Monday, June 24, 2013

Acting without moving one’s body

My last blog was about the moral relevance of the distinction between doing and allowing. My analysis suggested that the difference between both is not very clear-cut. Nevertheless, there seems to be a basic distinction between the concepts: Doing is making things happen and allowing is letting things happen. The former is usually interpreted that way that the making implies an intention in what we do plus a relevant movement of our body. As a rule we call such a doing an action. Allowing is usually interpreted that way that the letting implies that the things that take place will happen anyway without our intervention. However, as the two cases in my last blog show, the distinction is not as marked as it might look to us on the face of it. In Case 1 the doctor turns off the life-support machine in order to let John die. In Case 2 Bill turns off the life-support machine in order to make John die. The difference is here a matter of interpretation, but just this might cast doubt on the idea that there is a fundamental difference between doing and allowing. This may be even more so, if one realizes that allowing is not merely a matter of letting things happen and that’s it. Many things in the world around us occur and we take hardly any notice of them if we do it at all. Then we don’t say that we allow them. Especially we do not say that if we cannot have any influence on what is going on. Just the fact that we notice what is happening; that we have the possibility to intervene; and that we have a reason to intervene makes that we speak of “allowing”. In other words: Allowing is intentionally not intervening. Seen that way, the difference between doing and allowing tends to fade away, for then allowing is nothing else than a passive doing. It’s a kind of action without moving one’s body, so to speak. If we add to this that allowing is a matter of degree (see my last blog), then it’s only one step to see doing, or better acting, and allowing as extremes on a sliding scale.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Doing and allowing (2): Two cases

Case 1. By a car accident John has got a serious brain damage. He is in coma and there is no chance that he’ll recover. After several years the family and the medical staff see it as the best solution for John to turn off the life-support machine and let him die. So the doctor who is responsible for John’s treatment turns off the machine and John dies. Many people will say that this is a case of allowing (that John dies): The doctor lets John die. If there hadn’t existed a life-supporting machine, John would have died anyway.
Case 2. By a car accident John has got a serious brain damage. He is in coma and there is no chance that he’ll recover. In his active life John was a criminal who has killed a member of another gang. The remaining members want to take revenge. After a few years, Bill, a member of this gang, discovers that John lies in coma in a hospital. He wants to turn off the life-support machine and so kill John. In the meantime, John’s family and the medical staff have decided that it is best for John is to turn off the life-support machine that is keeping John alive and let him die. However, just before the doctor responsible for John’s treatment can carry out the decision, Bills sneaks in the room where John is lying and turns off the machine. When the doctor has entered the room he can only certify John’s death. Many people will say that this is a case of doing, namely murder: Bill made John die, although John would have died a few moments later anyway, if Bill hadn’t turn off the machine.
What’s the difference? Can we say that the difference between Case 1 and Case 2 is basically a matter of intention? Or maybe it is a matter of action and inaction, as some philosophers suggest in other examples?
The problem of the difference between doing and allowing is not new. It has been discussed already by many philosopher. One question is: Is the distinction between doing and allowing morally significant in relevant cases (like mine)? Is this also the case, if, as in Case 2, John would have died also if Bill hadn’t turned off the life-support machine?

In this blog I can pass only a few comments, but the answer seems to depend on many factors and cannot be clear-cut in the sense that allowing is either (morally) different from positive acting (doing) or it isn’t. Some relevant points are:
- What do we mean with “morally”? If you think that lives must be saved anyway under any condition, you might conclude that there is no difference between doing and allowing, at least not in my cases (but what do you mean then with “life”?).
- There are different types of relevance. Maybe the difference between Case 1 and Case 2 is juridically relevant (for instance, because euthanasia is legal if certain procedures have been fulfilled), but at the same time it can also be morally relevant (see the former point; maybe you accept the legality of euthanasia because, as a democrat, you accept that the law on euthanasia has been passed in the right way, but nevertheless you don’t agree with it). This shows that allowing is a multidimensional concept. Maybe there are more dimensions than the two I just mentioned. For instance, allowing can be intentional (Case 1) or unintentional (not knowing what to do) or in between (having to make a choice: see the next point for an example), a matter of unconcern (see also the next point), and so on.
- Allowing can also be a matter of degree. It is a big difference when you see a car accident but you do nothing and the victim dies, because you didn’t care or because you were on the way to the hospital with another person who was in peril of death. Or the person that you brought to the hospital was not in peril of death, but it was your father, so you were very worried, while you didn’t realize that the victim of the car accident needed immediate help. It will not be difficult to find other intermediate cases that exemplify that allowing may be a matter of degree.
There are certainly other points that can be put forward that make it impossible to say in general that the difference between doing and allowing is fundamentally relevant or just that it isn’t, although I personally think that it is not not relevant.

