A bare-bones moral dilemma

A person finds himself in the position where he must make a decision. He has two options: 1) to actually do something, or 2) not to do anything (just let things happen). In both cases there is harm to some others, which cannot be avoided. If he does something, the harm is less than the harm coming from non-action. In other words, the harm coming from “comission” is less than the harm coming from “omission”. The “moral” nature of the problem comes from the fact that no matter what he does, harm will come to others - where the nature of the harm is the same, but doing nothing will cause more people to be affected. What should this person do?

I decided not to give any more specifics. The reason is simple: people are wont to concentrate on the specifics, rather than to ponder the generic principle. The question is about the dichotomy of “comission” vs. “omission”.

What are your thoughts?

Your hypothetical is far too broad to actually discuss.

Morality would depend on a number of factors, the most prominent of which is probably: is he is the direct cause of the harm in both cases? If he is the direct cause in only one of the cases, then it would be better for him to avoid that choice. I cannot think of an instance where he would be the direct cause regardless of which choice he picks, so that option seems mute. If, on the other hand, he is the direct cause in neither case, you would again have to provide more specifics in order for there to be any worthwhile discussion.

Your main problem is that there’s not such thing as a “bare-bones” moral dilemma. The morality of an action is almost always determined by the circumstances under which the action is performed (the only exception to this are the intrinsic evils such as murder, harming a child, masturbation / pornography, etc.); therefore it is almost impossible to create a ‘catch all’ hypothetical like the one you’re suggesting.

There are not enough details to make a judgement.

Is the act proposed immoral to begin with? If so, one may never commit an immoral act, even for a generally positive outcome. However, if the act proposed is morally neutral or even positively moral in itself, then the principle of double effect applies.

That is the nature of generic principles. :slight_smile: The principle I am suggesting is a corollary to the Hyppocratic principle: “first, do no harm”. The corollary would be: “if harm is unavoidable, make sure that it is as small as possible”. I think this is an excellent generic principle.

The harm will happen in either case. The person may lessen the harm by a proactive move, but cannot avoid it completely.

You mean that there are no generic principles? At all?

It’s an excellent premise, if you’re discussing philosophy; but morality is far more involved than philosophy.

The harm will happen in either case. The person may lessen the harm by a proactive move, but cannot avoid it completely.

In that case, it would be dependent on the actions he would have to take to lessen the harm. If those actions are themselves immoral, then he would be better served being passive. If, on the other hand, the actions are moral, then it would be immoral for him not to work to lessen the harm.

You mean that there are no generic principles? At all?

Not when it comes to morality, no; beyond the absolute immorality of intrinsic evils. Morality is far to involved to be determined by a simple and broad hypothetical situation; despite what some protestant sects would suggest about it being black and white.

Do you have a duty to act?

See my post above.

You mean that actually doing something might be immoral, while NOT doing something might be moral, even if it does MORE harm than the proactive action? Very strange… do you argue that the result of an act has nothing to do with the “morality” of this act?

The point of the thread is the difference between comission vs. omission. In both cases harm will result, but when you just let things happen, the harm is more widespread than otherwise. That is the problem as presented.

As long as you’re stipulating that more harm will come from omission than commission, then you should commit rather than omit.

You may face more blowback from people for having caused harm in the commission of an act than you might have faced in causing harm from the omission of the act, but I don’t think that should factor in to the choice you ultimately make.

Duty has nothing to with it. You are in the position that no matter what you do, harm will result. Unfortunately it happens that a person cannot avoid a dilemma… you know: between a rock and a hard place. The person who must make a decision is innocent. he is simply forced by the circumstances - which are not of his own making. To be at the wrong place at the wrong time - it happens.

Obviously I agree with you. :slight_smile:

Well, the last time I checked, “ethics” was the third “leg” of philosophy, right after “metaphysics” (what exists?) and “epistemology” (how do we know it?) and then came “ethics” (so how should we behave?). Amd of course morality is part of ethics.

The church teaches that one MUST take all the THREE pieces into consideration: 1) the intent, 2) the means (the act) and 3) the outcome. Only by considering ALL three pieces can one make a judgment about the morality of the act. As such there cannot be an “intrinsically” evil act, since no one (not even the church) is granted “omniscience” and as such no one can know about ALL the possible intents and ALL the possible outcomes.

I do not argue for “black and white” scenarios… on the very contrary. :slight_smile:

I have. I stand by my assertion that there are not enough details on the nature of the act itself.

Correct. For an act to be permissible, it must be either morally good or neutral in and of itself. One cannot, for example, commit murder in order to prevent the “greater harm” from happening. If so, that one would be a murderer and have done greater harm to his own soul (this is not to be confused with legitimate defense). One can, however, toggle a switch on a railroad to allow a runaway train to crush his own best friend while diverting it from a bus full of schoolchildren. The action in this latter case is completely neutral.

It really isn’t strange at all.

I like this discussion but find the generaltiy making it imposible to decide as the details help decide the point of view.

I was thinking of a related scenario yesterday.

The hypothetical: What would I do if a train was coming towards a bridge, but the bridge was up and my child was trapped below the bridge mechanism. Leave the bridge up = rescue my child, everyone on train dies. Put the bridge down = my child dies, everyone on train is saved. I am the only one who can act, and must choose within seconds.

There are several interesting things to contemplate:

  1. inaction kills lots of people but saves my child.
  2. taking too much time and I am forced into #1
  3. action sacrifices my child but saves hundreds

My specific question that I was contemplating yesterday: Do I have a moral obligation to save my one child that trumps any moral obligation to save hundreds of innocent people? In other words, does my responsibility in fulfilling a part of my God-given vocation of marriage have more moral weight than my responsibility to help others?

