Don’t Count on Taurek: Vindicating the Case for the Numbers Counting

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Res Publica


Suppose you can save only one of two groups of people from harm, with one person in one group, and five persons in the other group. Are you obligated to save the greater number? While common sense seems to say ‘yes’, the numbers skeptic says ‘no’. Numbers Skepticism has been partly motivated by the anti-consequentialist thought that the goods, harms and well-being of individual people do not aggregate in any morally significant way. However, even many non-consequentialists think that Numbers Skepticism goes too far in rejecting the claim that you ought to save the greater number. Besides the prima facie implausibility of Numbers Skepticism, Michael Otsuka has developed an intriguing argument against this position. Otsuka argues that Numbers Skepticism, in conjunction with an independently plausible moral principle, leads to inconsistent choices regarding what ought to be done in certain circumstances. This inconsistency in turn provides us with a good reason to reject Numbers Skepticism. Kirsten Meyer offers a notable challenge to Otsuka’s argument. I argue that Meyer’s challenge can be met, and then offer my own reasons for rejecting Otsuka’s argument. In light of these criticisms, I then develop an improved, yet structurally similar argument to Otsuka’s argument. I argue for the slightly different conclusion that the view proposed by John Taurek that ‘the numbers don’t count’ leads to inconsistent choices, which in turn provides us with a good reason to reject Taurek’s position.