Alice, Bob and Carl are suffering from a deadly disease. Alice possesses one dose of a medication necessary and sufficient to cure the disease. She has four relevant options. First there are:
- Use the medication on herself.
- Use the medication on Bob.
- Use the medication on Carl.
Option 1 is permissible. Options 2 and 3 are supererogatory. But what Alice actually does is:
- Destroy the medication.
Alice clearly did something wicked by failing to use the medication to save a life. But how do we describe this wicked deed?
It seems that Alice’s action was a fatal negligence of a duty towards herself, and a fatal negligence of a duty towards Bob and a fatal negligence of a duty towards Carl. But that makes it sound like three counts of fatal negligence, which is triple-counting the wrongful act.
I suppose what we can say is something like this: Alice neglected to use the medication to save a life. Whom did she act against? Maybe each of: herself, Bob and Carl. But we shouldn’t look at the action as the violation of three duties, but only of one duty, to use the medication to save herself, Bob or Carl. So she violated a single duty, to the tune of a single life, but that single duty was one she owed to three people.
Question 1: Does it follow that one can have a duty to a group which does not reduce to a duty to each member? For Alice surely doesn’t owe Bob that she save herself, Bob or Carl, and she doesn’t owe Bob that she save Bob, since she can permissibly save herself or Carl.
Answer: I don’t know. Maybe we can say:
- Alice owes herself that if she doesn’t use the medication to save Bob or Carl, she use it to save herself
- Alice owes Bob that if she doesn’t use the medication to save herself or Carl, she use it to save Bob
- Alice owes Carl that if she doesn’t use the medication to save herself or Bob, she use it to save Carl.
And so Alice wrongs each of herself, Bob and Carl. A problem with this solution, however, is that it seems to triple counting Alice’s wrongdoing, by making it seem like she fatally wronged each of three people—but she is only responsible for a single death. Maybe, though, we can say that the duty to the three reduces to the three individual duties, but that the culpabilities don’t sum?
Question 2: Does the case provide an argument that one can wrong oneself? My above description of the case as one one where Alice owes it to herself, Bob and Carl that she save herself, Bob or Carl presupposes duties to herself. What can someone who thinks there are no duties to self say?
Answer: I don’t know. Maybe she can say: Alice owes Bob and Carl that she save herself, Bob or Carl. But it would be a little weird to think that by saving herself, Alice would be fulfilling a duty to Bob and Carl.
Final remarks: I am far from clear how to morally describe the case. I think the neatest description is one where a group is non-reducibly victimized, and where there are duties to self. But that may not be the only admissible description.