Thought Experiment Tuesday: Doing and Allowing

sadcitizen

Well-known member
Joined
Sep 27, 2011
Messages
4,271
It strikes me that these train-track riddle things are always more straight-forward if you analogise them to not involve death. E.g. save 5 people from living in poverty by forcing someone else to.

Take death of out of the equation and inaction is always clearly the morally correct choice, and there's no difference between 'doing' and 'allowing' because you're invoking your right for it to be none of your business. Nobody likes a hand-wringing busybody anyway, just be cool and walk away like "pff whatever", you'll be more attractive to girls and interview panels etc.
 
Last edited:


Mercurial

Moderator
Joined
Jun 4, 2009
Messages
88,665
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.
It's difficult to find precise real-world cases (which is why thought experiments can be useful), but the relevant aspect of the Schiavo case in this context is how she died - some people felt that it was unnecessarily cruel to allow her to die, and that it would have been better to kill her. Others argued that killing someone in a case like this would be wrong, because allowing someone to die is not as bad as actively killing them.

You're right that that case doesn't involve choosing between saving one and saving five, but one reason for adding the numbers in those cases is to put the intuition that there is a difference between doing and allowing under pressure.

If it's a choice between (A) Killing one person to save one person, or (B)) Saving one person by allowing one person to die, many people may insist that (A) would be worse.

If you then add to the numbers on one side of the equation so that a person's refusal to actively kill one person now results in the deaths of five people, then this provides a good test to see how powerful the distinction is.

(It should also be said that most of this doesn't apply to people who are straightforward utilitarians - utilitarian and other consequentialist views tend to reject the distinction between doing and allowing, so for them the correct thing to do will always be whatever action, or inaction, results in the best outcome).
 
Last edited:

talkingshop

Well-known member
Joined
Jun 9, 2011
Messages
26,876
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.
Agree with this. (Was a little less than 100% sure on 3. in that it wasn't entirely clear that I had been given authority by the driver to do anything).
 

GDPR

1
Joined
Jul 5, 2008
Messages
217,782
It's difficult to find precise real-world cases (which is why thought experiments can be useful), but the relevant aspect of the Schiavo case in this context is how she died - some people felt that it was unnecessarily cruel to allow her to die, and that it would have been better to kill her. Others argued that killing someone in a case like this would be wrong, because allowing someone to die is not as bad as actively killing them.

You're right that that case doesn't involve choosing between saving one and saving five, but one reason for adding the numbers in those cases is to put the intuition that there is a difference between doing and allowing under pressure.

If it's a choice between (A) Killing one person to save one person, or (B)) Saving one person by allowing one person to die, many people may insist that (A) would be worse.

If you then add to the numbers on one side of the equation so that a person's refusal to actively kill one person now results in the deaths of five people, then this provides a good test to see how powerful the distinction is.

(It should also be said that most of this doesn't apply to people who are straightforward utilitarians - utilitarian and other consequentialist views tend to reject the distinction between doing and allowing, so for them the correct thing to do will always be whatever action, or inaction, results in the best outcome).
Thats not quite true, Merc, the Schiavo case turned on many legal points and had little to do with notions of unnecessary cruelty. The main issues were to do with legal guardianship of Ms Schivao. Medical opinion was that she was functionally alive - with huge support - but only in the sense that smegma is living tissue. Briefly.
 

Mercurial

Moderator
Joined
Jun 4, 2009
Messages
88,665
Thats not quite true, Merc, the Schiavo case turned on many legal points and had little to do with notions of unnecessary cruelty.
Sure, but the particular aspect of that case that is relevant to the OP is the distinction between doing and allowing. That's just one very high profile case (for the reasons you mention) where the supposedly significant distinction was brought to bear on the treatment of a patient.
 

owedtojoy

Moderator
Joined
Feb 27, 2010
Messages
50,142
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.
The "healthy patient" option goes back to the experiment where the firing squad captain offers to let all the peasants go, if you will kill one them yourself.

