The Rules of Rescue

When do you have to sacrifice life and limb, time and money, to prevent harm to others? When must you save more people rather than fewer? These questions might arise in emergencies involving strangers drowning or trapped in burning buildings, but they also arise in our everyday lives, in which we confront opportunities to donate time or money to help distant strangers in need of food, shelter, or medical care. With the resources available, we can provide more help–or less.

In The Rules of Rescue (Oxford University Press 2023), Theron Pummer argues that we are often morally required to engage in effective altruism, directing altruistic efforts in ways that help the most. Even when the personal sacrifice involved makes it morally permissible not to help at all, he contends, it often remains wrong to provide less help rather than more. Using carefully crafted examples, he defends the view that helping distant strangers is more morally akin to rescuing nearby strangers than most of us realize. The ubiquity of opportunities to help distant strangers threatens to make morality extremely demanding, and Pummer argues that it is only thanks to adequate permissions grounded in considerations of cost and autonomy that we may pursue our own plans and projects. He ultimately concludes that many of us are required to provide no less help over our lives than we would have done if we were effective altruists.

“Many believe that we are under a duty to rescue someone in need; many also believe that, if we have to choose between helping one person in need and helping two such persons, we must save the greater number. Those seemingly obvious claims belie a huge range of knotty problems. Pummer’s wonderfully well-written book carefully takes readers through increasingly complex cases, and shows that, even from a non-consequentialist perspective, we are under fairly demanding duties to help others—be it by giving money to charities, or by volunteering our time and energy. This book is a major contribution to the literature on the ethics of rescue.”
Cécile Fabre, Professor of Political Philosophy, University of Oxford

“This book is filled to the brim with subtle and original ideas. One of the most important involves the interplay of ‘requiring reasons’ and ‘permitting reasons’ over time: while constant opportunities to help give us constant requiring reasons, we aren’t constantly required to help. Pummer compellingly shows how this is so—and how beneficence is an imperfect duty—given the way permitting reasons operate over a lifetime. The Rules of Rescue is a must read for those working on the duty to rescue or the duty of beneficence.”
Douglas W. Portmore, Professor of Philosophy, Arizona State University

The Rules of Rescue is admirably clear, elegantly written, and packed with highly original arguments. Time and again Pummer defends novel and surprising conclusions from careful consideration of relatively simple cases. Many people accept, for example, that we have broad discretion about what charities to give to, especially when the amount we give exceeds what we are morally required to give. Pummer shows, however, that this view is actually very hard to defend, and carries many counterintuitive implications. This book is required reading for anyone interested in the ethics of assistance and normative ethics more generally.”
Christian Barry, Professor of Philosophy, Australian National University

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Reviews and Responses

Analysis (coming soon)

Review by Hayden Wilkinson, Australasian Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming)

Review by Peter Murphy, Ethics (forthcoming)

Review by Daniel Muñoz, Mind (2023)

Review by Violetta Igneski, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2024)

Effective Altruism and Requiring Reasons to Help Others, by Thomas Sinclair, Public Affairs Quarterly (2024)

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