Monday, November 13, 2006

Killing Vs. Letting Die

yeah yeah yeah- more ethics- I'm just trying to balance Trin's posts :-)

The Church of England recently decided that doctors should be allowed to "let sick newborn babies die". The headline says "calls for severely disabled babies to be killed at birth". Is there a difference? I'm inclined to say yes there is a difference since there seems to be a differing state of mind in walking away as opposed to actively ending someone's life. But what do you guys think?


At 12:46 AM, November 14, 2006, Blogger Topher said...

I am inclined to say that the difference between killing and letting die (if there is one) is merely a pragmatic one; this is the one (only) place where I sort of agree with Rachels. It would seem to me that the phrasing by the paper was meant to shock people into some sort of liberal-induced ca-razy frenzy... But the upshot of what i am trying to say is this best illustrated by an example i take (i think) from Bernard Williams...
You are walking through the wild in Africa. You come across an indiginous tribe who (as is explained to you) being punished by the fascist government for guerilla attacks. The punishment in line is to have 50 able-bodied men lined up and shot. There is a loophole, however, since you happened upon the 'ceremony' and that loophole is that you have the option to turn away and let the 50 be executed, or you can take the gun in your hand and kill one person.
The intuition that Williams was going after, i assume, is that you cannot take the gun, for killing is wrong; and since you are not the one killing, you are okay.
I beg to differ. I feel that you have the obligation to save the other 49 lives.
I submit to you that should you allow all 50 to be killed, that you are in fact killing 50 people. You have the power to Save 49 lives. So, you either kill 50 or 1.
In the case of the children... the line is not so clear, but i feel that ultimately it is the same; the masses, however, are not thinking post-theoretically. I am rambling... but i think the point is clear. thoughts?

At 3:32 AM, November 14, 2006, Blogger Topher said...

The above post is not as coherent as I intended it to be. The point I was trying to make is that there is really no difference (besides the semantics) in killing and letting die. What you are doing in both instances is setting in motion events that will lead to death. One is active killing, the other passive killing. In the case of babies; if you are prepared to allow a baby to die of 'natural reasons' (whatever they may be... perhaps starvation?) why prolong the suffering? if the baby is being put to death, why be passive about it? it is really the same thing.

At 12:58 PM, November 14, 2006, Blogger Sarah said...

This is a good time to point out that you can delete your comments if you aren't happy with them. I would not encourage us to delete our comments just for the hell of it, but if you feel the need to reformulate something, and you don't feel that it is best reformulated in another comment (as in after someone has pointed out an error), then feel free to delete.

At 7:21 PM, November 14, 2006, Blogger Marcus Adams said...

I disagree with the following claim: "The point I was trying to make is that there is really no difference (besides the semantics) in killing and letting die. What you are doing in both instances is setting in motion events that will lead to death. One is active killing, the other passive killing."

The verb "kill" is a transitive verb which refers to the following action: an agent is acting upon another (living) thing to end the life of that thing. When we say x killed y, we sometimes mean (and it seems we often mean this) that x intended to kill y. This implication of intent is evident in the legal distinction between murder and manslaughter. Which version of "kill" is not spelled out by the author of the UK article.

On the other hand, the phrase "allow to die" does not necessarily (or as often) include this aspect of intent. When I allow a fellow soldier(s) to die on the battelfield, I am not, as Topher argues, passively killing him/them. What if it was not feasible to rescue a soldier because of greater loss? On topher's account we should shoot the soldiers ourselves since they are most likely going to die anyway...perhaps we will even prevent their torture by shooting them ourselves.

Something about blurring this distinction between active killing and allowing to die does not seem correct to me.


At 7:26 PM, November 14, 2006, Blogger Marcus Adams said...

One more thought I had as I was reading the UK news article -- wow, is "disabled" a vague concept! Where would be draw the line on that one?

At 10:36 PM, November 14, 2006, Blogger Topher said...

