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Fellow-Citizens, Foreigners, and Statistical Lives

Like many in the UK, I was gripped last week by the reports from Wales about the search for four trapped miners, and saddened to hear of their deaths. Readers outside the UK perhaps heard nothing, or very little, about this story, thought it dominated the news here. One important reason for that, of course, is that most of us care much more about fellow-citizens than foreigners, and about identifiable people than merely ‘statistical lives’. 

That we care is a mere fact. But since the days of David Hume many philosophers have claimed that we can take moral sentiments of this kind as the foundation for our ethics, and indeed that such sentiments can be the only such foundation. So our attitudes might justify our spending much more on saving the lives of identifiable fellow citizens rather than those of foreigners or unidentified people in the future.

Imagine some group of beings like us, except that these beings cared much more about people born on Tuesdays than those born on other days. (Their so caring is a brute fact, and does not rest on, say, any religious or superstitious assumptions about Tuesdays.) Even sentimentalists about ethics will probably wish to claim that there is something dubious about this differential attitude. But that raises the question whether we should say the same about a preference for identifiable fellow-citizens.

 The property of being an identifiable fellow-citizen is not clearly morally irrelevant in the way that being born on Tuesday is. Indeed, it seems similar in important ways to the property of being one’s child, and most of us think that this is a property of great moral relevance when we are deciding how to spend our scarce resources. But there is of course one big dissimilarity: in most cases, a parent has deep personal relations with a child, and these could be taken to ground a parent’s giving greater weight to the interests of her child over those of others. The fact that such a relationship is lacking in the case of identifiable fellow-citizens suggests that the property of being an identifiable fellow-citizen may well be morally as irrelevant as that of being born on a Tuesday.

 Should we, then, try to avoid our bias towards identifiable fellow-citizens? In the utilitarian tradition, some radical thinkers have occasionally argued that we should seek complete impartiality, not giving priority even to the interests of our own children over the interests of others. It has plausibly been said in response that, though from the utilitarian point of view the priority we do give is almost certainly far too great, trying to be completely impartial – given our psychology, evolutionary history, and so on – would be quite likely to be self-defeating.

 I think a similar argument can be mounted in defence of the special concern we have for  identifiable fellow-citizens. So is everything all right as it is? Far from it. What we must do is build upon that care and concern and, as Peter Singer puts it, ‘extend the circle’ to include foreigners and statistical lives. We do not have to choose (other than in bizarre philosophical examples) between saving people from mines and spending more on helping foreigners or saving statistical lives. We can, and should, do all of these things.


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23 Comment on this post

  1. A couple of briefing points prompted by tour post, Roger :
    You may well have followed the story of four miners, but if your concern was due to their proximity as fellow-citizens, I wonder why your concern was directed towards them rather thant towards four stroke victims in the Radcliffe Infirmary?
    I think that there is another mechanism at work as well as proximité.
    Secondly, your Tuesday example is different in an important and unmentioned respect from fellow-citizen bias: one can reasonably assume that just about everyone has some fellow-citizen to care for them. The analogy would therefore be better if your example had the population divided into seven groups, each of which cared for those born on a specific day. This brings out the point that it is quite easy for a utilitarian to accept the proximity bias – it's practical, simple, and ensures a certain rough justice…

    1. Thx Anthony. Quite agree with your first point — that's why I said fellow-citizenship is *one* reason. There's also something about the horror most of us feel at the prospect of being trapped in the dark. Not so sure re the second point, since it will make a big difference if – as is the case now — groups of fellow-citizens have vastly different levels of resource to call on. But I do agree with you that in a more egalitarian world the problem of bias towards fellow-citizens could pretty much disappear.

