Did Peter Unger just get it wrong?

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).

Leave a comment ?


  1. Is there a link to the particular results you cite (“more than 40% think that you would be doing something wrong if you simply ignored the request for money”)? I would like to properly reference that result. Thanks in advance.

  2. If you go here:


    it gives the exact percentages according to whether the envelope scenario was presented first, second or third.

    You’ll see there’s a significant order effect, so if you’re only interested in the “uncontaminated” response, then the correct percentage is 39%.

    However, the fact that people’s responses are so easily “primed” is also interesting.

  3. How about a possible reciprocity effect?

    I know that I can be involved in a freak accident, and thus, it’s important for me to live in a world where people help those involved in accidents, so I help accident victims (or crime victims) because the next time it could be me or my family or friends.

    However, I don’t imagine that I’ll ever be so poor that I’ll need to be the object of charity of any sort. I pay my way, although on a very modest level, so given that I don’t expect to be the object of charity, I don’t put myself in the place of those who receive charity and in general, I don’t give to charity.

    In my own case, a certain distrust of charities is also involved, since when younger, I volunteered to work in a well-known charity organization and my experience did not increase my faith in the moral loftiness of humanity.

  4. It seems to me the key point is that if refusing to donate $100 dollars to save a child’s life is behaving badly, it must continue to be bad behaviour until you have given all your money. Conversely, if there is a point where it’s ok for you not to give any more dollars, although you still have them, it must be ok for you not to give the first $100.

  5. swallerstein,

    “How about a possible reciprocity effect?”

    Thinking in terms of reciprocity is never a good idea in the context of charitable and humane acts – or possibly any human acts. And it’s a problem with rationalising actions and events in general. The true value of an event may be so nebulous and intangible, that you can give into the temptation to limit the possible cases of benefits or losses to the most proximate agents – the conceivable cases – and disregard the infinite number of cases that are inconceivable.

    You end up with an insane double entry book keeping, that doesn’t sound crazy because you have made the argument, but it is. If you listen to recordings of Ayn Rand interviews, it doesn’t take long to realise the woman is complete out of her mind, but it’s hard to put your finger precisely on the point where her lunacy begins or ends, if it does.

    The idea of humans as rational economic agents, where a reciprocity or some material transaction needs to occur for the human agent to be acting sane and positively – rationally, as Ayn Rand would put it. And irrationally if their action grants them neither an immediate or distant benefit but leaves them at a loss. For many of the good things and bad things we do in life, they’re more done in the flow of our being than for any rational purpose. That there is no absolute rationality to much of the practice of our existence – this causes anxiety and confusion for many people in not being able to find a solution, and not realising where there is no problem, there is no solution.

    When you follow reciprocity arguments – and especially when they become so internalised they’re unconscious and reflexive, to a point even the social scientist who examines you with psychometric tools comes to believe your ideology is organic in nature, and in extricable from your being. This territory is deeply corrupting.

    One of Marx’s arguments against capitalism. And one of the scariest for its’ utter inhumanness, is capital’s drive to commodify all human interactions in its’ search for new markets. This does happen and it leads to perverse and absurd outcomes.

    Nowadays, the children of the wealthy pay for the privilege of volunteering in developing world countries. There is a terrible cynicism in this as the upper-classes see charitable works as a sign of good character and class. So the ambitious and cynical youths of privileged families are willing to compete for opportunities to assist the less fortunate in exotic locations. Where there is a demand the animal spirits of the market sweep in to provide for it.

    And this is where it becomes laughably perverse. For example Vietnam and Cambodia. At one time as a result of war and poverty, huge numbers of children lost their families and ended up in poorly resourced orphanages. Due to developments in technology and global communications The fall of the Khmer Rouge was an unprecedented and very different from what had gone before, in that the western public were treated to a full colour televisation, in near real time, of naked starving children wandering the streets of Cambodia, with no immediate prospect of food, clothing, shelter or rescue. This compelled many western volunteers to travel to Cambodia and provide assistance.

