Philosophical Studies 174 (11):2743-2767 (2017)

Julia Nefsky
University of Toronto at Scarborough
There are many cases in which people collectively cause some morally significant outcome (such as a harmful or beneficial outcome) but no individual act seems to make a difference. The problem in such cases is that it seems each person can argue, ‘it makes no difference whether or not I do X, so I have no reason to do it.’ The challenge is to say where this argument goes wrong. My approach begins from the observation that underlying the problem and motivating the typical responses to it is a standard, intuitive assumption. The assumption is that if an act will not make a difference with respect to an outcome, then it cannot play a sig- nificant, non-superfluous role in bringing that outcome about. In other words, helping to bring about an outcome requires making a difference. I argue that the key to solving the problem is to reject this assumption. I develop an account of what it is to help to bring about an outcome, where this does not require making a difference, and I use this explain our reasons for action in the problem cases. This account also yields an error theory that explains why the standard assumption is so tempting, even though it is mistaken.
Keywords moral reasons  collective impact  collective harm  difference-making  overdetermination  ethics  voting  climate change
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1007/s11098-016-0808-y
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 69,066
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford University Press.
Do I Make a Difference?Shelly Kagan - 2011 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 39 (2):105-141.
Epistemic Possibilities.Keith DeRose - 1991 - Philosophical Review 100 (4):581-605.

View all 26 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

Collective Harm and the Inefficacy Problem.Julia Nefsky - 2019 - Philosophy Compass 14 (4):e12587.
Consumer Choice and Collective Impact.Julia Nefsky - 2018 - In Mark Budolfson, Tyler Doggett & Anne Barnhill (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics. New York, USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 267-286.
Why It's OK to Speak Your Mind.Hrishikesh Joshi - 2021 - New York, NY, USA: Routledge.
Structural Injustice and Individual Responsibility.Andrea Sangiovanni - 2018 - Journal of Social Philosophy 49 (3):461-483.

View all 26 citations / Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Making a Difference in a Deterministic World.Carolina Sartorio - 2013 - Philosophical Review 122 (2):189-214.
Difference-Making, Closure and Exclusion.Brad Weslake - forthcoming - In Helen Beebee, Christopher Hitchcock & Huw Price (eds.), Making a Difference. Oxford University Press.
Brain Regions as Difference-Makers.Colin Klein - 2017 - Philosophical Psychology 30 (1-2):1-20.
Mechanisms Revisited.James Woodward - 2011 - Synthese 183 (3):409-427.
Is Actual Difference Making Actually Different?Robert Northcott - 2009 - Journal of Philosophy 106 (11):629-633.
Physical Causation and Difference-Making.Alyssa Ney - 2009 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 60 (4):737-764.
Difference Making, Explanatory Relevance, and Mechanistic Models.Dingmar van Eck & Raoul Gervais - 2016 - Theoria: Revista de Teoría, Historia y Fundamentos de la Ciencia 31 (1):125-134.
Replaceability, Career Choice, and Making a Difference.William MacAskill - 2014 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17 (2):269-283.
Making Space: Separatism and Difference.Gill Valentine - 1997 - In John Paul Jones, Heidi J. Nast & Susan M. Roberts (eds.), Thresholds in Feminist Geography: Difference, Methodology, and Representation. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 65--76.


Added to PP index

Total views
345 ( #29,342 of 2,498,784 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
28 ( #31,340 of 2,498,784 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes