Should the Numbers Count - Thoughts

Matthew Hodder - Writer

Taurek’s Should the Numbers Count? argues that we could flip a coin when deciding whether to save one person (A), or five (B,C,D,E,F). I shall synthesise Taurek’s argument with help from Parfit, from which I shall begin an analysis. I shall find that the biggest challenge to Taurek’s argument is the premise that numbers morally count for nothing. I shall argue that the numbers do not matter when we shift our perspective from loss-to, to loss-of persons.

I begin with a brief exposition of Taurek, starting with two premises provided by Parfit (1978, p. 291): 

“[I]: In the absence of special obligations, the only moral reason to prevent an outcome is that it would be worse than its alternative. 

[II]: The deaths of the five would not be a worse outcome than the death of David.” 

The more controversial aspect of Taurek’s argument is that there exists no morally relevant difference between saving one stranger or five strangers, since he holds “no special affection for any one of them” (Taurek, 1977, p.306). Thus, since each death would affect Taurek equally, he gives equal treatment in deciding who to save, resulting in a coin-flip. Going further, each individual of the six will face an equal outcome for themselves (Taurek, 1977, p.307). It is for this reason that we cannot simply aggregate the losses and “compare [A’s] loss... to the collective or total loss to [x]” (Taurek, 1977, p.310), due to impact of the loss of life individually. Now that Taurek’s argument has been laid out, I begin the analysis, focusing on premise II and why that challenges coin-flipping. 

The biggest challenge to Taurek is precisely why numbers count for nothing, morally-speaking (Kavka, 1979, p.292/293). It runs against our intuitions to say that there is no moral difference between saving A and saving x. It seems moral to save larger numbers of people than to show indifference between the two outcomes. To further illustrate this, Sanders distinguishes between losses-to and losses-of persons (Sanders, 1988, p.9). Taurek uses losses-  to show that there should be equal consideration based on the individual loss of life. Sanders, however, contends that “one is justified in considering the differential losses of persons” (Sanders, 1988, p.9) which denotes the difference between the individual, personal, sense and the loss of a human life of value. We may aggregate the losses if they are of persons because they represent a broader impact than just on the individual, they are an objective point of value, which Sanders grounds in the value of human life extending beyond just the individual (Sanders, 1988, p.12). If we follow this argument, then we must reject premise II of Taurek’s argument above, as if we adopt the losses-of approach, then the loss of the five would be, generally speaking, much worse than the loss of the one. This brings us back to the utilitarian approach, where numbers do count, and we should save five. 

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Taurek may counter-object by utilising his example of objects in the fire. He argues that he would (given all objects are of equal value) save five objects, rather than just one. In this case, the value of the objects may be aggregated (Taurek, 1977, p.306). Why, then, does this not apply to strangers? Taurek suggests that there is no innate value of each individual to me, and that the primary reason I am concerned with strangers is “because of what it means to [them]” (Taurek, 1977, p.307). Human empathy is missing with valuable objects: they have an innate value that does not require any empathy, or loss of life to consider. In cases of persons, we should give equal chance of survival to individuals because of equal empathy to each of their losses, and hence Taurek would seek to guide us back to the losses-to approach, as empathy entails a losses-to conception. I believe there is merit to the losses-to approach, as all things equal, the losses to an individual matter the most to themselves, and thus each count for one and this allows us to simply flip a coin when deciding who to save. The outcome for the individuals, individually, is the same. 

To conclude, I have laid out Taurek’s argument; he would use losses-to individuals to equalise concerns for saving lives, that there is no moral difference with numbers. I have shown the greatest challenge to Taurek, the assertion that it is better to save the numbers and used Sanders to demonstrate that we may convert ‘losses-to’ individuals to ‘losses-of’, based on universal claims that human life is valuable. This was shown to break down the second premise of Taurek’s argument. Taurek may counter this by showing equal consideration, using his example of objects in the fire, that we cannot use the ‘losses-of’ approach. It is interesting to delve into unconventional ethical ideas and I believe Taurek presents a coherent thesis. 


Kavka, G.S. 1979. The Numbers Should Count. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition. 36 (3), pp.285-294 

Parfit, D. 1978. Innumerate Ethics. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 7 (4), pp.285-301 Sanders, J.T. 1988. Why the Numbers Should Sometimes Count. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 17 (1), pp.3-14 

Taurek, J.M. 1977. Should the Numbers Count?. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 6 (4), pp.293-316 


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