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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: The Paradox of the Benefiting Samaritan

This essay was the winner in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics Graduate Category

Written by University of Oxford student Miles Unterreiner


Question to be answered: Why is it wrong to benefit from injustice?

In the 2005 film Thank You for Smoking, smooth-talking tobacco company spokesman Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is charged with publicly defending the interests of Big Tobacco. Naylor is invited to a panel discussion on live TV, where he faces an unfriendly studio audience; Robin Williger, a 15-year-old cancer patient who has recently quit smoking; and anti-smoking crusader Ron Goode, who works for an organization dedicated to fighting tobacco consumption. Naylor boldly goes on the attack against Goode, accusing him and his organization of benefiting from the well-publicized deaths of lung cancer patients:

Naylor: The Ron Goodes of this world want the Robin Willigers to die.

Goode: What?

 Naylor: You know why? So that their budgets will go up. This is nothing less than trafficking in human misery, and you, sir, ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Many people have the strong intuition that benefiting from injustice is wrong. These persons should be troubled by the type of case Naylor outlines in Thank You for Smoking. Let us call this problem the

Paradox of the Benefiting Samaritan (PBS): The greatest beneficiaries of injustice are sometimes those persons most opposed to it.

Here are two examples of the paradox:

Fake News Media: A colorful and attention-grabbing president is elected who has many unjust aims, some of which he immediately achieves. The media organizations who oppose him most stridently attract the greatest number of new readers and viewers, and their advertising revenues increase dramatically. Had any other president been elected, their revenues would have been significantly lower.

Patriotic Film: A film director plans to release a patriotic film about a group of terrorists who are hunted down by heroic special operations forces. Shortly before the film is released, a real terrorist attack occurs, killing many people. The public is enraged by the attack, and many more filmgoers attend the director’s film than would have had the real attack not occurred. The director becomes very wealthy.

The normative theories of benefiting from injustice currently in circulation are ill-equipped to deal with the Paradox of the Benefiting Samaritan. In this paper, I briefly consider and then reject the two most plausible existing accounts — the first for permitting too many benefits from injustice, the second for permitting too few. I then advance a new theory — the will theory of benefiting from injustice which can help solve the paradox. By “solving the paradox,” I mean satisfactorily explaining the intuition that Goode, the fake news media , and the film director are entitled to retain their benefits, but without abandoning the idea that benefiting from injustice — especially deliberately — can be wrong.

1) Current Theories I: The Beneficiary Pays Principle

Philosophers have advanced several justifications for the claim that beneficiaries of wrongdoing ought to relinquish their benefits. The first of these is the beneficiary pays principle (BPP).

The BPP holds, roughly speaking, that those who have benefited from a wrong may be obligated to help pay for the harms of the wrong.[i] This remedial duty is typically conceived of as a secondary obligation, since it places compensatory duties upon beneficiaries only if the primary duty-bearer — the wrongdoer — cannot be forced to pay the necessary remedial costs.[ii] Holding beneficiaries remedially responsible in this case seems intuitively fairer than forcing Victim, or society at large, to bear the costs of Perpetrator’s wrongdoing.

The BPP is plausible but incomplete. It cannot explain why beneficiaries should relinquish their benefits in at least two classes of case: excess benefit cases and no compensable victim cases.

Excess benefit cases are cases in which the benefits generated by a wrong for Beneficiary exceed the remedial costs required to adequately compensate Victim. No compensable victim cases, by contrast, are those in which the victims of wrongdoing cannot be adequately compensated. This could be for several reasons. First, it could be because victims are inaccessible. Consider

Forced Labor: Victim V is forced into slave labor under totalitarian regime T, generating 100 units of benefit (in the form of lower prices) for Consumer C, a foreigner who lives in a faraway and wealthy country. T does not allow foreigners access to its citizens, meaning that V cannot be compensated for the wrong done to her.

No compensable victim cases also include cases in which the relevant injustice killed victims and their families, leaving no one to be compensated. Consider

Genocide: A genocidal regime G wipes out an entire ethnic group R, melts down their belongings into gold ingots, and transfers the ingots to beneficiary group K.

In Forced Labor and Genocide, the BPP does not prima facie provide a strong reason for obligating the beneficiaries of the wrong to disgorge their benefits, since victims cannot be compensated. This set of cases illustrates a vital and relatively little-noticed fact about the BPP: the principle holds that there is a positive duty to compensate victims of injustice adequately, not that there is a negative duty to avoid benefiting from injustice. In excess benefit  and no compensable victim cases, these duties come apart.

I take it that willingly retaining one’s benefits in Forced Labor and Genocide — say, using them to buy oneself a luxury swimming pool or a Ferrari — would be wrong, that the BPP is therefore too narrow, and that it must be supplemented by another account in order to be complete.

Avia Pasternak has recently attempted to provide such an account. She thinks that beneficiaries do have a negative duty to avoid benefiting from the injustice, and owe an additional voluntary beneficiary penalty if they choose to benefit from an injustice when they could have refrained from doing so.[iii]

2) Current Theories II: The Voluntary Beneficiary Penalty

Avia Pasternak agrees that the BPP is a valid principle.[iv] However, she thinks that voluntary beneficiaries — beneficiaries who actively choose to benefit when they could have avoided doing so — intuitively owe more in compensation than do innocent beneficiaries who benefit unwittingly or under duress. This is because on Pasternak’s account, “moral agents have the duty not to benefit from the suffering of others, or not to take advantage of wrongdoing at the expense of others.”[v]

Pasternak’s conclusion is probably correct, but her justification for it — that agents have a duty not to benefit from injustice — looks too broad to solve the Paradox.[vi] Goode, the fake news media, and the film director all benefit from injustice voluntarily, in the sense that they could have avoided doing so. Yet it would be odd enough to demand that they relinquish a significant share of their benefits; it would be even odder to punish them by requiring that they pay an additional penalty on top of relinquishing their benefits.

