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.

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