“The difference with ethics & morals is a man with ethics knows he shouldn’t cheat on his wife,the moral man won’t.” - Donald Mallard (NCIS :p)

Ethics are the human interpretation of morals; and whether or not something is considered ethical has no affect on if it is moral. In ancient Sparta, it was considered ethical to kill a deformed child, that did not make it moral. In the U.S., it was once considered ethical to own slaves; again, this did not make it moral.

Discussion of ethics depends on morals; but morality is not dependent on ethics.

The church teaches that one MUST take all the THREE pieces into consideration: 1) the intent, 2) the means (the act) and 3) the outcome. Only by considering ALL three pieces can one make a judgment about the morality of the act. As such there cannot be an “intrinsically” evil act, since no one (not even the church) is granted “omniscience” and as such no one can know about ALL the possible intents and ALL the possible outcomes.

I’m happy to inform you that you are in grievous error (not happy you’re in error, just happy that I can help you come out of it ^^)

There are actions which are universally condemned by the church, regardless of intent, means or outcome. Homosexual acts, use of artificial contraception, masturbation / pornography and murder (The killing of an innocent, hence, abortion) are just a few of them. There are no cases, period, in which any of these acts is morally permissible. The catechism even uses the exact classification of intrinsic evil to classify these actions. One example, discussion contraceptives, is:

“[E]very action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” (CCC 2370)

With each of these actions, they are so much in violation of natural law that they cannot be justified, regardless of the intent or outcome. This is why your hypothetical is so difficult; we do not know what would be required of him in order to prevent the harm. It may be hard to understand, but you cannot avert one sin by committing another; at least not morally.

I do not argue for “black and white” scenarios… on the very contrary. :slight_smile:

Your hypothetical situation and other wording seemed to indicate to me that you were, sorry for the confusion ^^

I don’t know if it’s moral - in fact it’s probably not but I’m 100% CERTAIN I would do nothing which would save my child. If you were my husband and you wanted to live to see the next day, you’d do nothing as well.

I’m going to protect my child - every single time.

A a parent, your primary obligation is to your family; so I would say you should save your child. Keep in mind, in order for that situation to exist, someone would have to have set it up, so the deaths would be on their soul, not yours.

Actually, the Church can, and does, judge certain “means” to be intrinsically immoral. Therefore, they can never be resorted to for the act to be moral. Making such distinctions is in fact a job of ethicists (which they complete with varying accuracy).

This question often comes up with the context of abortion in the place of #2 with both #1 and #3 being “saving the life of the mother”. Abortion is intrinsically immoral in itself since it is the direct termination of the life of a unique human being. Therefore, the action is immoral.

The principle of double effect (mentioned in my earlier post) does allow for action that preserved #1 and #3 while only changing #2 to some other, morally neutral act (e.g. removal of diseased tissue that happens to include the child or prescription of medication harmful to the child).

ETA: There is a gap in your reasoning. The Church never supposes to know intent (#1), however means (#2) can be objectively judged.

Omission can be wrong in some situations, particularly if the person has a duty to act. I feel the situation is too generic to suitably answer. There are some acts one ought not commit, so that is a factor here too. Is there a duty? Is the act in question wrong?

I almost wonder if you are asking if there is **always **a duty to act if one perceives that one has a plausible chance to save more lives with a particular action. One is unlikely to possess supernatural knowledge that they *will *save more lives, so I don’t think that is what you are asking.

That is always the case when one wishes to examine a general problem. One must look at the basics, disregarding the peculiarities. :slight_smile:

Surprise. :wink: The "act" is always neutral. Consider the scenario, where one pulls a gun, points it, and pulls the trigger. This is the act, and it is completely neutral. The act must be viewed in the circumstances, where it was committed. What was the intent? What is the result? One can point it to a target, for practicing. One can point it to someone, with the intent to scare the person, but his finger twitches and inadvertantly pulls the trigger. One can point to an attacker, with the intent to injure, but the bullet kills the person. The gun can be pointed by a policeman or a soldier… the possibilities are endless. You see the point? All the circumstances must be taken into account (as much as possible) before of can make a judgment.

What is a murder? The definition is: “to kill someone against the law”. Sometimes it is added: “with malice aforethought”. In other words, it is the illegal killing of someone. If a policeman or a soldier shoots someone, it is not necessarily a murder. When an executioner pulls a switch to send lethal current into the body of someone, it is NOT considered a murder. (By the way, abortion is not murder in those countries where it is a legal procedure.) Of course I disagree with your analysis, since there are degrees of severity of different actions.

Let’s pretend that this proposition was never introduced. Whatever happens to one’s alleged “soul” is irrelevant. After all the person can repent and no harm was done to his “soul”.

Aha! So the “act” of flipping a switch is a neutral action. That is my opinion, too, with extending that saving more lives is a morally proper action. But if you would look at older threads where the case of a runaway streetcar was examined, you would stand alone, because all your brethren “voted” for let the car mow down “n” people, instead of pushing a switch to kill a solitary person standing on the track. Yes, my friend, it is most strange to see the same scenario presented and see different solutions.

The basic question is still unanswered: “is there a differemce between actively committing an act, or passively allowing it to happen?”.

Cutesy soundbites are not arguments.

I guess we cannot make a conversation since your definition of “moral”, is unacceptable. To call something “ethical” or “moral” are the same. Too bad.

As a matter of fact, I am right - and so are you. :wink: The church teaches both! So it is your problem to evaluate the two contradictory teachings and draw your conclusions.

Please read my short analysis in the previous post about the neutrality of actions.

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