    But the crisis was largely over nearly thirty years ago. There hasn’t been an event or the conditions to create such a vast number of orphans in a long time. What happens when they’re is a western demand to volunteer at Cambodian or Vietnamese orphanages – a demand so great people are willing to pay top dollar for the privilege – but there just isn’t enough orphans to satisfy the demand – the market of course, left to its’ own devices, will solve this terrible problem, in it’s own wonderful trickster Genie out of a lamp (is this really what you wished for) way.

    The ‘orphan in need’ has become a commodity.

    South East Asian entrepreneurs, find parents who are poor, but not desperately poor enough to need to give their children away, and rent their children to play orphans at their business enterprises. It’s something completely absurd, Marx could never have dreamed of this. One group of people paying to the help the needy, and another group being paid like actors, to perform the role of the needy.

    The fine young people paying exorbitant fees to volunteer in exotic locations are not being duped by entrepreneurs, they’re equally and deeply cynical as the businessmen providing the service – but they may have been so corrupted since early childhood by the dominant and near totalitarian ideology of the last few decades; rational agency, no free lunches even for starving children, brutal amoral competition where it doesn’t count how you win, the worst sin is to lose as you will have no one to blame but yourself for not doing what it takes to succeed – not willing to make the sacrifices. These poor children are in need too. They are the orphans of Ayn Rand; the ones she never had, and likely never wanted – but they’re hers. They can’t see how absurd and revolting what they’re doing is. They have her monstrousness in their DNA.

    Saying you spent your free time helping the social lepers, destitute drug addicts, and general outcasts proximate to your locality, is not as impressive in an interview for a place at an elite university, than saying you were saving the orphans of Africa. The interview panel may be just as cynical – birds of a feather, cut from the same cloth, and all that. And see the twisted inversion as a sign of “good character”. The fearful symmetry.

  6. JMRC:

    For the record: I am definitively not a follower of Ayn Rand.

    My political views tend towards democratic socialism or a more leftwing form of social democracy (that is, to the left of Tony Blair).

    I’m allergic to private charity, sorry, but if I volunteer my time or donate money, I’d volunteer or donate to a group fomenting social change, extending the right to free healthcare, to free public education, public libraries, subsidized public housing, etc.

    I’d need years of psychoanalysis to explain why charities irritate me so much, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that they allow wealthy people to have a clean conscience and maintain their power (and even increase their status/power after donating a bit of money.

  7. Dennis Sceviour

    Some charities are designed to keep people poor by their condition that recipients be impoverished. Perhaps charities should be required to distribute equally to both rich and poor alike.

  8. “For the record: I am definitively not a follower of Ayn Rand.”

    I know you’re not. And neither was Tony Blair (I’m not comparing you or associating you Tony Blair either. But some very strange ideas permeated society – even became internalised (where they became to seem solid as reality, and not just ideas).

    And the origin wasn’t just Ayn Rand. The source isn’t any one point, though it seems the individual fragments may have been promoted by a very lose group of individuals – not necessarily directly connected in some kind of secret Leninist cadre, their wealth and power alone allowed them to promote the fragments that suited their perceived needs.

    For example, Richard Dawkins is not a right wing loony But, when he wrote The Selfish Gene, in 1976 it became an international bestseller, and a best seller for a very long time, even well before his current act of celebrity high priest of atheism. Was there an invisible hand propelling the book, and supplying it with momentum. Like the mysterious invisible hand that to this day gives Rand’s books little shoves that keep them embedded in the public consciousness, (or unconsciousness).

    Had Dawkins given his book a different title, even if it had been a successful popular science book, it’s not likely that it would be remembered much today. But, shortly after the book was published and had gained some attention, Dawkins started having American right wing extremists contacting him. They believed his book had granted scientific legitimacy to their philosophy. Even though Dawkins rejected their approaches. The book, or maybe even just the title went on to have an ideological life of its’ own, that he had no control over. It had become a fragment of the madness.