  2. In the spirit of the exposition/focus in this excellent post, readers might find especially interesting the following articles:

    1) On pages 64-71 of "Reasonably Partiality Toward Compatriots" (2005, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 8: 63-81), and elsewhere, David Miller provides a strong argument (roughly) for (the alleged moral justification behind) bias towards identifiable fellow citizens. The argument purports to identify the characteristics that morally justify partiality among and toward group members such as family members and close friendships. The argumentative strategy is to identify these characteristics in groups for which partiality toward the group members is much less controversial than nation-states. After identifying these characteristics, the argument proceeds by trying to show that nation-states possess these characteristics, in which case the factors that morally justify partiality among and toward family members and close friends (are supposed) also morally to justify partiality among and toward compatriots. Miller provides a more detailed account of this claim in other writings. In the rest of this article, Miller goes on carefully to discuss how to balance "local duties", such as those to our compatriots, with "global duties" such as those to the global poor (from his nationalist perspective).

    2) On pages 3-9 of her paper "Does Obligation Diminish With Distance" (2005, Ethics, Place and Environment 8: 3-20), and elsewhere, Gillian Brock sketches several leading candidate arguments for bias towards identifiable fellow citizens. Roughly, Brock (and others) argue that if we look very closely and carefully at many proposed moral justifications for partiality toward compatriots, we will (allegedly) see that these moral justifications actually provide grounds for cosmopolitan positions that extend (bias/concern, etc.) well beyond nation-state borders.

    3) Also relevant to the analogy with the family that David Miller discusses in the article listed in (1) above (and partly discussed in the post above) are the following two articles, A and B:
    A) David Miller. 2002. Cosmopolitanism: A Critique. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 5: 80-85.

    B) Thomas Pogge. 2002. Cosmopolitanism: A Defence. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 5: 86-91.

    Any interested readers are welcome to view and/or download a document that summarizes my course on Global Ethics/Justice that (is in large part precisely on these and related matters, and that) I teach (and try to improve/develop every year) on my little philosophy website:

    I always welcome constructive feedback!

    1. Thx David. Wish I could attend your global ethics course! These refs. are v. helpful. I'd recommend also a wonderful piece by John Cottingham: 'Partiality, Favouritism, and Morality' (Phil. Quarterly 1986).



      1. Thanks for your kind words, Roger. Surely the greater wish here is mine to have you involved in/with my Global Ethics course in any way!

        More importantly, we all can learn much from this post. For just one example, it helps us think about different ways of "extending the circle" and reminds us that we need not think in terms of false, extreme, or radical dichotomies between saving/helping local people in need, on the one hand, and spending more on helping foreigners or saving statistical lives, on the other hand.

        In addition, for purposes of agreement or disagreement, Pogge's arguments seem particularly relevant here. Roughly, one of the most important aspects of many of his arguments is that what we need to end global poverty and suffering is not more aid, not more donations, not more "help" or "charity" (though the sentiments behind such things might arguably carry much value), but rather we need to stop imposing unjust global institutions on the global poor: we need to stop doing business with many of the worst human rights violators in the world, we need to stop selling weapons to human rights violators, we need to stop signing business treaties with human rights violators, we need to stop lending money to human rights violators (,we need to stop violating human rights ourselves)… we need to provide recompense for the harms that we (arguably) impose on the global poor. Although such claims remain contentious and require contextual analysis on a case by case basis, it is sad to discover just how widely these claims seem to apply across the world, international organizations, transnational corporations, wealthy and powerful nation-states, and agreements of various sorts among such entities.

