On doing and allowing harm


Richard Marshall interviews Fiona Wollard in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: Why don’t you think we could just take it as a basic fact that doing harm is ethically worse than allowing harm but not acting oneself? And if we don’t like that, why not just accept there is no distinction and outside of our prejudiced intuitions? I guess the question is: why philosophise it and seek reasons?

FW: Both those options seem really odd to me. On the one hand, the fact that doing harm is worse than allowing harm doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that could be a basic moral fact. I couldn’t take it as a basic moral fact that it is worse to perform harmful actions on Thursdays rather than Wednesday or to harm people with my left hand rather than my right hand. These suggests seem absurd. How could that difference matter morally? I think the doing/allowing distinction faces a similar challenge: when it is a we’re talking serious harm, when it might be a matter of life and death, how can the doing/allowing distinction make a difference? On the other hand, I think it would be overreacting to immediately retreat to simply accepting that there is no difference. Given the important role the doing/allowing distinction plays in common sense morality, we have to try to see if we can understand and defend it.

3:AM: You defend the notion that the distinction is morally relevant and you do this by introducing the idea of imposition. What is this notion and how does it help make the distinction play the role you defend?

FW: My use of imposition is inspired by Frances Kamm. She notes that the difference between doing and allowing seems to be connected to a difference in order of imposition. She says: ‘If the same efforts had to be made to avoid killing as have to be made in order to save a life, they would be made to prevent the killer from imposing first on an innocent person. In contrast, the efforts made in saving would, in a sense, involve the innocent bystander being imposed on first for the dying person.’

More here.