I just finished reading Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar. It is a collection of profiles for people who go to extreme length to help strangers. The title comes from Peter Singer's famous drowning child thought-experiment.

A philosophical question asked at the beginning of the book is that

In college we were given the thought experiment, Should you save your mother from drowning, or two strangers?

I know utilitarianism would tell us of course we should save the two strangers -- two lives is more important than one. But this is very demanding route of action. The do-gooders in the book did take this route to some extant, some times with considerable cost to their families.

I wonder if a virtue ethicist would have a different answer to this question. What is the virtuous (just) thing to do in this case? Can one still be virtuous if one value one's family above strangers?

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    There was an unbelievable legal case a while back where police officers and firefighters watched a guy drown because they couldn't be bothered to save him. In the end a nearby civilian waded into the water to pull the body out. Needless to say, after the fact the cops and firemen were full of bureaucratic excuses. abc7news.com/alameda-crown-beach-drowning-man-drowns/7916 . The incident has a Wiki entry. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Raymond_Zack Also, you should save your mother. She gave birth to you and she's a blood relative.
    – user4894
    Jun 27, 2021 at 1:18
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    @user4894 Then the next questions is, what about 10 strangers? 100? 1000? Or 1 million?
    – faceclean
    Jun 27, 2021 at 1:25
  • ps -- The guy's family sued the city and the county. Their lawsuit was dismissed. The court ruled that, "... public safety officials had no legal duty to save Zack." This happens to be true. Cops have no affirmative responsibility to save you, even if you're dying right in front of them and their actions could save you. Courts have repeatedly upheld this shocking legal principle.
    – user4894
    Jun 27, 2021 at 1:27
  • Maybe if it was my mother-in-law ... :-) Seriously, wouldn't most people save their blood relatives? And I don't think an ethicist could object. Should I not eat lunch because people are starving? You do what you can, but your first duty is to yourself and your own. Just a thought, I'm no ethicist.
    – user4894
    Jun 27, 2021 at 1:27
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    "Virtue" has many definitions depending on who you ask and their cultural background. Ancient Greeks and Hebrews considered honouring ones parents a requirement to be considered virtuous, to the point that fathers could have their disobedient children put to death. In such a culture choosing your relative over two strangers would probably be seen as virtuous.
    – armand
    Jun 27, 2021 at 2:49

1 Answer 1


It's certainly consistent with virtue ethics to save one's mother. Verdicts may differ among various virtue ethicists; the point is that there's not a unanimous consensus that virtue demands sacrificing one's mother.

In fact, it's not even true that utilitarianism demands saving the two strangers. It depends on your axiology. Circumstances in which people care for and sacrifice for their loved ones might be (ceteris paribus) better than circumstances in which they don't. In which case, according to utilitarianism, you should (ceteris paribus) save your mother instead fo the strangers (because you should act in a way that brings about the best circumstances).

Here is a classic paper on this topic by Peter Railton.

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