Is The Distinction Between Killing And Letting

Die Tenable Essay, Research Paper

Is the distinction between killing and letting die tenable? Give your reasons.

The extent to which this distinction can rightfully be considered morally significant, has been discussed by Michael Tooley1 and Judith Jarvis Thompson2. In its application to euthanasia the issue has been brought up across the world, numerous times: it is an important distinction whose nature is a point still hotly contested.

The moral significance of the distinction lies at least partially in the nature of morality: what does a difference need to be, or do, or how important must it be, to qualify to be considered of significance morally? The importance of taking others lives is of immediate and obvious significance to all lives. Thou Shalt not kill 3 is indisputably a well-known commandment throughout the western world. Yet to intervene (or not intervene) in other people s death is perhaps a less obvious concern for most lives.

By prima facie intuition killing might seem worse than letting die, in certain cases there is a clear distinction between the two, for example, killing someone deliberately is murder whereas somebody dying in a hospital might be allowed to die, if the patient is considered brain-dead, by switching off a machine that is keeping that person alive. But, isn t it possible that someone could deliberately choose to let somebody die, for example whilst having the means to provide an antidote to a poisonning and not administer it, and thereby murder and kill them; and isn t switching off a machine a deliberate action to end that person s life, an intention to kill them? So, on further consideration the distinction can become less clear.

Consequentialism based on the intuition that responsibility is taken for actions and that goodness (and wrongness) can be explained entirely in terms of consequences, might seem to be an inappropriate direction in which to consider this issue: the direct effects of both killing and letting die are the same since someone dies in either case. In cases where the death of one person will save the lives of others, where there is a trade off, one can seem justified in killing and in choosing to let die. For example, if loss of life is inevitable in a situation and a greater amount of life will be saved, it seems acceptable to kill a lesser amount of life, as it also seems acceptable to let that lesser amount of life die.

Michael Tooley considers a case where 2 sons, (which I shall call Adam and Barnabas) have the same intention, for the same reason, to murder their rich father by poisoning him. When Adam does so and Barnabas finds out, Barnabas chooses to let the father die though he has the antidote to the poison. Both sons intended to murder their father, each with the same motive. Also, the effect was the same after both events; the father was dead in either case. Seemingly then, (from a consequentialist point of view) when one let die and one killed, there is no difference between the two things that Adam and Barnabas do. Tooley argues that the moral symmetry principle shows that the difference is not morally significant: it is as wrong to intentionally refrain from interfering with a causal process leading to some morally significant result as it is to initiate the process. 1 So Adam having started the causal process of killing his father, is as morally wrong in his action as Barnabas, since Barnabas does not interfere in the process to stop the death.

If the effects seem to provide no direction in defending the significance of the moral difference, perhaps the actions themselves should be addressed. Though both murderers held the same intention for the same action, Barnabas chose a non-action, not to save. Adam too must have been faced with the same situation immediately following the poisoning (assuming, realistically that the death was not instantaneous). Even if he had no remedy he was still letting father die if he was not doing all that he could to stop him dying. If killing is not instantaneous, to kill requires an action followed by the in-action, ie not acting to save the person. So, in this way both Adam and Barnabas both chose the same inaction.

However, Adam actually did an action, this is something that Barnabas did not do (even if he intended to, and would have done). That is perhaps the crucial difference. That Adam actually killed could be seen as worse than to merely let die. The deontological response might point out that the action of killing is wrong in itself, and should never be done regardless of the consequences. Religious fanatics such as those found in America,4 argue such a case for abortion: that even if the mother is in mortal danger from the pregnancy the mother does not have the right to choose an abortion, because to kill is wrong per se.

Is the obligation to not kill equal to the obligation to save life, ie to not let die? If it were it would seem that killing and letting die do carry equal weight and significance. Is the saving life the exact other side of the coin to killing and of letting die? Not really, to kill or not to kill seems quite a distinct question from, to let die or not to let die. To not let die implies saving (a deliberate action to save), to not kill does not. To not kill implies only a non-action. So to equate the obligation to not let die with the obligation not to kill, seems incorrect. In the same way that to kill seemed worse than to let die, to save ie not let die, seems better than to not kill.

To make this point further, whether killing and letting die are actually causal could be considered. To what extent can a non-action be causal? If all events are causal, it seems absurd that not doing things causes events, it is an action that causes an event not an inaction. If letting die is a non-action, then it is logically absurd that letting die can cause anything: it does not kill the victim, it is the killing that causes this, be it from poison or illness or whatever. That the person letting die can do something to stop this process has nothing to do with the actual causal process. Similarly, to not kill, does not cause a saved life (it is a non-action) but the action (whatever it might be) of not letting die, does cause a saved life.

From this point of view it would seem that there is a significant difference between letting die and killing. To go back to Tooley s example, if Barnabas did not cause his father s death, (by not administering the antidote) then Barnabus is not as morally culpable as Adam who did cause his father s death, (even if both did have the same intentions).

The clash morally then seems to arrive as follows. Attacking the proposition that the distinction between killing and letting die are morally significant, the consequentialist argues if the effects of two events are the same their difference is not morally different. Defending the proposition that the distinction is morally significant, deontologists point towards the causal nature of non-actions and actions, which suggests there is a moral difference. Hence, the distinction comes under attack, but yes it is tenable.

1 Michael Tooley Killing and Letting Die (1980)

2 J J Thompson Rights Restitution and Risk (Harvard UP Cambridge MA 1986)

3 The Bible Exodus 20 v13 (NIV 1997)

4 The Spectator Magazine 30/1/00


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