    “My political views tend towards democratic socialism or a more leftwing form of social democracy (that is, to the left of Tony Blair).”

    But this is where Tony Blair started from too. Tony had the best of intentions. And initially he made some progress. The minimum wage was introduced in Britain under his government. That was in 1999. In the 90s, many people on the left were bewildered by the collapse and utter failure of the Soviet Union. It seemed that free market had ultimately triumphed, and there was no alternative. You had to let free market capitalism do what it wanted, but you could ameliorate its’ negative effects through things like the minimum wage.

    The reality of politics is you have to make compromises with reality – and there, there is never any option. But the trap, the deadliest trap, is to mistake something for reality when it is not. And here is where Tony, and quite a few others fell down the rabbit hole.

    There’s a heavy metal band who are using a speech by Tony Blair as an intro to one of their songs. It’s where he is talking on Libya, justify his deal with the devil, he uses the term “Libya is a goldmine”…And at this point the guitars and grindingly apocalyptic metal drums come in.

    Blair’s idea and he’s not alone in this, was free market trade between Libya and Britain, would have a liberalising effect on Libya – even at the LSE where they gave Saif Gaddafy, his PhD. Chelsea Manning is serving 35 years for pulling the trigger on Gaddafy, though it’s an imperfect situation. It shows there was an alternative – an alternative that Blair was so blinded by bad ideology he just couldn’t see.

    And peculiarly interesting point about the true, card carrying, followers of Rand, is their philanthropic activities. The reason Rand’s books are allegedly only second to the bible in most read books in America, is that the disciples of Rand go about the land distributing copies for free, as if they were loafs of bread to those who are starving in ideological terms. Give a child a loaf of bread and they will only eat for one day, give them a copy of Atlas Shrugged and you may poison their minds for life.

  9. swallerstein,

    “I’m allergic to private charity, sorry, but if I volunteer my time or donate money, I’d volunteer or donate to a group fomenting social change, extending the right to free healthcare, to free public education, public libraries, subsidized public housing, etc.”

    Okay. Charities are a lot like people in that they can be very different from each other, some can be good and others very bad.

    I personally know someone who established a charity. The charity has done a lot of good work. I’m not sure if he still sits on the board, but when he did, he received no payment, only some expenses – and those expenses did not extend to any extravagances. The charity is large enough that it requires full time staff, but I think only one member of the board received payment; the accountant, and that was because he spent a considerable amount of time working for the charity.

    So most of the activists, board members and staff, are highly skilled people giving their time for free. They collect money, but they don’t use any dubious agencies to assist them. And any money that is collected is spent on those in need. But one of their crucial functions is to lobby politicians, get laws implemented or changed.

    When you see a wheelchair ramp at a building. The ramp didn’t get their by accident or out of the goodness of the hearts of the building’s owners. If it’s there, and there by law, someone had to campaign for it. And though it seems unquestionable that nowadays you should have wheelchair access to a building. There was quite a resistance.

    NGOs and charities can often make a great contribution, not by raising money, or through spectacles that raise awareness, but simply by lobbying and organising a campaign.

    But like people, all charities are not the same.

    “I’d need years of psychoanalysis to explain why charities irritate me so much, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that they allow wealthy people to have a clean conscience and maintain their power (and even increase their status/power after donating a bit of money.”

    You don’t need psychoanalysis. Charities are not just used by wealthy people to clear their conscience. They’re also used for self-promotion – and even for the purposes, that a reasonable person would consider robbery.

    One event that literally sends me through the ceiling, is a charity, who though now no longer exist, when they did they did serve a need and did do some very good work. There’s no longer a need for the specific charity, as the crisis they served has passed. But as the charity was winding down, there was acrimony over how some of its’ money had been spent. And only recently I discovered precisely what the acrimony had been about.

