We tend to think that some wrongs are so small that doing them makes no difference. If I keep my heater on during a power shortage, perhaps the shortage lasts a hundredth of a second longer than it would otherwise have done. I tell myself that this effect is too small to matter.
But imagine a village in which 100 tribesmen are eating lunch. 100 bandits descent on the village, and each bandit takes one tribesman’s lunch and eats it. The bandits leave, each having denied a tribesman an appreciable amount of pleasure.
The next week, hungry again, they descend on the village and tie up the tribesmen. At first they have some moral qualms about robbing them again, but then they notice that each tribesman’s lunch consists of 100 beans.
“The pleasure derived from one baked bean is below the discrimination threshold,” writes philosopher Jonathan Glover. “Instead of each bandit eating a single plateful as last week, each takes one bean from each plate. They leave after eating all the beans, pleased to have done no harm, as each has done no more than sub-threshold harm to each person.”
The outcome of the second raid is the same as that of the first, yet this time no tribesman has been “significantly” wronged by any bandit. Can we still say that some crimes are too small to matter?
(Jonathan Glover and M.J. Scott-Taggart, “It Makes No Difference Whether or Not I Do It,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 49 (1975), 171-209)