University of Kansas, Spring 2004
Philosophy 555: Justice and Economic Systems

Class notes: Unger, chapter 2: “Living High and Letting Die: A Puzzle About Behavior Toward People in Great Need”

The following notes correspond roughly to what we cover, including at least a portion of what I put on the board or the screen, in class. In places they may be more or less comprehensive than what we actually cover in class, and should not be taken as a substitute for your own observations and records of what goes on in class.

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  1. the puzzle
    1. the Vintage Sedan vs. the Envelope
    2. why harshness only toward the former, and not toward the latter as well? (p. 26.5)
    3. five factors intensifying the puzzle
      1. cost ($5,000 vs. $100)
      2. people affected (1 vs. 30)
      3. losses suffered (limb vs. life)
      4. whether victim is responsible (yes vs. no)
      5. whether victim is guilty (yes vs. no)
    4. morally significant differentiating factors resolving the puzzle?
  2. six alleged differences (these are phrased from the point of view of the Envelope; use opposites for the Sedan) (p. 54, n. 16):
    1. worsening the further future (section 4)
    2. governments’ responsibility (6)
    3. helping only a small fraction of needy people (7)
    4. not “cleaning the scene” (8)
    5. urgency (10)
    6. not truly saving someone (12)
  3. nine differences that don’t make a moral difference (these are true of the Sedan; use opposites for the Envelope) (pp. 53.9–54.1)
    1. physical proximity (section 3)
    2. social proximity (3)
    3. informative directness (3)
    4. experiential impact (3)
    5. unique potential savior (5)
    6. emergency (9)
    7. causal focus (11)
    8. epistemic focus (13)
    9. goods and services (14)
  4. Unger’s method for each factor
    1. to show that it is morally irrelevant from the perspective of our “general moral common sense,” reflecting our Basic Moral Values (p. 28.3)
    2. to show that it is morally irrelevant from the perspective of moral intuitions about particular cases (p. 28.3)
    3. occasional discrepancies due to differences in conspicuousness (p. 28.8)
  5. example of the method
    1. general moral common sense—“moral force doesn’t diminish with distance” (p. 33.8)
    2. particular cases
      1. one differing from the Envelope mainly in respect of distance—The Bungalow Compound, to which people react as leniently as to the Envelope (p. 34.3–6)
      2. one differing from the Sedan mainly in respect of distance—the CB Radio, to which people react as harshly as to the Sedan (pp. 34.7–35.2)
  6. clarifications
    1. “hit the issue from just one side” (p. 35.5)
    2. “pretty high epistemic standards” (p. 39.9)
    3. “where people’s great needs are inconspicuous to the cases’ agents” (p. 54.3)
  7. implications of our Primary Moral Values
    1. no moral significance to salience (p. 55.4)
    2. Envelope’s conduct as bad as Sedan’s (p. 55.8)
    3. the objection that this implies that ethics is highly demanding
      • reply: no more so than does a strict judgment towards Sedan’s behavior (p. 56.9)
    4. the objection that different cases fall into different sorts
      • reply: morally relevant sorts already accounted for in factors examined (p. 60.3)