Can It Be More Moral to Do Nothing?
If someone is in excruciating terminal pain, you can let them die but you can’t kill them.
This may be a Q1 violation if you think that letting someone die is murder or you are against euthanasia or allowing extreme suffering.
This is a Q2 violation if you would want someone to kill you if you were in horrible, long-term pain with no chance of recovery, or if you wouldn’t want someone to let you die under any circumstances.
The assumption behind this statement is that if there are two paths to a result and both of those paths require an action that would in and of itself be considered immoral, it is better to choose the path where you take no action than the path where you take action. Or, to put it another way, it is more moral to do nothing and let something bad happen than to directly do something bad.
This position seems to incorporate a number of additional assumptions, namely:
- Mercy killing is murder.
- Murder is more immoral than letting die, even if the latter death would involve more suffering.
- Murder is more immoral than allowing pain to continue.
- Allowing someone to die does not count as taking an action.
- Allowing someone to die is not murder.
Imagine that you are in charge of a baby that was born with an exposed spine. The baby will live in excruciating pain for about three months before dying. The baby’s parents have abandoned it. With this scenario in mind, consider the following actions. Are any more or less moral than the others?
- You smother the baby with a pillow.
- You give the baby an injection of enough painkiller to end its life.
- You give the baby an injection of enough pain killer to remove its pain, knowing that the dosage will likely be fatal.
- You administer medication that will keep the baby asleep until it its deformity proves fatal.
- You allow the baby to slowly die from dehydration.
- You administer medication that will keep the baby asleep and allow it to slowly die from dehydration.
- You give the baby what care you can until it dies naturally.
- You give the baby what care you can until it is about to die naturally, then put it on life support to keep it alive as long as possible.
There are many situations in which you can choose to take action or not take action. In which (if any) of these examples would it be morally allowable — or preferable — not to act?
- You catch your best friend cheating on his wife. If you tell his wife, she’ll demand a divorce. If you don’t tell, the affair will continue until his wife finds out about it, at which time she’ll demand a divorce.
- A crazy man has set the building on fire and is standing in front of the door with an axe to prevent anyone from leaving. A beam over his head is on fire. If you don’t warn him, it will fall and kill him.
- The building is on fire and a hysterical man is pushing against the only exit, preventing it from being pulled opened. A beam over his head is on fire. If you don’t warn him, it will fall and kill him, allowing the door to be opened.
- You see a homeless woman shoplifting baby food and diapers.
- While on a trek into the deep jungle, your friend cuts a finger on a knife blade. The wound becomes horribly infected but you have no antibiotics. If you cut off your friend’s finger, it will end the infection. If you wait until you can get to a hospital, your friend will lose the whole hand.
You are encouraged to leave your answers to the questions posed in this post in the comments section. This post is based on an excerpt from Ask Yourself to be Moral, by D. Cancilla, available at LuLu.com and Amazon.com. See the 2Q system page for details of the philosophical system mentioned in this post.