        Following the lines of thought/argument that your post provokes reminds me of a curious aspect of the dispute between liberal nationalists such as David Miller, Samuel Scheffler, and Will Kymlicka, on the one hand, and cosmopolitans such as Thomas Pogge, Gillian Brock, and Simon Caney, on the other hand. Miller, Scheffler, and Kymlicka all seem explicitly to concede that we have global duties not to engage in exploitative labor practices around the world, that we should not engage in practices that enable human rights violations around the world – roughly and in short, that we should not impose the kinds of harms on innocent others that Pogge repeatedly emphasizes. Unless I keep missing something, although liberal nationalists tend to concede these points in the abstract, they usually do not discuss them in detail (especially not in the kind of detail that taking them seriously seems to require). In other words, there seems to be considerable moral (as opposed to empirical) agreement between several liberal nationalists and prominent cosmopolitans. Part of the problem seems to be that liberal nationalists such as David Miller do not (sufficiently?) discuss what is involved in the empirical details behind their aforementioned concessions (perhaps not unlike Nozick, for all his genius, failed to realize the problems – and great depth in – implementing his rectification principle). One notable exception in this regard among apparent forms of liberal nationalism is the very interesting and developing work by Richard W. Miller. Pretty high on my reading lists (and I hope/imagine those of many others…).

  3. The concept of "fellow citizens" presumes a unitary state that citizens are either in our out of. Doesn't the "fellow-citizens" category begin to dissolve into meaninglessness in the face of the reality of multiple levels of sovereignty and cultural identification?

    An English aficionado of rugby or cricket might not identify the Welsh as fellow citizens at all, at least not during a match. A few centuries ago, nobody in England would have made this identification. In feeling differently, you've chosen the UK as your national frame rather than England. Which is fine, but you've chosen it, or accepted a frame presented by the media.

    How would you have reacted (and what emotions would your media have tried to cultivate) if the miners had been in the Republic of Ireland? Would the reactions have been different if they had been in Northern Ireland and thus in the UK?

    If you had felt similar "fellow-citizen" feelings toward Irish Republic miners, would this have been because you are all European citizens? Or would it be because you share an archipelago that has no political meaning but that — like all lonely archipelagos — conveys a subconscious sense of being alone together against the universe? Or would it be because the miners probably spoke English?

    To completely lose interest in the concept of "fellow citizens" come visit Vancouver, Canada. Here, we are officially told that cities three time zones away are full of "fellow citizens," while Seattle — which is just down the road and which is profoundly like Vancouver in culture, economy, values, geography, architecture, climate, coffee, and microbrews — is full of "foreigners." Blessed with the world's most arbitrary border, Canadians have had to develop a postmodern sense of nationality that has served them well in the world.

    1. Some of Will Kymlicka's work seems relevant here. Very roughly, he has argued that 1) we need a certain kind of culture for freedom, and meaning, in life, 2) we need something like nation-states for the relevant kind of culture required for freedom, so 3) if we care about freedom we had better care about nation-states. In addition to his work in liberal nationalism, Kymlicka's work on the needs and rights of minority cultures is very important and welcome. Big tensions seem to remain between these two strands of his excellent work, and he continues to make much progress in resolving/addressing them.

      Of course, I could never begin to speak for Kymlicka. Nonetheless, let me try to highlight just a few potentially relevant claims/points. Kymlicka provides very subtle and insightful analyses of seemingly simple factors such as a common language, a common territory, what such factors make possible, and the roles that such factors allegedly serve in the efficient and peaceful functioning of liberal democratic states. I cannot begin to do justice to Kymlicka's account of and work on societal cultures. Nonetheless, I wish to call attention to its apparent relevance here. Bearing in mind Kymlicka's work on multinational federations, we might do well to keep alive questions about the roles that nation-states do (or do not) serve in maintaining societal cultures and the important aspects of life that they may well provide/make possible.

  4. Thanks, David and Jarrett. David, I think you're quite right to note that potential tension in nationalist writings. One source is that these philosophers often tend to operate at a certain level of abstraction. So none of them, I expect, would want to accept all the rules that determine citizenship at present in, say, the US or UK. They are suggesting that, given our nature and history, there is a possible world, not so metaphysically distant, in which nation-states serve certain morally valuable purposes, which they may or may not serve effectively at present. It is a deep problem in such philosophy — identified brilliantly in the second chapter of Sigwick's *Methods of Ethics* — to explain why we should seek to actualize one possible world rather than another. (This is one of the many places in which Rawls was influenced by Sidgwick: here we see the beginning of the ideal/non-ideal distinction.) And, Jarrett, I think you are quite right to point out how arbitrary and contingent nationality is, and to raise the question of why it should be priviliged rather than other properties. I wouldn't call myself a nationalist (if that requires giving such priority). Rather, what I was suggesting was that we remain aware of the value of partialities (and also aware of course of the terrible skewing of evaluations they cause).