I understand your concern, and i am sympathetic to the idea that we should not "shoot the soldiers ourselves" because "they will die anyway," i think this rests on an unfair characterization of my point. Certainly circumstantial incidence is important to this argument, but let us look at some instances where one might "act upon another thing to end the life of that thing." Okay, to use (shudder) an example from Rachels; suppose that I decide I want to kill my kid brother, and I plan to go drown him in the bath tub... Much to my surprise, when i barge into the bathroom, my brother has just slipped, hit his head and is both submerged in the tub, and unconscious. I do nothing to prevent his death, but instead stand idly by and watch him drown. In my deciding not to act in accordance to save his life, have I actually not for all intensive purposes killed my brother? My acting in such a way as to do nothing, when the sacrifice to myself would be literally nothing other than my original intentions, would be really just be "acting upon another thing in order end the life of that thing." Hung up on "not doing anything"? How about in the example i walk away. I act in such a way as to bring the end to life.
As far as the legal aspect of the matter: I will only make one claim, and disagree if you will, but Law and Morality are never perfect parallels, and to draw the distinction between manslaughter and murder is to imply a strange connexion. Can we plea bargain in morality? Can I get whatever dictates Moral Law to so-to-speak, reduce my sentence if I do something to make up for it? That seems wrong to me.

At 2:31 PM, November 15, 2006, Blogger Jo said...

Topher - are you talking about William's doctrine of negative responsibility? Isn't that basically saying "If I am ever responsible for things, I am am also responsible for things that I allow to happen/don't prevent from happening"? All Williams is saying is that if there is something that an agent (I think the guy's name was Jim in the example) isn't comfortable with doing, then they don't have to do it. But if Jim was all for shooting someone, then he could pull the trigger. In this case, if Jim was a serious utilitarian (and that was what was motivating him), then I don't know if Williams would disagree with you on that one. But that's just a sidepoint in what I want to say.

Babies are already often euthanized in certain situations; in cases where a baby is born severely deformed or would otherwise not survive without constant medical assistance, parents may be faced with the option of either having a feeding/breathing tube removed or literally putting their child to sleep - in many cases, morphine overdoses seem to be the weapon of choice.

The distinction between killing and letting die is rather murky, and I think this is where the disagreement lies. What is the intention of the act being committed? Injecting poison into someone is probably a relatively apparent act of killing. Removing life support and walking away seems to be a case of letting die. In both the active and passive cases, the intended outcome is the death of the patient.

But what about cases where the intention is to "make the patient more comfortable", where death is not explicitly intended as an outcome but may result? I'm thinking here about cases of morphine overdoses and the like. Do these count as forms of euthanasia? If they do, does the administration of morphine count as an act of killing or what? The existing legal system lets doctors engage in passive euthanasia, and the "making the patient more comfortable" argument doesn't even really come up in legal contexts. Is this just a way that doctors are rationalizing what they are doing? Is it all a question of intention?

I know I am not really addressing whether killing and letting die are the same thing (well, they do have the same result...) but I am hoping to clear up the differences in the points Marcus and Topher have been making. I don't know if this made any sense, because I haven't looked at this stuff for a while (having done it to death in medical and legal ethics courses and undergrad philosophy), but I think there is a point to be made in there somewhere.

(Also, I'm with Marcus on the "severely disabled" question. This is unclear, which makes it problematic. Plus, remember that things that we literally considered disabilities in the past (such as being female or a minority or homosexual) no longer are; if the meaning of a disability is constantly shifting, how do we determine who is disabled and who isn't? Hello slippery slope.)

At 3:52 PM, November 15, 2006, Blogger Marcus Adams said...

Responding to: "I will only make one claim, and disagree if you will, but Law and Morality are never perfect parallels, and to draw the distinction between manslaughter and murder is to imply a strange connexion. Can we plea bargain in morality? Can I get whatever dictates Moral Law to so-to-speak, reduce my sentence if I do something to make up for it? That seems wrong to me."

Yes, I agree that Law & Morality are never perfect parrallels. This does not mean, however, that intention plays no role in issues of moral culpability. Is there no difference between hitting a person while driving a car when one (actually) doesn't see the person and hitting the person intentionally after seeing him/her?

I think there is a difference, and I think this illustrates that there is a moral distinction which is mirrored in the legal distinction. My only point is that intention plays a role, not that we can 'plea-bargain' or do penance, as it were.

Furthermore, I think a difference between the brother-in-the-bathtub example & the baby case relates to the agent's ability to prevent the death of the other. What it means to prevent the death of the "other" in each case is quite different. In the bathtub case, it's simple (of course, desire for fratricide aside) pull your brother out of the bathtub & he is able to breathe.

With the babies case there are all sorts of other difficulties that play a role in the decision. For example, what if a child only has a 10% chance of survival, the treatment which will cost $2.5 million dollars and will require a doctor to monitor him/her around the clock (instead of helping other sick people). What it means to "prevent the death of" in this case is clearly a lot more involved. This is why the Anglican bishop seems so interested in the cost of the care.

