Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Greatest Good or Number? - Literature of Liberty, April/June 1978, vol. 1, No. 2
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The Greatest Good or Number? - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, April/June 1978, vol. 1, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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The Greatest Good or Number?
“Should the Numbers Count?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977): 293–316.
Consider the following quasi-lifeboat moral dilemma: You have a limited supply of some lifesaving drug. Six people will all inevitably die unless they receive the drug. However, one of the six needs all of the rare drug if he is to live. Each one of the other five needs only one-fifth of the drug. What ought you to do morally?
The general issue is: Should the number of individuals affected by such a “trade-off” action morally determine the ethical decision to do or not do the action? The specific “scarce drug” example is thought-provoking and calls into question an ethical intuition almost universally shared. Most people would tend to answer that the death of five innocent persons is a worse evil and greater loss than the death of one innocent person, “other things being equal.” The example poses an either/or choice. Your situation is to prevent the loss of either one person or five persons. You cannot prevent both losses. You are morally required to prevent the worse evil.
One problem is that “other things” are rarely “equal.” The one person who needs all the drug might be a brilliant scientist on the verge of a medical discovery to make the drug plentiful or cure some other serious illness affecting millions. Again, the five persons in the example might be five “idiot infants” unloved by anyone. Such special considerations are usually not entertained by those who pose the dilemma.
Now suppose that the special consideration has nothing to do with social benefits but with your own personal preference. The individual whose life you choose to save over the other five may be a partner, parent, or close friend. Here the reason for your choice might not be due to any overriding moral obligation to the individual, but simply because you know and like him whereas the other five individuals are strangers.
Or further suppose that you try to argue the one individual into giving up his dose of the drug (which he stipulatively owns) because it would be worse for the five others to die. He might possibly demur and counter: “Worse for whom?” His retort effectively undercuts utilitarian arguments that would attempt to focus on the alleged greater happiness of a greater number of people. The individual simply values his own life more than he values any of the other five. It would seem to be a confusion in any one of the five to try to convince their individual rival by entreating: “None of us is thinking of himself here! But contemplate, if you will, what we the group will suffer. Think of the awful sum of pain that is in the balance here!”
Many more complications might be introduced to the dilemma. But it does not seem cogent that a mere consideration of the relative numbers of people involved in such trade-off situations has significance. Questions raised by this test-case include moral equality, policy choices, and the role of property titles in allocating scarce resources such as lifeboats and rare drugs. The owner of the boat and drug might be the proper one to decide their allocation. Numbers should not dictate choices.