    1. Thanks again for helpful ways of framing thought about these matters, Roger…

      Arguably we can find more common ground in these debates than many people acknowledge. Seeking institutional alternatives that do not harm the global poor (or that impose much less harm than current global institutions/arrangements arguably impose) does not require us to care less about fellow-citizens generally or particular fellow citizens (such as members of our favored religions, organizations, neighborhoods, or circles of friends, for instance). Acknowledging past, recent, and/or current injustices that we impose on more vulnerable people in impoverished regions, and seeking alternative practices that avoid such alleged injustices, does not require us to care equally for compatriots and foreigners, or for family members and strangers. In these terms, many cosmopolitan reforms seem compatible with liberal nationalism.

      On the other hand, although I think Kymlicka's work should give us serious pause, Jarrett's points seem hard to resist. Consider/imagine U.S. corporations that have factories both in Texas and Southern California, on the one hand, and in Mexico, on the other hand. Compliance with U.S. labor laws inside the former factories and not inside the latter factories seems morally arbitrary in seriously objectionable ways. Then again, most prominent liberal nationalists state clearly that their views do not permit exploitative labor practices, unfair trading practices, agreements, contracts, and treaties, as well as many other central cosmopolitan concerns. Not violating the human rights of foreigners any more than compatriots seems to meet without compromising some of the most important elements of both liberal nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Although providing for the economic, cultural, and social rights of foreigners and compatriots is of course more contentious, disagreements among the many contentions too often seems unnecessarily to eclipse or obscure the aforementioned common ground. No? Yes? Maybe?

  5. Thanks, David. As you might predict, I'd say 'Yes' to this. But note that what counts as an injustice may itself depend on whether one accepts e.g. nationalist partiality (so a cosmopolitan is more likely immediately to think that the labour practices in the TX/Mexico case are unacceptable).

  6. "We do not have to choose (other than in bizarre philosophical examples) between saving people from mines and spending more on helping foreigners or saving statistical lives. We can, and should, do all of these things."

    That is a cop out. Every unit of resources and time spent on saving proximate miners is one unit less spent on far more effective aid causes elsewhere. Given the state of the world, we can say that the bundled resources spent on saving miners meant that we opted to let hundreds or thousands more of our fellow and equally innocent humans to death through starvation or easily preventable disease. Nationalism is deeply at odds with the idea of the equal moral value of every human born.

    It is psychologically easy to understand why many prefer to aid the miners. But morally indefensible and anyone taking time to read these comments is likely intelligent enough to realize that. Then there is no excuse. YOU can dismantle your nationalist tendencies. So your should dismantle them.

  7. Thx Adi. I agree that national and other biases are not rationally defensible. But my point was that a gradual move away from them, rather than trying to overcome them all at once, might be a more effective strategy. You may be right that we should leave trapped miners where they are. But I'm inclined to think that, given the way people are now, if they were able to do that then they would be less motivated to help temporally and spatially distant strangers than we are now.

    1. Thanks for the reply. I'm not sure what you mean by "we" now. If you mean the set of individuals who read this, grasp consequentialism and accept it or at least accept something close to it then I'd argue that we should rid ourselves of nationalistic tendencies immediately and focus our funds and time where they do most good. If you with "we" meant we as a whole society or polity then I agree that a gradual dismantling of nationalism may be more productive. But that is relevant mostly for those actively engaged in parliamentary politics right now or those about to vote or move into organized politics. But for us reading this, as individuals, my first stance is what is relevant I think. Next time we reading this get a paycheck or have money to spare we should allocate as much as we can spare for maximum aid effect.