At 5:06 PM, November 15, 2006, Anonymous spencer smith said...

so, is there a difference in killing and letting die? if i'm reading chris (topher?) correctly i'm seeing him say that the only difference is either pragmatic or semantic. it seems to me that some clearer distinctions can be made. let's talk metaphysical/causal differences and moral differences.

there is clearly a metaphysical difference between the two. when i kill i do one thing. when i let die i do another. the same effect is brought about, by different causal histories, and the difference in killing and letting die picks out that difference in causal history. i do the same thing in the sense of "bringing about a death," but a different thing in the sense of how i do so, and how i do so is all killing and allowing to die picks out. this seems trivial to me. so there is a clear sense in which there is a difference and that sense is metaphysical/causal.

the only interesting question is whether this metaphysical difference is morally relevant. that is, is there a moral difference between the two that results from this metaphysical difference?

the tivial metaphysical difference is relevant, though, when we look at somethings being said in these posts. for instance: "I submit to you that should you allow all 50 to be killed, that you are in fact killing 50 people." the first half of this statement uses "allowing" to die in a metaphysical sense that picks out how the agent acts. the "killing" in the second half is being used in the moral sense meaning that the person is morally blameworthy. the contraversy we are discussing seems to boil down to sliding between metaphysical and moral senses of the word "kill."

let's just use different terms and the confusion goes away. let's say killing and allowing to die are causal terms which report on how an effect was brought about. when we want to make a moral claim, let's avoid calling all morally wrong instances of bringing about death "killing." let's call them wrongful killing and wrongful allowing to die. if we can call some allowings to die "wrongful" why also call them "killings?" if we don't call these wrongful allowings to die "killing," then i submit that any confusion goes away. the confusion is simply the result of using "killing" as a moral assesment and also as a metaphysical kind.

now, the interesting question is just whether the metaphysical difference in how an effect is brought about is morally relevant. this question basically just asks if all killings (in the metaphysical/causal sense) are all wrongful killings (in the moral sense). i'm prone to think that once we say that killing is a causal concept that there is no reason to think that it is always morally wrong, because morality and causality are different things. also, some allowings to die are wrongful and some ain't. right? presumably there is some feature that makes this difference in the case of allowing to die. why not say that what ever feature is morally relevant here, is the feature that is morally relevant in the killing case too? if we say this, then some killings are wrongful and some are permissible, for the same reasons that some allowings to die are wrong and some are permissible. no?

- spencer smith

At 5:15 PM, November 15, 2006, Anonymous spencer smith said...

let me say that more consisely, please.

the question "is there a difference between killing and allowing to die?" might mean: "is there a metaphysical difference between killing and allowing to die?" and the answer is: "of course."

now we ask: "does this metaphysical difference make a moral difference?" and i say that it doesn't, but that is where the debate lies. so let's discuss if there is a moral difference, and not just if there is a difference simpliciter, because of course there is a difference in some sense; i.e, the metaphysical sense.

At 5:44 PM, November 15, 2006, Blogger Topher said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:48 PM, November 16, 2006, Blogger Sarah said...

Any discussion of "intention" makes me nervous. Determining "intention" is problematic and seems to be fairly meaningless in "reality". That being said...

It seems that just about any discussion regarding "killing" vs. "letting die" ends up at some sort of stalemate with multiple examples where one or the other seems to be the "right" thing to do. (This is not to say that people agree on which examples either should happen...)
So...does that mean that there then is some other principle besides a difference (metaphysical or otherwise) between "killing" and "letting die"? Is the distinction completely trivial, if there is one at all? Or does it have something more to do with something else that we have yet to discuss? We like to use our "moral intution" to say that in one situation, "letting die" is permissable, whereas in another, "letting die" becomes "killing". We can give extensive justification for determining the situation as one way or the other, but are we completely missing the point? Is there something else, perhaps the determining factor, that makes "letting die" permissable in one situation, yet turns it into "killing" in another situation? Maybe this brings us back to "intention"- which I really would like to avoid discussion of...

Regardless, I would really like to think that there is some sort of maxim that is overarching that governs (or possibly avoids) the distinction between "killing" and "letting die". It seems that if we can't come to any good conclusion about what constitutes one or the other, either we can't really make a distinction, or we aren't considering something larger that makes the distinction for us.


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