Let me begin by outlining what the purpose of this piece is not, in the hope that it will dissuade readers from—either intentionally or not—misinterpreting what it conveys.
Under no circumstance do I assign, or argue for the assignation of, moral value to any particular course of action, precisely because I acknowledge the subjective nature of morality.
Like individuals anywhere and everywhere, I do possess intuitive convictions, but they are not the subject of discussion; readers should not find, here, anything more than a neutral resource to extend their understanding of their own behaviour. What readers do, or do not do with this extended understanding is entirely their own concern.
From what I hear on the streets and read here and there, it looks like it has become the maxim of activists and volunteers, whether environmentalists or social workers, that doing nothing is, to some extent, doing the wrong thing. Although that logic is quite straightforward, its implications are rarely understood—hence the few words below are dedicated to examine them.
Let us consider one of the best-known thought experiments in moral philosophy, James Rachel’s Bathtub Case—pardon its gloomy nature. Here follows a simplified version of its two cases.
In the first, we have a young child taking a bath and Jones drowns him to collect his inheritance. In the second, we have the same child taking a bath, but this time he himself slips and is in danger of drowning; Smith, who stands beside the tub, could save him but chooses not to, again for the inheritance.
In Rachel’s opinion, there is no difference between what he calls “killing” and “letting die”; he finds both Smith and Jones equally worthy of condemning. Whether that is entirely true is irrelevant in this context; what is important to note here is that there is, intuitively, something wrong with “letting die.”Do we not think that, to some extent, Smith has committed a crime by letting the child die?
Most people—if not all—would agree that Smith is, to some measure, guilty of a crime. With that in mind, let us examine its implications in our own lives.
Consider the following: according to UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children, 1 140 000 children under five years of age die annually because of malnutrition. Now what if a middle-class Englishman, upon seeing these statistics, moves to, say, a tribal region in Darfur and provides for otherwise-starving children, thereby saving their lives.
As absurd as it may sound, that act is a perpetual option. It is always possible for one to follow in the Englishman’s steps; there are no physical barriers that prohibit one from it.
Every second that we remain in our own environments we are choosing not to; and thereby indirectly choosing not to save the lives of those children. That equates to letting them die and, through logical deduction, puts us on the same level as Smith.
One may be inclined to argue that Smith letting a child die in the tub is, in essence, not the same as letting a child die halfway across the world, but geography does not alter the core of the act.
Evidently the point of these few words is not to encourage anyone to spontaneously hop on the next flight to Darfur, but to make the reader understand that we are all somewhat guilty of morally inadequate behaviour. The reasoning process that led to this conclusion is depicted below:
1. ‘Letting die’ is wrong,
2. We are ‘letting die’,
3. Therefore, we are wrong.
The second premise is difficult, if not impossible, to dispute, as rendered evident in the above Englishman example.
The first is innately a moral statement and thus scarcely based on reasoning, but nonetheless most people would intuitively agree with it—surely in the Bathtub Case, a majority of us believe Smith to be guilty of a crime.
When both of these premises are accepted, the conclusion naturally follows. As such we are guilty, and perpetually so. Some may make attempts to slightly alleviate the guilt, others may not be too bothered with it—neither course of action is objectively better than the other.
The lesson here is that one cannot sit on the fence—or, more accurately, that there is no fence to sit on—for even inaction is a form of action.
Dali H. is a student of international politics at the University of London
Editor: Edith Lazenby
Like elephant I’m not “Spiritual. I just practice being a good person on Facebook.