Rule-Consequentialism and Irrelevant Others

Utilitas 21 (03):368- (2009)
Abstract
AS MANY OF us know, millions of people on this planet are suffering for lack of potable water, basic healthcare, and adequate nutrition. And, as many of us also know, we (the well‐to‐do) could alleviate and/or prevent some of this suffering by making certain sacrifices, e.g., by donating some of our incomes to organizations such as Oxfam and UNICEF. Suppose, then, that we are wondering to what extent each of us is morally obligated to make sacrifices for the sake of helping to alleviate such suffering. Could the answer to this question depend on the existence of beings on some distant planet, call it Zargon, over which we have not had, and will never have, any influence? Suppose that there is nothing that we can do to affect the lives of Zargonians in any way. We can neither harm nor benefit them; we cannot even have the slightest effect on their thoughts or experiences, for their planet is billions of light years away from ours and, consequently, far beyond the reach of our causal powers. We know about them only through the supernatural abilities of an oracle, who we know always tells the truth and who tells us everything about them.1 But although we know about them, they do not know about us, for we have no way to communicate with them, let alone affect their welfares. Given that we can have no effect on their lives and that they can have no effect on our lives beyond whatever little effect our knowledge of their doings has on us, how could their existence possibly affect how much one of us is required to sacrifice for the sake of alleviating some of the suffering here on Earth? It seems absurd to suppose that it could. Yet this is precisely what rule‐
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Leonard Kahn (2012). Rule Consequentialism and Scope. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15 (5):631-646.
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