Sunday, January 29, 2006

Doing and Allowing

There's some interesting discussion over on Jonathan Ichikawa's blog about the doing/allowing distinction. Jonathan denies that this distinction has any great moral significance. (Call this the "Moral Equivalence Thesis", or MET.) In defending this position, he makes an important point: those who would attack MET need to first make sure that their examples actually involve corresponding (in)actions.

For example, it's no use pointing out that murdering someone is much worse than failing to prevent them from walking into the street where the murderer secretly lay in wait. For here the 'doing' and the 'allowing' do not match up. The action is an intentional killing, whereas the inaction is merely aimed at a walk in the street. As Jonathan explains: "The apt comparison is between (knowingly) killing someone and (knowingly) refraining from preventing her death."

I've always thought the greatest worry for MET was its disturbing implication that we're all responsible for the unnecessary deaths in third world countries (whenever we fail to give to Oxfam). But what would the 'action' corresponding to this 'inaction' be? The inaction seems ubiquitous in our lives, rarely considered, and largely necessary for our luxurious standard of living (though of course occasional sacrifices would not be too trying for us). Moreover, it is only very indirectly related to the eventual deaths.

Bearing these facts in mind, I think the corresponding 'action' would go something like this: Imagine our 'day-to-day' bank account is set up to transfer its contents to Oxfam at the end of each month. (Perhaps at the start of the month it gets refilled from our savings account, or some of our income is deposited straight into it, or whatever.) Then, whenever you spend money from this account, you are acting in a way that reduces the amount of money Oxfam receives from you. (You know this well enough, though you might rarely give it a second thought.) Your actions indirectly cause more people in third world countries to die; just like your actual inaction does. It seems clear that the two are morally equivalent.

I think MET remains extremely plausible once clarified in the above scenario. When we take care to ensure that the actions and inactions (or 'doings' and 'allowings') are genuinely corresponding, then we find that MET is a much less radical thesis than we might originally have thought. The action described above is not morally equivalent to directly killing people, at least not without adding many further assumptions. So MET alone does not imply that we might as well have shot a poor person when we failed to give to charity.

No, even in this extreme case, when MET is properly understood, it appears to be quite plainly true. And this is even more obvious, I think, in cases like euthanasia. Denying MET here can lead to bizarre results. We might end up with life-support machines that are built to automatically turn themselves off unless the operators press a button. That way, the patient's death would be purely due to the doctor's "inaction", and not his "actions". But I'm sure you'll all agree that this is a superficial difference, and that it couldn't be any better or worse to flick the switch off than to refrain from pressing the "stay on" button.

And this superficiality is precisely what MET recognizes. Whether technically "action" or "inaction", "doing" or "allowing", it's really all the same.

(A speculative final note: I think this ties in with the "baseline" issue discussed in my post on framing thought experiments. Perhaps "actions" are seen as deviating from the 'natural way of things', whereas "inaction" simply leaves things at the baseline. If so, the lack of any metaphysical grounding for this ghostly notion of a 'true baseline' should provide us with further grounds for doubting the significance of the doing/allowing distinction.)



  1. I'm not sure I follow your point about our inaction being only indirectly related to eventual deaths. If someone is being violently beaten outside my window and I refrain from calling the police, my inaction is only very indirectly related to their death, but this tells me nothing about my responsibility for it. Likewise I don't see there's any puzzle about the 'action' corresponding to the 'inaction', allowing for some slight abstraction (from cost of bureaucracy, etc.): in the case of starvation, the action is deliberately starving someone, and the inaction is deliberately allowing them to starve by refraining from a preventative action. In the case of malaria, the action is exposing someone to malaria-infested mosquitoes, and the inaction is deliberately allowing them to be exposed by failing to contribute to preventative measures. (Your suggested set-up doesn't seem useful to me, because it makes the victim Oxfam. There's no moral issue about failing to give Oxfam money; Oxfam is merely a means to an end, and it is the end that gives the action its moral quality.)

  2. How does my scenario make Oxfam the victim? As you say, they (or whatever charity you care to substitute) are only a means to an end. The real victims are surely the starving people who will no longer be saved.