  8. Very well stated as usual, Roger! Reminds me of the details behind Peter Railton's account of sophisticated consequentialism in his 1984 paper "Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality". Of course, one need not accept consequentialism in order to appreciate your point. Seems like convergence on moral truth to me and I am a staunch moral anti-realist!

    1. Thx Adi and David. Adi: I agree — this is a largely 'political' issue. To be honest, though, if someone had waved a collection tin for the miners in front of me a few weeks ago, I would have contributed. I tend to think that any moral motive is to be encouraged, even if it rests on false beliefs! David: Yes, Railton says a lot of useful things. But I think the best statement on the relation of utilitarianism to common-sense morality remains that of Sidgwick — though I admit there is still more work to be done on that front. Unlike Railton, Sidgwick recognizes — or half-recognizes — that morality itself is a device to be used by utilitarians (so in a sense they're not offering a 'moral theory' in the usual sense). So utilitarians should be moral anti-realists too — but they needn't be anti-realists about our reasons for action in general.

  9. "Imagine some group of beings like us, except that these beings cared much more about people born on Tuesdays than those born on other days. (Their so caring is a brute fact, and does not rest on, say, any religious or superstitious assumptions about Tuesdays.) Even sentimentalists about ethics will probably wish to claim that there is something dubious about this differential attitude."

    Well I for one don't wish to claim there's anything dubious about this attitude, though it is – of course – rather difficult to imagine us all caring and valuing people in this way!

    Compare this scenario:
    "Imagine some group of beings like us, except that these beings cared much more about people born to one particular family than those born to other families. (Their so caring is a brute fact, and does not rest on, say, any religious or superstitious assumptions about families.)"

    But these beings ARE us, or are – at least – the royalists among us, of which there are still many! Must we offer a reason why we give members of *that* family special treatment, other than the fact that they are the royal family, and that the royal family matters to us in special ways? If you insist we must, then you are making a presumption of equality – but what, then, is your reason for saying that everyone matters equally, even in respects that conflict with the judgments of virtually everyone but the starkest utilitarians? Why should your opponent accept the burden of proof?

    1. Thx Simon. I wldn't say that royalist preferences are brute. They rest on various dubious views about history, divine right, national identity, and so on. Nor am I trying to shift the burden of proof. All one can do is report on how things appear to one on the basis of serious reflection. My guess is that a lot of royalists would find that their preferences wouldn't survive such reflection. But if they did, I'd either have to come up with some explanation of the royalists' error more plausible than they'd be able to come up with about me, or continue the debate (on a level playing field).

      1. In a way it's difficult to argue with someone as reasonable as yourself, Roger, but I'll give it another go!

        You suggest in the post that our special attitudes toward our own children and our moral reasons for spending extra resources on them may be grounded in our "deep personal relationships" with them, and that there is no such grounding for special atitudes towards identifiable fellow-citizens. But haven't you got the order of explanation about our relationships with our children backwards here? Surely, our "deep personal relationships" with our children in fact either consist in, or result in part from, the way in which we treat them as deserving of special preference when we distribute our scarce resources (not just monetary resources, of course, but also resources of time, attention, emotional commitment and so on). A child who was always treated in an impartial utilitarian way by its parents simply wouldn't have a deep personal relationship with them – a point like the one Bernard Williams made when he said that a utilitarian would have "one thought to many" when making a decision about whether or not to save their spouse. So treating these "deep personal relationships" as grounding our moral reasons sends us around a vicious circle – the deep personal relationships themselves can't be morally justified unless there are already moral reasons to provide the special treatment that is necessary for them to exist in the first place.

        1. Thx Simon. Well, I'm a Pyrrhonist, and I'm not sure how many people would allow that to count as reasonable! (Though of course *I* think it is!)

