John Taurek, “Should the Numbers Count?”: Less Is Equal To More

The Problem

You’ve recently created a lifesaving drug. You’re on your way to meet up with your investors, drug in tow, when disaster strikes. After the immediate danger has passed, you take stock of the people around you. One person is very badly injured: to save them, you’ll need to use the entire dose of the drug. However, five other people were also harmed, and they only need one-fifth of the drug’s dose to survive. You cannot save everyone. Either way, someone will die: one person or five. What’s the morally correct decision to make?

The Reason

In this moral dilemma, most people would argue that you have to prioritize saving the larger number of people if all the other things about the two groups are equal. However, the philosopher John Taurek refutes such thinking. In his essay, “Should the Numbers Count?” Taurek argues that saving one person is just as morally sound as saving the other five.

How It Works

In his essay, when Taurek declares that all other things are equal among the two groups save for size, he means that there are no objective special circumstances that would make either group more appealing. For example, say that the five members of group B are all active members of a hate group while the one person in group A works as an avid social worker. It becomes pretty clear who should get the cure. However, if they all are everyday strangers, there’s no objective reason for you to favor any one person over the other. Thus, the two groups become “equal” in their importance.

Taurek points out that when this equalization occurs, people begin to focus on the number of persons in each group. Thus, he introduces a new circumstance to the dilemma: the person in group A, the one who requires all of the drug to survive, is a friend of yours. Let’s call her Sophie. You don’t know if Sophie is an objectively better person than any of the five strangers. You have never signed a contract or made a promise to protect her. Objectively speaking then, there is no reason for you to value her life above those of group B, yet many people who in the opening scenario would give the drug to the five strangers would change their answer and save Sophie, their friend.

This change in the scenario is used to highlight the flawed logic of the supposed moral duty to save the greatest number of people. Often this decision is vindicated by the argument that, since it’s impossible for no harm to occur, we should strive to minimize it. Suffering, however, is relative. If you choose to save group B, they receive no harm, yet you and Sophie’s other friends and family will keenly feel a loss, one that would not exist if you saved Sophie.

To further emphasize this point, say this drug was Sophie’s. You wouldn’t hesitate to give the drug to her. You wouldn’t ask her to sacrifice her life for those of five strangers. Even if you did, she’d be well within her rights to refuse. If you were in Sophie’s place, you wouldn’t die for these people, so how can you, as a third party, insist that she must?

Through this perspective-taking and questioning, Taurek concludes that numbers don’t matter. He insists that suffering cannot be considered additive. No one argues that the collective headaches of three people outweigh the migraine of another. Taurek also rejects the notion that one can objectively determine the value of human lives. Therefore, it cannot be said that you must save group B because it contains more people. “Because I have an equal concern for each person involved,” Taurek writes, “I am moved to give each of them an equal chance to be spared his loss.” The truly moral option then would be to flip a coin. Barring that, there is no morally superior choice in this dilemma.

Applying It

Even now, people still argue and debate Taurek’s titular question and his conclusion. Whether or not the morality of his proposal is ever firmly agreed upon, Taurek undoubtedly made a huge impact on not only the field of philosophy but also human relations in general. Opponents of his paper often claim that the man’s argument could be used to justify racism, sexism, and other unfavorable choices. Taurek states that human lives cannot be treated as objects. Yes, it’s better to save five teacups from shattering than one, but it cannot be claimed that five lives outweigh the loss of one. The worth of a human life is incalculable. For a field that strives to find concrete answers, it’s a surprisingly poetic yet lovely conclusion to come to.

Think Further

  1. What was your original answer to the opening dilemma? Is your answer different now? Why or why not?
  2. Did you originally choose to save Sophie? Why or why not? Did either your answer or your reasoning change? Why or why not?
  3. In your opinion, what’s Taurek’s strongest point in his argument? What’s his weakest?


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Learn More

  1. Chapman, Bruce. “Preference, Pluralism, and Proportionality.” University of Toronto Law Journal, vol 60, issue 2, spring 2010, pp 177-196. Doi: 10.3138/utlj.60.2.177
  2. Lawlor, Rob. “Taurek, Numbers and Probabilities”. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, vol 9, issue 2, April 2006, pp 149-166.
  3. Sanders, John T. “Why the Numbers Should Count Sometimes”. Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol 17, issue 1, 1988, pp 3-14.
  4. Taurek, John M. “Should the Numbers Count?” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol 6, no 4, Summer 1977, pp 293-316.
  5. “Taurek’s Three Arguments”. University of Pittsburgh.