    I don't think your "window" scenario is "indirect" in the same sense as I meant. But I'm having trouble putting my finger on the difference, so I might have to get back to you on this one.

    Nevertheless, don't you agree that there's a difference between the charity-reducing actions described in my scenario and "deliberatively starving someone"? And aren't our charity-related inactions properly analogous to the former rather than the latter?

    (I'm not sure that our everyday (in)actions are best described as "deliberately allowing [people] to starve". It just seems far less direct than your window scenario. But again, I'm not sure how to spell this out.)

  3. I see there being no real distinction between action an inaction.

    People make a series of choices uch as the choice to get up in the morning or the choice not to get up in the morning and those choices have effects. inaction can easily be jsut as much if not more of achoice than action - a classic example might be if I was standing in the middle of the road doing so would take quite a bit of thought when everything in me would be wanting to move me out of the way of the traffic. The same would be true in the long run about staying in bed or not helping a starving person outside my door.

    The difference we seem to notice i think is what I would term "psychological intensity" (ok I just made that up today) what that means is that if I send you to ethiopia to stave it implies I spent quite a bit of time thinking about it but if I fail to send money to help a person in africa the choice may have barely been considered in my brain.

    there are problems (scary scenarios or whatever) with using this sort of measure but it is fairly intuitive.

  4. Well, perhaps it was just a matter of the way you formulated the Oxfam scenario; since it sounded to my ears like the problem was with diverting money from Oxfam rather than with diverting money from the starving.

    I'm inclined to say there's no significant difference between the charity-reducing actions and deliberately starving someone at a certain level of abstraction. In real life there will be differences: there are other demands on our charity, for instance, that have to be factored into the equation, and there are obligations of justice to family members and community that have to be met prior to determining how much we can give. I also think it makes a difference how deeply involved we are with the problem and how effective our action will be (perhaps this is a difference between the indirectness of charity reduction and the indirectness of the window scenario?), and whether the inaction is deliberate, due to negligence, or due to ignorance. But if we idealized a bit I think they end up being pretty much the same. The idealization would just require three conditions:

    (1) That the inaction be deliberate;
    (2) That it be reasonably probable that our charitable gift would be put to good use and not lost in bureaucratic expenses or channeled into the pockets of oppressors (as charity to the third world often is);
    (3) That we are not choosing between different ways of being charitable.

    Under such conditions, which might not always be strictly true IRL (although it seems to me that they could be true 'for all practical purposes'), I think any difference vanishes. But then I tend to agree with the Thomistic view of these things: failure to use one's surplus funds to help others in some way is a violation of justice. There's some gray area about what counts as essential for human life and what counts as surplus, and the precise line is each person's to decide; but charity is not supererogatory.

  5. Hello Richard,

    The comments here have brought out many of the points I would like to make about your post. You admit that the directness requirement is difficult to apply. I think Genius puts his finger on it by identifying 'psychological intensity' as what seems to be important. Of course this seems intuitive. But I believe this intuition is misguided as far as morality goes. It feels less intent to murder someone by hiring an assassin, but it makes it no less wrong.

    On my blog you suggested that direct experience versus indirect experience was an important distinction. The only relevant difference I can see is that direct experience is more likely to prick the experiencer's conscience. This would also seem to excuse anyone who still does not feel this prick of conscience (at least to the extent of the man in the next room). Without that, what of substance is left in the distinction? Furthermore, this has the other worrying implication of actually encouraging the man in the next room and turn a blind eye to avoid going in as then he would morally bind himself!

    As Genius says, "there are problems" with any of these attempts to distinguish killing someone from failing to donate to save their life. Intead, I offer my own distinction in this post on my blog:

    Simply having the power to do good does not create a moral obligation. Instead, the primary way for someone to become positively morally obliged is if they are causally responsible for the state of affairs in some way. By reasserting this causal responsibility, we find ourselves not morally responsible for third world deaths (or at least not to this kind of extent). Equally however I would argue that we are not morally obliged to help someone being attacked in the street or drowning in a river with whom we have no prior connection. It would certainly be morally better to do so, but we are not morally obliged.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)