Killing an individual is morally wrong, and the holder of imperative ethics would say that if you allow the killing of anyone even for good and high motives, you will soon be approving killing for frivolous and baser ones. Should Raskolnikov be allowed kill the old woman (as he did in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment) so that he can have a career like Napoleon and liberate humanity from its chains? We have a fair idea now how the Raskolnikovs of the world end up, if they get away with it.

(To find out what happened to Raskolnikov, read the book, if you have not already)

In the cases laid out, I would go with consequentalist ethics and saving two lives is better than saving one. But these decisions are fraught, and taking life should never be done lightly.
 

Socratus O' Pericles

Well-known member
Joined
Oct 12, 2009
Messages
32,967
I pay little attention to the catholic magesterium's views on obstetrical cases or anything else for that matter. Sure they'll change it when it suits them, which would be OK by me if they hadn't promised to be the upholders of the truth, ... the church of the living god, the pillar and ground of the truth, as it were..........until that doesn't suit.
 

Socratus O' Pericles

Well-known member
Joined
Oct 12, 2009
Messages
32,967
If a Tuesday Thought Experiment is always posted on a Wednesday is it still a thought experiment or still a Tuesday, come to that?
 

Socratus O' Pericles

Well-known member
Joined
Oct 12, 2009
Messages
32,967
If you had one every day it could be Quicksilver's Quotidian Quodlibets.
 

Half Nelson

Well-known member
Joined
Dec 12, 2009
Messages
22,079
I pay little attention to the catholic magesterium's views on obstetrical cases or anything else for that matter. Sure they'll change it when it suits them, which would be OK by me if they hadn't promised to be the upholders of the truth, ... the church of the living god, the pillar and ground of the truth, as it were..........until that doesn't suit.
What do you pay heed to?
Genuine question.
 

derryman

Well-known member
Joined
Sep 17, 2011
Messages
10,833
(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?
Merc by the time you have reasoned an answer all will have died anyway.
Do no harm and deal with each case as it presents itself.
 

TedHankey

Well-known member
Joined
Oct 3, 2014
Messages
1,056
1 - save whichever set that has the best chance of success and involves the least risk
2 - stop the bus, you're going to kill someone (unless the person is knowingly attempting to disrupt the heroics, then plough over him/her)
3 - put on the brakes, you're going to kill someone
4 - shout at the bollix up in the control cabin who is telling you about the trapped man to stop the train. also what kind of trains are these where on the first one you can just apply the brakes but on the second one it's so "complicated" to stop it? Seriously: continue with your efforts to save the 5 as you did not consciously act to harm the trapped man.

Our responsibility for any event/situation/result is always related to our influence over it, our ability to act. Allowing is itself an act if we can do otherwise.
 

derryman

Well-known member
Joined
Sep 17, 2011
Messages
10,833
I suppose this thread does give us all an insight into how stressful driving a Luas tram really is. I am now in deep sympathy with those drivers, poor things having to consider these dilemmas daily.
 

stopdoingstuff

Well-known member
Joined
Feb 26, 2011
Messages
22,522
Does this difference matter, and if so, why?
Doesn't matter if the outcomes are known. Once you know the consequences of a course of events, doing is the as refraining in that they both affirm an outcome. No escape from choice, I am afraid.
 

farnaby

Well-known member
Joined
May 15, 2006
Messages
1,937
Some people believe that there is an important moral difference between doing something, and merely allowing something to happen.
The only difference is around moral culpability.

Doing something makes you culpable for it, full stop.

Allowing something that has already been intended and caused by someone else means you are not morally culpable, but it is morally wrong to allow it if you have full power of intervention and can contain all the consequences (e.g. no collateral damage).

Therefore allowing a terminally ill patient to die rather than killing the patient is better because it demonstrably achieves the same consequences without anyone's moral culpability.

Allowing a vicious war to continue without intervention is only justifiable if the consequences are too unpredictable and potentially worse (as in the case of Gulf War II).
 


New Threads

Popular Threads

Most Replies

Top