Tue Jan 17, 2012
Howison Library, 4:10–6 PM
|Graduate Research Colloquium
Julia Nefsky (University of California, Berkeley)
How You Can Help, Without Making a Difference
In a wide variety of cases, people collectively cause harm, or fail to prevent it, even though no individual act seems to make a difference. In cases of this sort, it seems each person can argue ‘my act will make no difference, so I have no reason to do otherwise.’ The challenge is to say where this argument goes wrong. My approach begins with the observation that existing approaches to the problem share a common – though often unacknowledged – assumption. The assumption is that if an act cannot make a difference to an outcome, then it cannot play a morally significant causal role in the occurrence of that outcome. In other words, helping requires making a difference. I propose that the key to solving the problem is to reject this assumption. I give an account of what is required for an act to help, and use this to make sense of our reasons for action in collective harm cases. This account also reveals why it is easy for it to look as though helping requires making a difference, when really it does not.