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February 04, 2009


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Right at the start, you say:

"and unless Tom transfers his two doses of anesthetic to Jones"

I think that should be "and unless *Smith* transfers..."


You're right. I've made the correction. Thanks.

I find this hard to answer without knowing more about the background context. In particular, my intuitions turn on whether we have reason to attribute any kind of (perhaps implicit) risk-pooling agreement to Smith and Jones.

I voted (a), on the assumption that the vignette contained all relevant information, so that Smith and Jones are supposed to have no relevant connections (and may be considered to be in a kind of "state of nature" relative to each other). But cultural or institutional norms could very easily change this, I think. (Further, I think we ought to have the sorts of risk-pooling norms that would make (b) obligatory instead.)


You should assume, as you did, that "the vignette contained all relevant information."

Should I have chosen what I would do if I were Smith, or what would be best from the point of view of someone not involved in the case? If I were Smith, I would give the anesthetic to Tom, as according to my intuition I would fulfill all of my duties that way (assuming, say, that Jones wasn't my friend and didn't come to me asking for help). But as a disinterested observer, I think it would be best if Jones could give the anesthetic to Rick and Harry, as then only one person would suffer and only one of three promises would be broken. (Of course, I would have a hard time persuading Smith to give up his anesthetic; and I would understand completely if he didn't want to.)

I voted (a), on the assumption that we should vote as if we were Smith.


Should I have chosen what I would do if I were Smith, or what would be best from the point of view of someone not involved in the case?

Neither. The issue is not what you *would* do if you were in Smith's circumstances nor is it what would be best for Smith to do. The issue is what *should* Smith do in his circumstances.

In this case, I voted for (a). Indeed, I'm somewhat shocked by how many PEA Soupers think that in this case, Smith should break his promise to Tom!

The difference between this case and the previous one is the following: In the previous case, Smith can't avoid breaking at least one promise, and so (in my judgment) it will be worse for him to break his promises to two people (Rick and Harry) than to break just one promise to one person (Tom) -- whereas in this new case, Smith can avoid breaking any promises, by giving the anaesthetic to Tom.

Admittedly, if Smith keeps his promise to Tom, he will thereby fail to help Jones to keep his promise, and he will also fail to spare Rick and Harry from the agonizing pain; but promissory obligations typically trump positive duties to provide aid and assistance, I believe, unless the promise in question is a relatively trivial one, or the evil that can be averted by breaking the promise is truly catastrophic.

I voted for (a) as well, for exactly the reasons that Ralph lays out.

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