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  • Alastair Norcross (a1)

One of the currently popular dogmata of anti-consequentialism is that consequentialism doesn't respect, recognize, or in some important way account for what is referred to as the “separateness of persons.” The charge is often made, but rarely explained in any detail, much less argued for. In this paper I explain what I take to be the most plausible interpretation of the separateness of persons charge. I argue that the charge itself can be deconstructed into at least two further objections to consequentialist theories. These objections amount to (i) the rejection of axiological aggregation, and (ii) the rejection of deontic aggregation. Of these two objections, I argue that the first one, though often made, is untenable. I also argue that the second objection, in its various forms, relies on distinctions whose moral significance is vigorously denied by almost all consequentialist theorists. I thus argue that the separateness of persons objection poses no special threat to consequentialism.

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1 Shaw William, Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 128.

2 Rawls John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 2627.

3 Gauthier David, Practical Reasoning: The Structure and Foundations of Prudential and Moral Arguments and Their Exemplification in Discourse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 126.

4 Nagel Thomas, The Possibility of Altruism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 134.

5 Nozick Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 3233.

6 Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 346.

7 Vallentyne Peter, “Against Maximizing Act Consequentialism,” in Dreier James, ed., Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 29; emphasis in the original.

8 For those unfamiliar with the Promise Keeper phenomenon in the United States, a little explanation is in order. The Promise Keepers is an evangelical Christian organization for men. It teaches, among other things, that within marriage the man should be the head of the household and the woman should willingly submit to his leadership. The organization has been criticized by feminist groups in the U.S., such as the National Organization for Women, for (allegedly) encouraging inequality within marriages and teaching male superiority. Such doctrines rarely receive a sympathetic hearing in Women's Studies classes.

9 See Taurek John, “Should the Numbers Count?Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977): 293316.

10 See Foot Philippa, “Utilitarianism and the Virtues,” Mind 94 (1985): 196209.

11 See Thomson Judith Jarvis, “The Right and the Good,” The Journal of Philosophy 94, no. 6 (1997): 273–98.

12 Taurek argues for the radical thesis that there is no moral reason to prefer the death of one person over the deaths of five persons (or even of five million persons). Foot argues that no sense can be made of one state of affairs being overall better than another from the perspective of morality. Foot's position seems to be in agreement with Taurek's in the following sense: it rejects the claim that I have a moral reason to prefer the death of one to the deaths of five, if that reason is supposed to be grounded in the claim that it is overall better that only one person dies than that five persons die. Thomson's position is less clear. She criticizes utilitarianism for its reliance on comparative judgments of the goodness of states of affairs, and in this respect seems to be sympathetic to Foot's position. However, a charitable reading of her essay (which she would no doubt reject) renders it as a defense of rule utilitarianism.

13 I leave the reader to fill in the details of this and other examples involving the endlessly fascinating inhabitants of Springfield.

14 See Scanlon Thomas, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). For a more comprehensive critique of Scanlon's attempts to accommodate limited aggregation, see Norcross Alastair, “Contractualism and Aggregation,” Social Theory and Practice 28, no. 2 (2002): 303–14.

15 Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other, 240.

16 For examples of the attempt to deny transitivity for “all-things-considered better than,” see Temkin Larry, “Intransitivity and the Mere Addition Paradox,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 16 (1987): 138–87; Temkin Larry, “A Continuum Argument for Intransitivity,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 25 (1996): 175210; Quinn Warren, “The Puzzle of the Self-Torturer,” Philosophical Studies 59 (1990): 7990; and Rachels Stuart, “Counterexamples to the Transitivity of ‘Better Than’,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76, no. 1 (1998): 7183. Temkin's 1996 article uses the same central example as Rachels's article, but Temkin's explanation for the supposed intransitivity is the same as the one he provides in his 1987 article. Quinn does not explicitly claim that “better than” is intransitive, but his arguments, if successful, entail that a utilitarian should deny the transitivity of “better than.” I discuss Temkin's 1987 article in Norcross Alastair, “Intransitivity and the Person-Affecting Principle,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59, no. 3 (1999): 769–76. I discuss Temkin's 1996 article and Quinn's 1990 article in Norcross Alastair, “Comparing Harms: Headaches and Human Lives,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 26 (1997): 135–67.

17 Confusingly, “deontology” is also the catch-all name for the most common family of anticonsequentialist moral theories. This is confusing because, understood as the study of duty, deontology also encompasses most versions of consequentialism, which do, after all, provide an account of moral duty.

18 See Carlson Erik, “Aggregating Harms—Should We Kill to Avoid Headaches?Theoria 66, no. 3 (2000): 246–55.

19 See Norcross Alastair, “Rights Violations and Distributive Constraints: Three Scenarios,” The Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 76, no. 2 (1995): 159–67. Thomson's argument appears in Thomson Judith Jarvis, The Realm of Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 166–67. Thomson claims that we may be justified in violating certain rights, if the violation produces enough good, but only so long as the good produced is distributed appropriately. In particular, the good cannot be the sum of very tiny increments of good for a large number of people. Thomson describes this as the thesis that “where claims are concerned, the sum of goods across people does not count…. In still shorter form, where claims are concerned, the numbers do not count.”

20 For detailed discussion of both these points, see Norcross, “Comparing Harms.”

21 Philippa Foot, “Killing and Letting Die,” reprinted in Steinbock Bonnie and Norcross Alastair, eds., Killing and Letting Die, 2d ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1994), 280–89.

22 For insomniacs, Foot's versions are titled “Rescue I” and “Rescue II.” In Rescue I, we can save either five people in danger of drowning in one place or one person drowning somewhere else. In Rescue II, we can save the five drowning people only by driving over and killing someone who is trapped on the road. They appear in Foot, “Killing and Letting Die.”

23 Ibid., 284.

24 See, for example, Bennett Jonathan, The Act Itself (New York: Clarendon Press, 1995); Steinbock and Norcross, eds., Killing and Letting Die; and Alastair Norcross, “Killing and Letting Die,” in Frey R. G. and Wellman C. H., eds., The Blackwell Companion to Applied Ethics (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 451–63.

25 See my “The Road to Hell,” unpublished manuscript, latest draft available on my Web site (

26 To say that a distinction is aretaically relevant is to say that it is relevant to a moral evaluation of character. The Greek word “arete” is usually translated as “virtue.”

27 It may be possible to construct a consequentialist theory that is sensitive to this distinction (see Norcross Alastair, “Should Utilitarianism Accommodate Moral Dilemmas?Philosophical Studies 79, no. 1 [1995]: 5983), but I know of no one who embraces such a theory.

28 There are, of course, other suggested nonconsequentialist constraints on maximizing the good. For impressively intricate examples, see Kamm Frances, Intricate Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), esp. chap. 5; and for criticisms of some of them, see Norcross Alastair, “Off Her Trolley? Frances Kamm and the Metaphysics of Morality,” Utilitas 20, no. 1 (2008): 6580. I do not mean to suggest in the current essay that the two (or three, if we include the putative deontic significance of intentions) dogmas that I have focused on exhaust the disagreement between consequentialists and their opponents. My claim is that the dogmas I have discussed are the most central to the separateness of persons dogma.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
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