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January 3, 2020 / Congau

Guilt by Omission

Are we only responsible for what we do? Can we be blamed for what we don’t do if we have made no previous commitment?

Suppose you are walking along the road minding your own business and you come upon a child lying face down in a pool about to drown. With only a slight effort on your part you could turn the child around and save its life. Would you do it? Of course, you would. But suppose someone didn’t do it. Suppose he found the slight inconvenience a trifle too much and just didn’t bother. Could we blame him? After all the child was nothing to him and he was in no position of responsibility towards it. Or wasn’t he? What do you think?

I hope you didn’t think for long. I hope the answer is as obvious to you as it is to me. Of course, he can be blamed. Of course, he should be blamed. Utterly and totally blamed, reproached and scolded for such an outrageous negligence. I hope you agree with me.

But I’m afraid everyone doesn’t. Some sophists actually get so hung up on the formalities of their ethical rules that they are incapable of perceiving how we are morally connected with the world we live in.

Sometimes the difference between doing and not doing is a pure formality. If the occurrence of an event is dependent on your pushing or not pushing a button and your finger is ready to do either, you are equally to blame if the mischief follows from your action or your inaction. Suppose you knew in advance that if you pushed a button someone would get killed: Then, if you push it, you are guilty. Now suppose you knew that if you didn’t push it someone would get killed: Then, if you don’t push it, you are guilty.

We can do a lot of bad by not doing.

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