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Thought Experiment Tuesday: Doing and Allowing

Mercurial

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(Posted on a Wednesday, because I'm forgetful)

Some people believe that there is an important moral difference between doing something, and merely allowing something to happen. Others disagree. Whether we think there is a meaningful difference is important, because there are some cases where people argue that it is okay to allow something to happen through inaction, but not okay to deliberately bring it about. (For example, some people believe that in some cases it is permissible to withhold treatment from a terminally ill patient, thereby allowing him or her to die, but that it would be wrong to actively kill the patient)

Here are some thought experiments designed to test your intuitions about the distinction between doing and allowing, borrowed from the philosopher Liam Shields:


Rescue I: we can save either five people in danger of drowning at one place or a single person in danger of drowning somewhere else. We cannot save all six. What should we do?
Rescue II: we can save the five only by driving over and thereby killing someone who (for an unspecified reason) is trapped on the road. What should we do?
Rescue III: We are off by special train to save five who are in imminent danger of death. Every second counts. You have just taken over from the driver who has left the locomotive to attend to something. Since the train is on automatic control you need do nothing to keep it going. But you can stop it by putting on the brakes. You suddenly see someone trapped ahead on the track. Unless you act he will be killed. But if you do stop, and then free the man, the rescue mission will be aborted.
Rescue IV: Suppose you are on a train on which there has just been an explosion. You can stop the train, but that is a complicated business that would take time. So you set it on automatic forward and rush back to the five badly wounded passengers. While attending to them, you learnt that a man is trapped far ahead on the track. You must decide whether to return to the cabin to save him or stay with the passengers and save them.
Each of these cases involves choosing between two outcomes - one where five people are saved, and another where one person is saved. However, some of the cases require our direct involvement in the killing of a person, while others merely require that we allow one person to die.

Does this difference matter, and if so, why?
 


Morgellons

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No, it doesn't matter because it's a rubbish academic exercise, the kind of thing they give the bewildered mature student cohorts to ruminate over in their entrance exams to the mickey mouse third level institutions in this country, places staffed with people like yourself.

Pure tosh...what if...what if....

You'd walk over a homeless person if you could get to the ball faster.
 

Mercurial

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No, it doesn't matter because it's a rubbish academic exercise, the kind of thing they give the bewildered mature student cohorts to ruminate over in their entrance exams to the mickey mouse third level institutions in this country, places staffed with people like yourself.

Pure tosh...what if...what if....

You'd walk over a homeless person if you could get to the ball faster.
The distinction between doing and allowing is relevant in at least a couple of important cases.

For example, it features prominently in medical ethics, as suggested in the OP - where doctors sometimes distinguish between withholding treatment, and actively killing the patient. Perhaps most infamously, the Terri Schiavo case resulted in Schiavo essentially being starved to death because that was regarded as more ethical than actively killing her.

It is also relevant, for example, in cases involving foreign intervention, with regard both to warfare and humanitarian aid. If there is no meaningful distinction between doing and allowing, then powerful countries which choose not to intervene to prevent suffering abroad may be more culpable for their inaction than some people may think.

Which is not to mention the implications that the distinction has for our ordinary interactions with one another - we tend to think we bear less responsibility for harm that we merely allow to happen, as opposed to harm that we directly cause. If this is mistaken, there are significant implications for how we evaluate our omissions, as well as our actions.
 

GDPR

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But Merc, the TS case didnt involve letting or causing Ms Schiavo to die in order that five other people might live. The problem with your examples is that most people wont see the distinction - they will adopt a strictly utilitarian view-point: five live people, one dead, however that death was compassed.
 

olli rehn

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(Posted on a Wednesday, because I'm forgetful)

Some people believe that there is an important moral difference between doing something, and merely allowing something to happen. Others disagree. Whether we think there is a meaningful difference is important, because there are some cases where people argue that it is okay to allow something to happen through inaction, but not okay to deliberately bring it about. (For example, some people believe that in some cases it is permissible to withhold treatment from a terminally ill patient, thereby allowing him or her to die, but that it would be wrong to actively kill the patient)

Here are some thought experiments designed to test your intuitions about the distinction between doing and allowing, borrowed from the philosopher Liam Shields:










Each of these cases involves choosing between two outcomes - one where five people are saved, and another where one person is saved. However, some of the cases require our direct involvement in the killing of a person, while others merely require that we allow one person to die.

Does this difference matter, and if so, why?
Better ask Jack Bauer about this one- he has plenty of experience in problems like this !

