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Cross Post: When Can You Refuse to Rescue?

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Written by Theron Pummer

This article originally appeared in the OUPBlog

 You can save a stranger’s life. Right now, you can open a new tab in your internet browser and donate to a charity that reliably saves the lives of people living in extreme poverty. Don’t have the money? Don’t worry—you can give your time instead. You can volunteer, organize a fundraiser, or earn money to donate. Be it using money or time, there are actions you can take now that will save lives. And it’s not just now. You can expect to face such opportunities to help strangers pretty much constantly over the remainder of your life.

I doubt you are morally required to help distant strangers at every opportunity, taking breaks only for food and sleep. Helping that much would be enormously costly. It would involve a lifetime of sacrificing your well-being, freedom, relationships, and personal projects. But even if you are not required to go that far, surely there are some significant costs you are required to incur over the course of your life, to prevent serious harms to strangers.

For starters, you are morally required to rescue a stranger drowning right in front of you, even if it involves a significant sacrifice of money or time. Rescuing distant strangers by donating to charity is different in several ways: the strangers are far away, you can’t see them, and many others can help them. But none of these differences precludes a moral requirement to aid distant strangers. Consider an imaginary case in which someone is drowning thousands of miles away. While you cannot see them, you have excellent evidence that you can save them by pressing a button that would instantly put a lifebuoy within their reach. Many others can help, including governments who are both morally and legally required to rescue those imperilled on their territories. However, you’re confident they will not help, even if you try to get them to. In this imaginary case, it still seems you are morally required to press the button, even if it involves a significant sacrifice of money or time.

Next suppose we add to this imaginary case that you’ll face an indefinite sequence of opportunities of this sort. Once an hour, you will face another opportunity to save another distant drowning stranger by pressing the button once more, each hour at the cost of a bit more money or time. Now it seems that, even if the cost you’d incur on each occasion is slight, you’re not morally required to help on each occasion. The total cost over the course of your life would be enormous. But even if you are not required to incur an enormous lifetime cost, there are still some significant costs you are required to incur in responding to opportunities to prevent serious harms to strangers, whether they are near or far.

At what point are you morally permitted to refuse to rescue distant strangers? How much must you give, over the course of your life? These are extremely difficult questions. First, what you are required to give depends on what you have. Those with plenty of resources and well-being can be required to incur greater costs over their lives than those with little. Second, even holding fixed one’s resources and well-being, it is unclear where to draw the line: you’re required to sacrifice an hour to save a life, but you’re not required to sacrifice a decade—where’s the cutoff in between?

In chapter 6 of my book The Rules of Rescue, I explore the surprisingly neglected question of when you are required to help. Existing literature tends to focus on how much you are required to help. For example, suppose that you’re required to use at least roughly 10% of your lifetime resources (money and time) helping distant strangers. But does this mean you must spend the first several years of your adult life saving strangers, taking breaks only for food and sleep, until you’ve reached the 10% mark? Presumably not. According to a more promising interpretation of this lifetime requirement, it is permissible not to help on any given occasion if it remains possible for you to give 10%. But what if you are quite unsure whether you will help enough later, if you don’t start helping now? It is plausible that a morally decent person would help now rather than delaying. I would argue that you are permitted not to incur a cost in helping now, if you reasonably expect you’ll have incurred a great enough lifetime cost in helping others. At least, under these conditions you needn’t incur a cost now to act as a morally decent person would.

This invites further questions. What if you’re a saint in your 20s, sacrificing and helping much more than you could be required to do over the course of your life? It may seem implausible that you could then spend the rest of your life chilled out sipping margaritas. Moreover, even if charitable giving is like the drowning stranger case in that each situation can generate requirements to aid strangers, might there still be morally relevant differences? Can you permissibly let a stranger drown right in front of you, whenever you reasonably expect that you’ll have incurred a great enough lifetime cost in helping others? Imagine telling a drowning stranger that you’re giving so much money and time to charity already that you refuse to incur the small additional cost of saving their life. Most of us share the intuition that this is morally different from the case of refusing to give more to charity. But is this intuition rationally defensible?

I look at these questions and more in chapter 6 of my book. Other chapters explore such topics as: requirements to help more people rather than fewer, the praiseworthiness of altruism, special connections to those we can help, and whether we’re morally required to be effective altruists. The book is open access, and a PDF will be freely available upon its release this winter.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. I do not know what this implies—if anything. It almost sounds like a variant of the Trolley Problem, or something like conditional ethics/morality. If this is what is suggested, it really does not differ greatly to what is viewed now as morally or ethically correct….part of my notion of contextual reality, or making things up, as we go, based on interests, preferences and motives. Much, if not most, of that stems from postmodernism, and, in my view, the relativism that has so-frustrated the Pope. Not that I am wrapped up in that myself, but I understand HIS frustration, shared by others who would lead empathic lives. If it is possible to save a life under one set of circumstances, it follows that such action(s) ought to be possible under a similar set. Unless one does not have the time or wherewithal to do so….a totality of circumstances may change things. Or, colloquially, things are not always, nor in all ways, as they appear. Moralists might assert that conditional ethics/morality is/are no better than none at all.

  2. Here is a rejoinder/rebuttal to the inquiry. The answer is, whenever an outcome holds no interest, preference or motive for you. Am I my brother’s keeper? No. Neither am I my brother’s savior. That lofty chair is always already occupied by one representative or another. Only the strong survive? This is mostly true, yet, merit changes things. Stephen Hawking was weak in the metaphorical sense; strong in an intellectual one. He lived longer because of will and medicine….and, a recognition of genius. We still do not have a grand theory of everything. May not even be near it. There are other thinkers who may change that…I doubt it. Who is the next great genius? Did anyone ask this, prior to Copernicus? Galileo? Newton? I doubt it. The question would have been presumptuous, at best—arrogant on the other end. If you are inclined, review my comments on John Messerly’s posts about meaning. Life is short. We sorta know that. This is not rocket science. I am rooting for guys like Penrose—if they can joots it far enough…

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