Thursday, April 12, 2012

[PL 431] Killing and letting die

Over at Steinblog, Jesse Steinberg has a great post about the supposed difference between killing and letting die. He gives the following cases: 
Killing: I decide that Larry Bird must perish. I go to his house and shoot him with a gun. He dies as a result. 
Letting Die: I happen to be sitting next to Larry Bird on an airplane. I notice that he is chocking on a peanut. I consider trying to save his life, but decide not to help him. He dies.
From a consequentialist point of view, these cases seem to be similar, for in both cases the outcome is the same, i.e., Larry Bird is dead.

From a deontological point of view, we can assume, for the sake of argument, that Jesse Steinberg has "the same ill-will toward Larry Bird," and that he would love to see Larry Bird dead, since he is a Magic Johnson fan. So what's the moral difference between these two cases?

Perhaps proponents of the killing/letting die distinction could argue that the difference between these two cases is that in Killing, Jesse Steinberg takes direct action to kill Larry Bird, whereas in Letting Die, Jesse Steinberg refrains from helping Larry Bird. Do you think that the distinction between taking direct action and refraining from action makes a moral difference in these cases? Or do you think that doing nothing counts as doing something?

If you are inclined to say that the there is a moral difference between taking direct action (killing) and refraining from taking action (letting die), consider a slightly different case:
I happen to be sitting next to Larry Bird on an airplane. I notice that he is chocking on a peanut. I want to help him. However, as I try to unfasten my seat-belt, a flight attendant passes by me with a coffee pot and spills some hot coffee on my lap. By the time I recuperate, Larry Bird is already dead.
Which of the following, if any, is true?
  1. I did nothing to help Larry Bird.
  2. I refrained from taking action to help Larry Bird.
  3. I let Larry Bird die.
  4. All of the above.

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