TA: Jake Wojtowicz
28 November 2014
Doctrine of Doing and Allowing
Essay title: Is there a moral distinction between doing and allowing, or between acting and omitting? In “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: Doctrine of Double Effect,” Warren S. Quinn introduces the idea of the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing and draws the distinction between ‘[letting] a certain harm befall someone’ and ‘actively [bringing] the harm about.’1 Unlike the Doctrine of Double Effect, which examines the permissibility of immoral actions to bring about a moral outcome, the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing simply focuses on performing an action versus refraining from performing such action. While consequentialists believe that we should solely consider the end result, the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing considers both the intentions and outcomes to determine the morality of a specific deed. In this paper, I will argue that there is a moral distinction between both doing and allowing, and acting and omitting. I will support this argument by first explaining the innate difference between performing an action and not performing an action without considering the intentions of either. I will then incorporate morality by arguing that, despite identical intentions and outcomes, performing an action is still morally more significant than not performing an action. Finally, I will examine the influence of human societal obligations to further explore the differences of morality in omitting certain actions in consideration to other’s positive and negative rights.
Before incorporating the impact of intentions, I will first argue that there is a simple difference between doing and allowing. Thomas Pink states that ‘doing’ is defined as a ‘deliberate production of a change through an action,’ whereas ‘allowing’ involves ‘failing to perform an intervening action.’2 For example, if Chris pushes Charlie into a pond, causing him to drown, Chris has performed the action of killing Charlie. However, if Ben sees Charlie drowning in the pond and chooses not to rescue him, he has refrained from saving Charlie and thus allows his death. Although Chris and Ben’s actions, or lack thereof, are both ‘immoral,’ Chris’s actions are inherently worse because he performed the action that lead to Charlie’s death. Philippa Foot further states that we commonly view immoral actions as worse than immoral omissions because if the acting party did not exist, than the outcome would not occur.3 Therefore, if Chris did not exist, Charlie would not be pushed into the pond and would not die. On the other hand, if Ben did not exist and therefore could not help, Charlie would still die. In comparing the two examples, Chris’s absence results in Charlie living whereas Ben’s absence still allows for Charlie’s death. Therefore, immoral actions are worse than immoral omissions despite identical outcomes.
When considering the intentions in the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing, whether they are good or bad, immoral actions continue to prove to be morally worse than immoral omissions. Foot uses the example of a doctor who chooses to refrain from treating a dangerously ill patient with a large dose of medicine, depleting the clinic’s supply, in order to save five patients who only need a small amount to live.4 Foot then contrasts this example with a doctor who chooses to actively kill an individual and create a medical serum from his dead body, thus saving the lives of five patients.5 In both cases, the doctor has identical end-goals, to save the lives of five people. In addition, the outcomes of both scenarios are the same: one person dies and five people live. While consequentialists state that in both cases the doctor is held to the same moral standards, there is a moral distinction between the scenarios due to his actions versus omissions. In the first case, the doctor is choosing to omit the act of giving the patient medicine and is thus allowing him to die, whereas in the second