I think that Pasternak’s intuitively correct conclusion is best explained not by the BPP, but by the will theory of benefit from injustice (WT).

3) The Will Theory of Benefiting from Injustice

Here is a new principle:

 Will Principle: Voluntary beneficiaries’ duties to relinquish the benefits of injustice vary in proportion to the quality of will which motivates, guides, or drives their decision to benefit.

 The quality of will with which we benefit is distinct from the voluntariness with which we benefit and has different moral implications. To see the difference, consider the following case:

Boss: Chuck is a senior manager at a company and Angela is a junior manager. Angela is incompetent. Chuck fires Angela. The company’s CEO promotes Chuck for his skill in staff management. Chuck happily buys himself a new car.

If Chuck fires Angela in Boss because she is incompetent, then Chuck has not acted wrongly, owes Angela nothing in compensation, and may retain the benefits of his promotion. However, if he fires Angela because she is a woman and he is sexist, then Chuck has acted wrongly, does owe Angela compensation, and is not entitled to the benefit of his consequent promotion.

Chuck’s levels of voluntariness are equal in both variations of Boss — he acts equally freely and deliberately — but his compensatory obligations are very different. We need a theory of unjust benefit that can account for quality of will as well as voluntariness. The will principle supports such a theory.

The will principle has essentially Kantian foundations: it echoes the familiar idea that we have a duty not to use people as a means. More specifically, we have a duty not to use the unjust suffering of victims as a profit-generating mechanism for ourselves, which is a particularly objectionable way to use people as a means. It is bad to use people for the greater good; it is worse to use them for our own good. When we do use victims of injustice in this way, we do worse than simply use them as a means: we use their pain as a means toward our own selfish gratification.

Importantly, the duty not to use injustice as a means to our own benefit is distinct from Pasternak’s more straightforward duty not to benefit from injustice. Using injustice as a means to our benefit requires not only benefiting itself but relating to the injustice from which we benefit in a particular way: it requires using the injustice as a means to our end, rather than a predictable side effect generated as a result of pursuing that end.

On the will theory, knowing merely that an agent has benefited voluntarily from an injustice is not sufficient to know the full extent of her resulting duties. It is possible to benefit voluntarily from others’ unjust suffering with a wide range of attitudes, including regret, indifference, callousness, enthusiasm, greed, or even sadistic pleasure. The set of reasons for which beneficiaries benefit matters in determining their duties, as does the relative weight and primacy of each reason in their motivational set.

This kind of analysis, of course, is familiar from the literature on the doctrine of the double effect: the old idea that, to use Philippa Foot’s phrase, “it is sometimes permissible to bring about by oblique intention what one may not directly intend.”[vii] On the will theory, beneficiaries may more permissibly benefit as a side effect of a very good intention than as the intended result of a very bad one. (Of course, it is likely that they may also permissibly benefit if their concrete contributions to ameliorating the injustice exceed the value of the benefit they derive. I leave these cases aside for now and assume that beneficiaries’ contributions to amelioration do not exceed the value of their benefit.)

4) Ramifications

What are the implications of the will theory? Unlike existing theories, it provides a plausible solution to the Paradox of the Benefiting Samaritan. Goode, the fake news media, and the film director clearly benefit voluntarily from injustice, but as a side effect of pursuing the good. This explains why their compensatory obligations should intuitively be lower than those of agents who, for instance, choose to sell spectator tickets to unjust executions or greedily contract with companies who use slave labor in order to maximize profits.

The will principle is also likely to affect the distribution of compensatory obligations in multiple-beneficiary cases, where several beneficiaries (as often occurs in the real world) have benefited from the same injustice and we must decide who is to bear greater and lesser shares of the victims’ compensatory needs. The will principle can explain the intuitive thought that we should generally assign greater burdens to those who benefit for more objectionable reasons.

Lastly, the will principle helps fills several conceptual gaps in the BPP, since it can explain why it is wrong to benefit in both excess benefit cases and no compensable victim cases.

Ultimately, the will principle should be considered alongside the BPP and Pasternak’s voluntary beneficiary penalty as a new way of grappling with the difficult real-world issue of benefits from injustice.


[i] See, for example, Daniel Butt, “On Benefiting from Injustice.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy Vol. 37 No. 1 (2007), pp. 129-152.

[ii] As Tom Parr writes, “With respect to corrective duties, the primary duty-bearer is the agent from whom the victim

should first seek compensation.” Tom Parr, “The Moral Taintedness of Benefiting from Wrongdoing,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (August 2016), Volume 19, Issue 4, pp. 985–997, at 987.

[iii] Avia Pasternak (2014), “Voluntary Benefits from Wrongdoing.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 31: 377–391, at 377.

[iv] Pasternak, at 377.

[v] Ibid., at 377.

[vi] Tom Parr has made a very similar claim, but grounds the wrongfulness of benefiting in the way it helps fulfill the evil objectives of wrongdoers. I leave Parr’s account aside for now, since he and Pasternak agree that beneficiaries have a negative duty not to benefit from injustice. See Parr, “The Moral Taintedness of Benefiting from Wrongdoing,” at 993.

[vii] Foot, Philippa. “The problem of abortion and the doctrine of double effect.” Oxford Review 5:5-15 (1967).

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