Sunday, February 23, 2014

Doing v. allowing harm

Freewill theists typically contend that Calvinism makes God complicit in evil (or "the author of sin") because God is said to "cause" sin according to Calvinism, where's freewill theism let's God off the hook because God merely permits evil. I'm going to excerpt some passages from an article which illustrate how often and easily that facile distinction breaks down. After that I will add an illustration of my own. 
Is doing harm worse than allowing harm? 
James Rachels (1975) provides a classic example of the first approach.[2] He offers us a pair of cases—in one, Smith drowns his young cousin in the bathtub; in the other, Jones plans to drown his young cousin, but finds the boy already unconscious under water and refrains from saving him. The two cases are exactly alike except that the first is a killing and the second a letting die. Rachels invites us to agree that Smith's behavior is no worse than Jones's.  
It is arguably true that you can be morally responsible only for what you are causally responsible for. So, if you cause a bad state of affairs, you've probably done wrong; whereas if you don't cause a bad state of affairs, you haven't. In choosing between killing and letting die, you are choosing between doing wrong and not doing wrong. (Of course, this doesn't apply to non-harmful cases of killing, such as, arguably, some cases of active euthanasia.) The question of what you ought to do is then tautologously easy. 
This argument begins to get into trouble when we reflect on the fact that we are often responsible for upshots we allow: the death of the houseplants or the child's illiteracy. When we notice that, in these cases, the plants die or the child remains uneducated because of some failure on the agent's part, it becomes clear that the agent does, in some sense, cause the upshots. Moreover, most widely accepted contemporary accounts of causation imply that some event or fact involving these agents causes the deaths or illiteracy. For example, the counterfactual account of causation—according to which (very roughly) event E causes F if and only if had E not occurred F would not have occurred either—implies that it was the agent's failure to water the plants that caused the deaths.[7] John Mackie's INUS condition—according to which E causes F if and only if E is a(n insufficient but) necessary part of a(n unnecessary but) sufficient condition for F—implies that the fact that the agent failed to water the plants causes the plants to die.[8] 
Suppose, for example, the victim dies because I push his head under water. He wouldn't have died if I had been absent. On the other hand, suppose he is in deep water and cannot swim and I don't save him. He would have drowned anyway if I had been absent. In these two cases, the counterfactual account draws the line in the intuitively correct way. 
This account is sometimes used to support the claim that doing harm is worse than allowing harm, on the grounds that, on this account, allowing harm is simply a matter of letting nature take its course, which, other things being equal, is good, or at least permissible. There are two or three quick objections to this argument. Firstly, it assumes that acting (such as killing or saving lives) is a matter of interfering with the course of nature—in other words, that human action is somehow outside of the course of nature. This is extremely controversial. Secondly, even if human action is outside the course of nature, if the agent is faced with a choice between killing one and allowing two to die at the hand of some other agent, this argument would favor neither option since neither involves letting nature take its course. But, as traditionally understood and used, the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing is supposed to favor letting die in this case just as much as in others. Thirdly, interfering in the course of nature is sometimes obviously the better course of action—to stop the bleeding, restart the heart, and so on. 
The key difference here is between cases where the agent produces the result by an action and cases where she produces it by an inaction—pushing the head under water or refraining from throwing a life preserver. There's an extra complication here, however. Sometimes, Quinn says, your relevance to a death can be positive, you can kill, in other words, even though you don't act. This happens, for example, when you are on a train headed towards some drowning victims you wish to save when you notice someone tied to the tracks ahead of you. You can stop the train but you choose not to in order to reach your destination. Quinn believes that you kill in this case, because the train acts as your agent, taking you where you want to go, and crushing the person tied to the tracks in the process. On the other hand, if you had chosen not to stop the train for some other reason but you would have not minded had someone else stopped the train, then your failure to stop the train would not have constituted a killing. 
A puzzle remains. What about cases where the agent removes a safety net from beneath a falling victim, unplugs a respirator, kicks a rock out of the path of the runaway vehicle, and other similar cases? No physical forces run from the agent to the victim. So, by the account under discussion, they are cases of negative relevance, and yet many of them, at least by many people, are confidently judged to be cases of positive relevance.
Suppose a drug dealer recruits adults or teens with Down syndrome to work as couriers. They are easily duped into working for him since they fail to appreciate the significance of their actions. 
The dealer can't be arrested for dealing drugs since he didn't actually deal the drugs. If his couriers are apprehended, that can't be traced back to him since they lack the mental competence to testify against him in a court of law. 
Question: is it better or worse for him to peddle drugs directly or exploit individuals with Down syndrome to do it for him? 

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