Philosophical Question, Part ][

Yesterday I posed a question about how clear you conscience can be if you leave your post and bad things happen. A couple of people responded with some good comments, but I feel that perhaps the details of the example got in the way — it is assumed that in this case The Company is ultimately responsible for their product. But the question is more along the lines of “culpable inaction” — is avoiding responsibility less morally reprehensible than taking it on and making a mistake?

As another example, let’s say you see an injured animal on the side of the road. You want to help the animal by taking it to a vet, but you’re not sure if moving it will cause further injury and possibly kill it. You decide that someone else will probably come along soon and they will be able to take it to the vet. Sure enough, someone else comes along, sees the animal, and picks it up to put it in their car. Unfortunately the animal struggles, the person accidentally drops it, and it dies.

Clearly it’s not your fault that the animal died — it would have died anyway even if you’d never observed the situation (Schrödinger notwithstanding ;-) ) — but you had the opportunity to make the situation better. By deliberately choosing to avoid the situation, are you really a “better person” than the poor soul who tried to help the animal but inadvertently killed it? What about if you had good reason to believe that an average person would accidentally kill the animal? What if you had experience handling injured animals and were more likely than not to have successfully helped the animal? And so on.

Obviously there’s no real answer to the question — that’s the great thing about philosophy. Some things are clearly bad (and possibly illegal — for example, choosing not to report a violent crime you have witnessed) and some things are clearly benign (need…good…example…) but there’s a huge grey area in the middle.

I’m sure there’s been a lot of thought on this subject, and some very smart people have written much about it; I’m just too lazy to go out and read about it ;-)

Comments (4)

  1. Eric Lippert says:

    This is a very practical problem in medical ethics, which is probably where I’d look first if you do want to read up on it. Hippocrates said "help, or at least to do no harm" (*), but that’s not an answer to the question you’re asking. I mean, obviously helping is good and harm is bad, by definition. The question you’re asking is "does the risk of harm through action outweigh the risk of harm through inaction?" That’s got to be a judgment call.

    Non-hypothetical example: I have a friend who was in a mall the other day and someone just fell over and had a heart attack. Of course a crowd formed, and she stepped up and said "my last CPR training was five years ago — is there anyone here who has a more recent rating than that?" No one answered, so she did CPR until the paramedics arrived.

    I think that’s a reasonable compromise — part of the ethical dilemna occurs because of a lack of information. Can someone help better than me? If so, find them. If not, muddle on as best you can.

    I have a copy of Betrand Russell’s essay "In Praise of Idleness" at home, but I don’t recall if he specifically addresses this ethical issue. If I remember, I’ll look it up tonight.

    Of course, one can construct any number of ridiculous "action vs. inaction" ethical dilemnas. A train is coming down the track headed towards ten kids, but if you flip this switch, you can divert it so it only hits one. Do you flip the switch? Ten little kids each need a different organ transplant or else they’ll die, and there is a healthy donor child playing jump-rope outside the hospital. Do you kidnap her and harvest her organs? Etc.

    (*) This is not the Hippocratic oath, though it is usually attributed thus. It’s actually a quote from Hippocrates book on epidemics.

  2. Jeroen says:

    The commenter above has said a lot already, but to add something to this: I think that you have to know what you’re capable of and also what you are not capable of in order to be able to determine what the best thing to do in such a situation is. If something bad happens and you are qualified to (attempt!) to fix it, it’s the right thing to do to intervent. If you’re not qualified, then it’s more complicated: how big is the chance that someone (more) qualified will come along in time in order to help? If that chance of happening is smaller than the odds of what you can do will help, than help out anyway.

    The problem with this is that you have too many unknowns and too little time in a typical situation to figure that out, so it boils down to what you probably feel is best. Unfortunately this can go horribly wrong.

  3. vinny-baby says:

    evil (pain) prevails when good men fail to act…

  4. Arrabi says:

    Well, weirdly enough, this is a common question for ….. Presidency! or even holding any public office.

    During the American Government class, our professor had a very interesting question: do presidents enjoy their position?

    A sizable portion actually hate presidency but they feel it’s an obligation (they don’t trust others).

    As I remember, and I have to verify this, the division on this question is very similar to that of political party…:-) [try to guess which is which]

    Generally speaking, the Democracts enjoy presidency (think Clinton!), and Republicans feel it’s an obligation (like Eisenhower).