘if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out […] It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away’ (Singer, 1972, pp. 231–2).
To avoid some methodological issues, consider Kamm’s reformulation of the cases:
‘Near Alone Case: I am walking past a pond in a foreign country that I am visiting. I alone see many children drowning in it, and I alone can save one of them. To save the one, I must put the $500 I have in my pocket into a machine that then triggers (via electric current) rescue machinery that will certainly scoop him out’ (Kamm, 2008, p. 348)
‘Far Alone Case: I alone know that in a distant part of a foreign country that I am visiting, many children are drowning, and I alone can save one of them. To save the one, all I must do is put the $500 I carry in my pocket into a machine that then triggers (via electric current) rescue machinery that will certainly scoop him out’ (Kamm, 2008, p. 348)
We might then consider the following argument as a step in the direction of showing that ‘the whole way we look at moral issues should be altered’:
- On reflection, many people judge that not acting in Near Alone is worse than not Acting in Far Alone.
- The difference in judgements is due to the difference in distance between the agent and the victim.
- The difference in distance is not morally relevant.
- Therefore, it is possible to be convinced that there is a morally relevant difference between scenarios even when there is not.
There is much more going on in Singer (1972)’s paper; but the above argument has been influential.
Some philosophers assumed without any or much argument that differences in distance per se are not morally relevant, including Singer himself:
‘I do not think I need to say much in defense of the refusal to take proximity and distance into account […] There would seem […] to be no possible justification for discriminating on geographical grounds’ (Singer, 1972, p. 232).1
By contrast, Kamm (2008, p. 368) argues that ‘proximity2 can alter our obligation to aid.’ That is, Kamm denies premise (3) of the above argument, thereby preventing it from establishing the conclusion (4).
What is Kamm’s argument?
Kamm’s argument for the claim that distance is morally relevant starts with a (lengthy) argument for premise (2) of the above argument, which is about what explains why many people make different judgements about moral scenarios. She notes various potential obstacles to concluding that distance influences judgements,3 and considers various further scenarios. She then concludes the first phase of her argument:
‘My claim is that when the Near Alone and Far Alone cases also both have salient need, it is nearness and not salience that gives rise to our intuition that we have a strong obligation to help in the Near Alone Case. […] when we think we have a strong obligation to aid in the Near Alone Case and not in the Far Alone Case, it is the difference in distance represented by the cases rather than the difference in salience that is determinative of the sense of obligation’ (Kamm, 2008, p. 357).
Kamm’s argument for premise (2) is an essential part of her argument for the claim that distance can alter our obligation to aid (which implies premise (3) of the above argument is false). She insists, however, that we should not accept a conclusion on the basis of moral scenarios without a theoretical basis for it too.4
What is the theoretical basis for thinking that distance can alter our obligation to aid? According to Kamm:
‘one has a moral prerogative to give greater weight to one’s own interests and projects rather than giving equal weight to oneself and to others. This agent-centered prerogative allows us to give weight to things out of proportion to the weight they have from an impartial perspective. […] But possibly, if one takes advantage of the option to give weight to things out of proportion to the weight they have from an impartial perspective, there is also a duty generated from the perspective on life from which one then acts, to take care of what is associated with the agent, for example, the area near her means’ (Kamm, 2008, pp. 386–7, my emphasis).
As Kamm describes this as a possibility, this passage does not appear to contain a ‘a theory explaining why this factor should have relevance’ (Kamm, 2008, p. 379). But I cannot find anything more like a theory, so I interpret Kamm as endorsing the claim she describes as a possibility.
For our purposes, an interesting feature of the debate is that Singer’s and Kamm’s arguments both rely on a premise about what explains why people make different judgements in response to particular moral scenarios (this premise is (2) in the argument above). As in the case of Foot’s method of trolley cases (see Foot and Trolley Cases: Kant Was Wrong), this means that discoveries in moral psychology are directly relevant to their arguments.
This demonstration depends on a series of experiments, the most directly relevant of which involved Kamm’s own cases:
‘people might indeed share Kamm’s (2007) intuition that her Near Alone and Far Alone cases differ slightly in the degree of moral obligation they imply. However, […] It does not seem to be the victim’s nearness which makes people feel slightly more obligated in Near Alone than in Far Alone, but rather the directness with which the victim’s suffering impinges on the agent. At constant levels of directness, distance ceases to be of moral relevance to people’ (Nagel & Waldmann, 2013, p. 243).
