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.