[video=youtube;AsaItEbq9zI]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsaItEbq9zI[/video]
 

Mercurial

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But Merc, the TS case didnt involve letting or causing Ms Schiavo to die in order that five other people might live. The problem with your examples is that most people wont see the distinction - they will adopt a strictly utilitarian view-point: five live people, one dead, however that death was compassed.
I don't think most people's intuitions necessarily go that way. Most people, for example, won't push the fat man off the bridge to save the lives of five, and won't permit the doctor to kill one healthy patient if his organs could be used to save the lives of five others, to borrow a couple of other similar thought experiments.
 

off with their heads

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I don't think most people's intuitions necessarily go that way. Most people, for example, won't push the fat man off the bridge to save the lives of five, and won't permit the doctor to kill one healthy patient if his organs could be used to save the lives of five others, to borrow a couple of other similar thought experiments.
is this what you talk about at common purpose meetings?
 

Carlos Danger

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I don't think most people's intuitions necessarily go that way. Most people, for example, won't push the fat man off the bridge to save the lives of five, and won't permit the doctor to kill one healthy patient if his organs could be used to save the lives of five others, to borrow a couple of other similar thought experiments.
You, me and Auberon Herbert...but Eagle has a point, and history confirms it. Most people won't actually read (comprehensively) the OP. This will be about the greater good.
 

EUrJokingMeRight

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Inaction is bringing it about.
 

Mathew Peachew

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You, me and Auberon Herbert...but Eagle has a point, and history confirms it. Most people won't actually read (comprehensively) the OP. This will be about the greater good.
I disagree. Most people will deal with that which is immediate and right in front of them, imploring their help, whether it be the 5 or the 1.
 

RodShaft

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People will react instinctively under stress. The instinctive reaction of most is to avoid killing and they will delay the decision until the choice is taken out of their hands

That's reality.

Otherwise we'd be hearing about cases like this all the time.

Most of you on here spend too much time living in your heads.
 

statsman

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I: Reluctantly save the five. And yes, the one could have been in possession of a cure for cancer. You'll spend the rest of your life having bad dreams about your decision.
II: Stop and untrap the person on the road before someone else kills them.
III: Stop the train.
IV: Stop the train.
 

GDPR

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I don't think most people's intuitions necessarily go that way. Most people, for example, won't push the fat man off the bridge to save the lives of five, and won't permit the doctor to kill one healthy patient if his organs could be used to save the lives of five others, to borrow a couple of other similar thought experiments.

Fair enough Merc, but if you have already made up your mind how people will respond to your scenarios, then what is the point?

And to repeat - the Schivao analogy is not precise. Five peoples lives were not at stake if Schiavo was maintained on life support. The legal case was an extremely complex one and turned inter alia on allegations of malpractice and misdiagnosis, as well the competing rights of her next of kin and the guardian ad litem appointed under Florida law, as well as the late introduction of a disability rights bill. It is well worth studying to see how the courts unpicked this tangle.
 

RodShaft

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Fair enough Merc, but if you have already made up your mind how people will respond to your scenarios, then what is the point?

And to repeat - the Schivao analogy is not precise. Five peoples lives were not at stake if Schiavo was maintained on life support. The legal case was an extremely complex one and turned inter alia on allegations of malpractice and misdiagnosis, as well the competing rights of her next of kin and the guardian ad litem appointed under Florida law, as well as the late introduction of a disability rights bill. It is well worth studying to see how the courts unpicked this tangle.


*Le yawn*

Too early to be thinking too hard, dear.
 

Half Nelson

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Merc, you can't plough a field by turning it over in your mind.

Or, to put it another way - try to get out more often.
 

between the bridges

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They all die while the rescuers phone Merc for advice...
 

jcdf

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People will react instinctively under stress. The instinctive reaction of most is to avoid killing and they will delay the decision until the choice is taken out of their hands

That's reality.

Otherwise we'd be hearing about cases like this all the time.

Most of you on here spend too much time living in your heads.
When people are blindsighted they act on instinct and their thoughts become focused on the immediate here and now. Possible even likely future consequences are filtered from their consciousness. Most people will respond to these scenarios as statsman did. In the first one to save the one or save the five is an immediate decision, least harm principle dictates save the five.

In the next three time becomes tiered with an immediate and future event. Save the one now and then after that save the five later. Attempting to wrap the mostly known present and largely unknown future all into one decision is in some ways counter intuitive. Your asking us to make a moral choice when viewing the universe from God's perspective of eternity when we don't do this and we can't do this and we know well we can't.

The fourth and last one is a little more complicated. This time the saving the five becomes the immediate event and saving of the one the future event. I might deviate from statsman choice on this one and not pull the break - who knows what will happen.
 


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