          I see what you mean about personal relationships, and it may be like that in some cases. But parents might give priority to their children *just* because they love them, without any thought of desert or entitlement or other moral notions. Myself, I find it hard to see how such partiality — which is really just a fact about how we are — could in itself ground reasons for action (without one's saying quite a lot more). But I don't think the argument needs to be quite as circular as you suggest.

          1. Thanks Roger, but perhaps you partly missed my point. I'm not saying that parents with deep personal relations with their children must *think* about them as deserving special treatment, I'm saying that they must in fact *treat* them specially if they can. This goes for love as well, which isn't just a mental state. Imagine a very neglectful father, who does nothing to address his child's needs and wants and not because he cannot but just because he isn't motivated, but imagine that he still has whatever subjective feeling toward the child it is that we would usually associate with love. Couldn't the child reasonably complain that she is unloved by her father, whatever his protests about his feelings? But if parental love in part consists in special, preferential treatment, then if you also claim that it grounds moral reasons for special treatment, you must be saying that it's a morally self-justifying behaviour. And this seems at best implausible.

            Suppose, then, that you accept that you can't give a good account of why we have reasons for special partiality toward our children. Then our special concern for our fellow-citizens and special concern for our children is on a par morally. Whatever arugments you then use to reject special concern for fellow-citizens will now apply equally against our special concern for our children. And I would hypothesize that, if faced with a reflective choice between impartiality between all (insofar as impartiality is psychologically possible), and partiality towards some (where that group will include our children, our wider families, our friends, our colleagues in our workplace, our townspeople, our fellow-citizens, our species, and so on), most people will choose the latter.

  10. Thx Simon. You say:

    'But if parental love in part consists in special, preferential treatment, then if you also claim that it grounds moral reasons for special treatment, you must be saying that it’s a morally self-justifying behaviour. And this seems at best implausible.'

    If I understand you, your claim is that the mistake here is a kind of 'is/ought' error, moving from 'I give special treatment' to 'There 's a moral reason for giving special treatment'. But the position in question might include some further premises, in particular a premise relating deeply held sentiments and moral reasons (a la Hume, on one reading of him).

    Is it possible to defend partiality towards children and impartiality regarding citizens and non-citizens? On the kind of position I've just sketched, it would be, since most people do not have *deep* sentiments favouring fellow citizens. And, anyway, one might insert further premises into one's argument about justified partiality's requiring a genuine relationship with the object of one's partial concern.

    1. "Deep" sentiments for our children are supposed to ground the moral difference here, on the view you're sketching. I'm not sure exactly what "deep" means here, but let me recall your example about a population who care "much" more about people born on Tuesdays than about others. When you asked us to imagine them, were we or were we not supposed to imagine them having "deep" sentiments (or, perhaps, "genuine relationships") with these Tuesday-born people, or not? If we were, then why are the "deep" sentiments/genuine relationships connected to being born on Tuesdays (but not parental ones) "clearly morally irrelevant", as you said earlier? Let's in any case imagine people with "deep" sentiments like that now. If you say that their preference for the Tuesday-born still can't be justified, then you can't maintain your argument for partiality towards our children. If you say that it can be justified, then you and I might have less a moral than an empirical disagreement – about what is the nature of most people's sentiments towards their fellow citizens. I'll admit that there is *something* different about most people's sentiments toward their children and toward their fellow citizens. But I can't agree that the differences between these sentiments make such a large moral difference as you're forced to claim – so that one group of sentiments is morally important, the other morally irrelevant. Why should this be?

      1. Thx Simon. Well, I'm inclined towards impartiality anyway. But it seems to me more plausible that one has some special obligation to another because of a genuine personal relationship one has to that person (they are a friend, have cared for one in the past, or whatever). A merely biological relationship (such as that of parent to child) seems to many sufficient for special obligations, but this does sound to me like a 'Tuesday' case.

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