How you can help, without making a difference

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



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Julia Nefsky
University of Toronto at Scarborough

Citations of this work

Collective harm and the inefficacy problem.Julia Nefsky - 2019 - Philosophy Compass 14 (4):e12587.
Moral Responsibility.Matthew Talbert - 2019 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Consumer Choice and Collective Impact.Julia Nefsky - 2017 - In Anne Barnhill, Mark Budolfson & Tyler Doggett (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics. Oxford University Press. pp. 267-286.
Moral responsibility.Andrew Eshleman - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age.Christopher Kutz - 2000 - New York: Cambridge 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.

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