But then why are even very careful philosophers like Kamm confident enough to base an argument on the claim that people’s judgements are influences by distance? On Kamm’s key scenarios, Near Alone and Far Alone, Nagel and Waldmann comment:
‘our findings suggest that this difference is not attributable to distance per se, which failed to affect obligation ratings despite considerable statistical power. Rather, the difference can be traced back to a confounded factor, namely informational directness’ (Nagel & Waldmann, 2013, p. 243).
More generally, Nagel and Waldmann noted that earlier studies have confounded distance with factors such as efficacy, the necessity to traverse a distance, salience and group membership. They found that, when confounding factors are accounted for, differences in distance do not explain differences in judgements about scenarios.
So premise (2) of the argument above is false. This prevents both Singer’s and Kamm’s application of the argument.
Why is this significant?
Nagel & Waldmann (2013)’s results have low significance on Singer’s argument, at least taken in isolation. Singer’s argument depends only on judgements being influenced by some morally irrelevant factors.
Nagel & Waldmann (2013)’s results undermine Kamm’s argument, which explicitly depends on premise (2) of the above argument. Indeed, Kamm makes explicit that their results contradict her position:
‘It may be suggested that proximity matters as a heuristic device that correlates with morally significant factors, though it itself is not morally significant. […] But I doubt that these factors explain the apparent moral significance of distance’ (Kamm, 2008, p. 379, my emphasis).
A modest conclusion is therefore that discoveries in moral psychology do undermine claims to know ethical principles unless Kamm (2008)’s broad approach is misguided.
A bolder conclusion would be that we should not rely on ethical arguments that contain premises about why people make judgements unless we have evidence to support those premises. These claims can seem so obvious that they may receive little scrutiny for four decades only then to be overturned.5
An even bolder conclusion would be that we should not trust philosophers’ attempts to defend ethical principles using reasoning and informal reflection alone.6 Kamm was able to construct theoretical justification for a moral principle which, it turns out, the method she uses currently implies should not be accepted. This appears to be a case of providing post-hoc rationalization for a misunderstood distinction.
Update: This postscript is a mysterious. I explain it in Question Session 06. (Thank you Hannah!)
Not enough attention has been paid to the ways in which discoveries in moral psychology are directly involved in some ethical arguments, including those offered by Foot, Singer and Kamm. Recent philosophical discussion has tended to focus on the use of discoveries in moral psychology for supporting debunking arguments (for example, Königs, 2020; Rini, 2016; Kumar & Campbell, 2012; Sandberg & Juth, 2011), typically concluding that discoveries in moral psychology have little or no significance for ethics. It may be correct that the debunking arguments considered do not yield substantive new ethical knowledge. But examining particular ethical arguments shows that discoveries in moral psychology can be important, in a direct and straightforward way, to evaluating arguments in ethics.
Kamm (2008) identifies an important distinction between the claim that some degree or kind of proximity is morally significant and the claim that any difference in distance is morally significant. I ignore her careful use of the terms ‘proximity’ and ‘distance’ in order to simplify as Nagel & Waldmann (2013) show that neither matter for explaining patterns of judgement about scenarios. ↩
Kamm allows, initially, that ‘the different judgments may not be due to distance, as there may still be important differences between these cases besides distance’ (p.~348) and points out that there are some ‘failures to equalize cases, and these factors might affect intuitive moral judgments’ including a failure to equalise the salience of the need (p.~356). ↩
See Kamm (2008, p. 346): ‘We must find morally significant ideas underlying intuitions for the principle to be justified.’ See also Kamm (2008, p. 379): ‘We cannot, I think, truly justify the moral relevance of distance in some contexts without a theory explaining why this factor should have relevance.’ ↩
As Nagel & Waldmann (2013) themselves note, it remains possible that further investigation will show that distance can influence judgements about moral scenarios. But this would be a further surprising discovery, not a vindication of relying on what seems obvious. ↩
A related conclusion has been criticized as an unacceptable form of scepticism (Horne & Livengood, 2017, p. 1206). This must be a mistake. The parallel claim about physical principles, far from being an endorsement of any unacceptable form of scepticism, is widely accepted as too obvious to mention. There is insufficient reason to suppose that unless reasoning and informal reflection alone can yield knowledge of ethical principles no such principles can be known. ↩