    It gives me a splitting headache to even think about, because it’s still relevant. The charity had used several millions of its’ funds to sponsor an entry in a yachting race. The person captaining their boat is often referred to as the scion of a family of great wealth. Essentially, funds were used to sponsor the leisure activities of some very rich young people. Not only did they get someone else to pay for their expensive and exclusive hobby, but scion, now presents this period of his life, as selfless charity “work”. Though it’s highly unlikely that even if he looked the word up in a dictionary, he still would have no idea what it meant – he would be perplexed.

    There’s a whole industry, and an industry of providing luxury, in Kenya, to serve the ‘climbing Kilimanjaro for charity’ demand. Wealthy people who are too cheap to pay for their own luxury holidays – and maybe guilty at the excess, are dressing the expeditions up as charity, so not only do they get the glowing halo of selfless giving, they get a luxury holiday – two slices of cake, with jam on both sides.

    There are more problems. If the bastards become involved with legitimate charity organisations, desperately needed funds and services may be redirect to spending on luxuries – and effectively no function of the charity. It’s not even about funds. An organisation staffed by people who absolutely despise the people the organisation is meant to serve, the organisation will not achieve much good.

    But it can be so difficult to directly attack these charities as it looks like you’re a monster attacking a saint holding an orphaned child.

  10. JMRC:

    It is almost impossible to resist the seduction of the zeitgeist, and as you point out, the zeitgeist these days is closer to Ayn Rand than to
    Rosa Luxemberg.

    Those few who resist the temptations of the spirit of the age generally either commit the sin of utter dogmatism (on page 73 of the second volume of the complete works of Rosa Luxemberg the accumulation of capital is defined as….)
    or knee-jerk contrarianism (if she has tenure, she’s a phoney and a sell-out), but you yourself generally avoid those sins as well as the lures of the zeitgeist.

    That takes some self-discipline.

  11. swallerstein,

    “It is almost impossible to resist the seduction of the zeitgeist, and as you point out, the zeitgeist these days is closer to Ayn Rand than to Rosa Luxemberg.”

    I think it’s more tricky than that. Lenin in relation to Trotsky’s idea of a permanent revolution (end of history), and in relation to Trotsky. Said that if you think you know what the dialectic is, you don’t.

    It can’t be known. It happens before cognition. You can analyze the entrails of the past and see its’ traces – you can’t see it, but can see where its’ been. The best you might do for the present is just feel it. It’s a phantom. An incorporeal intangible vapour – a ghost. And if can be a friendly spirit full of vitality, or an evil one, bringing death, destruction and suffering.

    “That takes some self-discipline.”

    It takes some strong heuristics. If someone can quote Rosa Luxemberg, chapter and verse, like a religious text, there’s a strong chance they’ve never cracked open a graduate level economics book in their lives, though they’ve had ample opportunity – And Luxemberg is like some Catholic saint – a crazy nun who had visions, direct communications from Notre Dame, and then died, a martyr for her faith.

    Nuns, no matter how well intentioned, should never be trusted.

  12. JMRC:

    I referred to self-discipline because the zeitgeist is very tempting to everyone but dogmatic outsiders and knee-jerk contrarians.

    The zeitgeist is where the money is, social recognition is, professional success, a fuller sex life is, common sense is.

    It’s warm inside and most of us want to come in from the cold.

    Yielding to the zeitgeist generally isn’t a conscious process, but I’m lonely and I chat with my neighbor and to fit in, I say a few things that I’m not sure that I really believe but are what one is supposed to say (the zeitgeist) and I get positive feedback and so I keep on saying that kind of thing and get more positive feedback and maybe I begin to really believe what I say, because after all, did I ever really believe what I thought that I believed before I began to say what I’m saying now and getting positive feedback for?

    What’s great is that these days the zeitgeist gives us lots more room for diversity (see Comment is Free in The Guardian) than 50 years ago, so we can say almost anything as long as it’s what we’re supposed to say.

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