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December 5, 2011
Is Doing Harm Worse Than Allowing Harm?

Why is it that commonsense morality in our society is more tolerant of allowing harm to others than harming our ourselves? Is doing harm worse than allowing harm? People typically say they are invoking an ethical principle when they judge acts that cause harm more harshly than willful inaction that allows that same harm to occur. Researchers found that it requires conscious reasoning to decide that active and passive behaviors that are equally harmful are equally wrong.

There should indeed be an outcry at our failure to prevent the deaths of millions of children in the third world from malnutrition, dehydration, and starvation. Moreover, it seems that the question is pertinent to the question of whether consequentialism is true, as consequentialists believe that doing harm is no worse than allowing harm while anti-consequentialists, almost universally, disagree.

To say that one has a negative right against being harmed is to say that it is wrong to harm one unless one wishes to be harmed. It is crucial that we add the phrase “unless one wishes to be harmed”, since without it, the precedence of negative rights wouldn't give the victim any special say about his own body, because it would be just as wrong to harm him even if he asked to be harmed, and it would be wrong for him to harm himself. So, the crucial thing is that the victim has some sort of a say about what happens to himself (i.e., others are morally bound to respect his wishes with respect to his body to a certain extent).

If an overly competitive figure skater in one case loosens the skate blade of a rival, or in another case, notices that the blade is loose and fails to warn anyone. In both cases, the rival skater loses the competition and is seriously injured. Whether it is by acting, or willfully failing to act, the overly competitive skater did the same harm.

“What it looks like is when you see somebody actively harm another person that triggers a strong automatic response,” said Brown University psychologist Fiery Cushman. “You don't have to think very deliberatively about it. You just perceive it as morally wrong. When a person allows harm that they could easily prevent, that actually requires more carefully controlled deliberative thinking [to view as wrong].”

In a study published in advance online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Cushman and his co-authors presented 35 volunteers with 24 moral dilemmas and lapses like the one involving the figure skaters. For specific lengths of time the volunteers would read an introduction to the incident, a description of the character's moral choices, and a description of how the character behaved. Then they'd rate the moral wrongness of the behavior on a scale from 1 to 5. All the while, Cushman and his co-authors, who were at Harvard University at the time, tracked the blood flow in the volunteers' brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging scans.

Cushman expected to confirm what he had observed in behavioral experiments and published in 2006: that people employed conscious reasoning to arrive at the usual feeling, which is that actively caused harm is morally worse than the passively caused harm.

Figuring he had a clever way to prove it physiologically, he and his team compared the brain scans of people who judged active harm to be worse than passive harm to the scans of people who judged them as morally equal. His assumption was that those who saw a moral difference did so by explicit reasoning. Such people should therefore have exhibited greater activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex than those who saw no moral distinction. But to Cushman's surprise, the greater levels of DPFC activity lay with those who saw active harm and passive harm as morally the same.

“The people who are showing this distinction are actually the ones who show the least evidence of deliberative, careful, controlled thinking,” he said, “whereas the people who show no difference between actions and omissions show the most evidence of careful deliberative controlled thinking.”

Social judgment

Cushman emphasized that his research does not suggest which moral judgment is right. But it is notable that our legal system enshrines the belief that active harm is worse than passive harm.

As one example, he cites a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Vacco v. Quill) in which the court ruled that given explicit permission from a patient, a doctor cannot directly euthanize the patient, such as with an overdose of morphine, but the doctor can follow a patient's directive to cease life support or other treatment. In the case, the district court in New York initially ruled the way the Supreme Court ultimately did, but the appeals court in between ruled that euthanasia and ending life support were essentially the same.

Cushman said his new findings may be useful because they describe the mechanisms underlying how they, and perhaps society in general, arrive at moral judgments. Drawing on the metaphor offered by authors Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel in their ethics book Blind Spots, he suggests that the extra thought required to judge passive harm as morally wrong might be analogous to a blind spot.

Much as drivers learn to look over their shoulder before changing lanes, he said, people may want to examine how they feel about passive harm. Especially in specific, real-life situations, they may still conclude that active harm is worse, but they'll at least have compensated for the automatic bias his research suggests is there.

The claim that doing harm is no worse than allowing harm flies in the face of powerful intuitions to the contrary. These intuitions can be partially explained away by pointing to other morally significant distinctions (distinctions concerning intentions, difficulty or ease of avoiding the harm, etc) that often coincide with the distinction between doing and allowing harm. A residue remains, however, and we seem faced with a conflict between theory and intuitions about cases.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


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