In writing this blog I am greatly indebted to Fiona Woollard, “The doctrine of doing and allowing”, part I and II, in Philosophy Compass, 7/7 (2012), pp. 448-469.

Monday, June 10, 2013

“Equality is the soul of equity”

A reader of this website kindly commented on the passage in my last blog that said that the quotation from Richardson (“killing one man is seen as wicked while killing ten thousand is seen as glorious”) points to a double morality. I thought that it would be a good idea to say something more on the idea of “double morality” and, of course, there is a lot to say about it but I didn’t find anything that was good enough to use for my blog or – from another point of view – I wasn’t inspired enough to use what I found on the Internet and in my books and what popped up in my mind. So, I did what I often do then: I took Montaigne’s Essays from my bookcase and I glanced through it. It was no surprise that I ended up in the essay titled “That to study philosophy is to learn to die”, since it is full of underlines in my paper edition, made when I read this essay (which I did several times). The essay is really a place where the reader can find many interesting and stimulating thoughts, and if you want to read at least one essay by Montaigne in your life before you die, this one is a good choice (another good choice is Montaigne’s essay on friendship). It’s almost sure that I’ll use this essay later again here in my blogs, but now my eye was immediately caught by a statement by Montaigne that seemed to apply exactly to the theme of double moral standards: “Equality is the soul of equity”. For isn’t equality the soul of a moral standard that is the same for all? So I thought that this quotation would be a good starting point for a blog on double morality and I still think it is, but then I realized that Montaigne’s statement is even more important in its historical context. For nowadays, more than two hundred years after the French Revolution and 65 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the idea that rights are the same for everybody, which is what this statement implies, is something that goes without saying, albeit it so that often the practice is still different. But in the age of Montaigne justice wasn’t the same for all but it was based on the estate a person belonged to, although in his time the idea of justice based on estate begun to change, after it had reached its summit in the Middle Ages, namely the idea that there is a different kind of justice depending on whether you are a noble, a clergyman or a commoner. However, in this little remark by Montaigne it can be seen that then not everybody agreed with this idea and it shows that the medieval view already became discredited, although it would still last ages, before the idea had faded away, or at least almost…  

Monday, June 03, 2013

The downward trend of violence

Monument for Roland, commander of the rear guard of
Charlemagne’s army in 778 in the Battle of Roncevaux

In my last blog I mentioned Steven Pinker’s thesis that the world is becoming increasingly peaceful. In fact, this remark was only indirectly connected with what I wanted to say there, but at the moment I am reading his The Better Angels of Our Nature. I have almost finished it and I am impressed, so I couldn’t help referring to it. Pinker’s thesis that the world has become safer and less violent through the years is convincing, although this doesn’t imply (and Pinker doesn’t say so) that this tendency is irreversible. The trend of violence goes down even if one takes into account the effects of two world wars and other carnages in the twentieth century, for violence is more than war and revolution. In the past, violence in daily life was by far more important than it is today. For instance, more people were killed by murder, but also on legal grounds. In 1822 an Englishman could be sentenced to death for 222 reasons, including, so Pinker, poaching, counterfeiting, robbing a rabbit warren or cutting down a tree. By 1861 only four capital offenses remained. The downward trend can be seen in other countries as well and gradually many countries have abolished death sentence. Also if violence does not lead to death there has been a downward trend. Moreover, the way people are punished has been humanized. Punishment in the ages before the French Revolution was heart breaking and cruel in due form. Although torture still exists in this world (but has become illegal in most countries) even here you find a “humanizing” trend, how terrible and intolerable it still is. Even if one doesn’t belief that violence is diminishing worldwide, the book is full of facts and insights on the history of its practice and by that on the social history of man and only that is already a good reason for reading it.
An insight that doesn’t come directly from Pinker himself but that he quotes from L.F. Richardson’s Statistics of deadly quarrels (Pittsburgh: Boxwood Press, 1960) runs: “Does it never strikes you as puzzling that it is wicked to kill one person, but glorious to kill ten thousand?” (p. 243). This quotation refers to one of the myths of history: the idea that maybe it is not good to kill but killing on order of a higher authority is to be honoured. In this case it says that war is allowed for carrying out state policy if other means fail. Isn’t this a double moral standard? But also here we see a downward trend. Killing on order of a higher authority has become less and less acceptable (see for instance the abolishment of capital punishment, a movement that is still going on). But also war has become an increasingly less palatable solution for political quarrels. International institutions have been established for ending international conflicts, like the United Nations and its institutions or the European Union. It’s one of the merits of the latter that it has made war between its members unthinkable (remember how many bloody wars their member states have fought out against each other till 1945). Gradually war is being held in disrespect. In fact it already is, and maybe once we’ll see the day that a country with an army will be treated as an outcast. As Montaigne said: “N’y avoir qu’une justice”, there is only one justice.