In his renowned book, Living High and Letting Die, Peter Unger asks us to consider the following scenario:
The Envelope. In your mailbox, there’s something from UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in your trash basket, including the convenient return envelope provided, you send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have had you sent in the requested $100.
Unger says about this scenario that “almost everyone reacts that your conduct isn’t even wrong at all”. In an endnote, he clarifies that this judgment about how people react is based on having asked “many students, colleagues and friends for their intuitive moral assessments”.
Thing is, I have evidence that he’s just completely wrong about how people tend to react to this scenario. As part of my The Envelope and the Vintage Sedan interactive activity (at the Philosophy Experiments web site), I ask the same question (tweaked so that the amount requested is $200, rather than $100, to allow for the effects of inflation).
So far some 3000 people have completed the activity, and the data is showing that more than 40% think that you would be doing something wrong if you simply ignored the request for money (though it falls to 39% if you control for order effects).
Does this matter? Well, in a couple of senses, yes it does matter. First, it’s a cautionary tale that really you shouldn’t just make things up as you go along. If you’re making a large claim about how people respond to a particular moral scenario, then you’ve got to do better than just asking your mates what they think (this is the case even if it turns out the data I’ve generated is flawed). And second, a large part of Unger’s book is devoted to explaining why our (supposed) intuition that there is nothing wrong in the envelope case is misplaced. His arguments remain relevant, but the rationale for them is undermined if it turns out that a large percentage of people already think there is something wrong.
In another sense, though, it’s not so important: it’s still the case that more people than not think there is no wrongdoing in ignoring the request for a donation; and it’s also true that there is an average difference between how people respond to the envelope case and how they respond to some of the other analogous cases that Unger considers (you can test this for yourself by working through the activity on the Philosophy Experiments web site).