Is it worse to kill than to let someone die?

MOST people believe there is an important ethical distinction between actively harming someone (i.e. taking an action that harms them) and passively harming them (i.e. not taking an action to help them), and in particular that active harm is inherently worse (morally) than passive harm. It can be difficult, psychology and practically, to believe that no such distinction exists. If allowing someone to starve to death is as bad as causing them to starve to death, then one begins to wonder whether someone who spends a lot of money on a fancy car (instead of saving children from starvation by donating that money to a charity) is ethically better than someone who, for example, refuses to feed a child that they have adopted, and the child dies because of it.

Despite the disturbing consequences, let’s consider whether a case can be made against the idea of active harm and passive harm being inherently different from a moral standpoint. Consider the following:

As in the Poe classic, a man is tied to a board, and above him a pendulum, with a sharp blade attached to it, swings back and forth. We will compare two scenarios. In both, imagine that you are standing near the man, and by some means are being monitored by a machine that operates the pendulum. In both cases, assume that you have complete information about the situation, and that there is no good reason that this man should die. Furthermore, assume that he has no hope of immediate escape (beyond what is stipulated in the scenarios) and that his death will involve enormous suffering.

Scenario 1.  (Passive Murder)

As the pendulum swings, it is slowly being lowered by the machine that operates it. If the pendulum gets low enough, the man will die. The machine monitors your motion. It has a rule programmed in it such that if your first movement is towards the man, the pendulum will be shut off. If, on the other hand, your first movement is away from the man, the machine will not react to your movement in any way (i.e. the pendulum will continue to be lowered and the man will die).

Scenario 2. (Active Murder)

As the pendulum swings, it stays at a fixed height (i.e. it is not being lowered toward the man). The machine monitors your motion such that if your first movement is away from the man, it will react by beginning to lower the pendulum (which will eventually kill the man). If, on the other hand, your first movement is towards the man, the machine will not react in any way (i.e. the pendulum will continue to remain at a fixed height, so the man will live).

Let’s compare these two scenarios. In Scenario 1, the man is already going to die unless you act by moving towards him. Hence, if you move away from him, you will be failing to help him, but you will not be actively killing him since the machine is already in the process of killing him and will not change its operation in any way if you move away. On the other hand, in Scenario 2, the man is not going to die unless you move away from him. Hence, if you move away from him you are actively killing him, since you are knowingly activating the machine, causing it to begin lowering the pendulum. Therefore, if failing to help a person is ethically superior to actively harming them, then moving away in Scenario 1 (where it has no effect) is ethically superior to moving away in Scenario 2 (where it causes the machine to initiate the death process).

At the same time we observe that despite this active versus passive distinction, the two scenarios are almost identical. In both cases, if you move towards the man he will not be killed, and if you move away from him he will be killed. In both cases it is trivially easy to perform either action. In both cases you have complete knowledge of the consequences of your actions. In both cases you are deciding whether he lives or dies. The only important difference between the scenarios is that in one, the machine happens to be lowering the pendulum already, whereas in the other it happens to be doing nothing. However, after you act (by moving towards the man or away from him) the resulting situation will be identical whether you are in Scenario 1 or Scenario 2.

If you believe that active harm is inherently better than passive harm, then you must therefore conclude that walking away in Scenario 1 is superior ethically to walking away in Scenario 2. Is this something you are truly willing to accept? In both cases walking away will mean the man will die, and preventing his death is equally easy in both cases. Can we really conclude that the initial motion of the pendulum is sufficient to change the ethical characteristics of the problem?

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2 Responses to Is it worse to kill than to let someone die?

  1. David P. Wilson says:

    The above scenarios in the previous discussion by another author are admittedly quite theoretical, and as such are what they are.

    I would prefer to use an every-day moral scenario… that of executing a criminal vs. “letting him die naturally” – via life in prison…

    Some say God is loving and kind and would neither kill a person nor give them life in prison. That observation does not happen to be true. The just punishment for the fallen angels by God was “life in prison” – conscious life – torture (of whatever nature or kind) for ever and ever in Hell. On the other hand, God’s just punishment for Christ His Son (who died not on His own behalf but on our behalf) was execution – on the Cross.

    Both judgments are just and moral in their respective cases. Leaving the fallen angels in Heaven would corrupt Heaven and the holiness of it. That would be immoral. Angels were so created that they could never die.

    In the case of Christ’s death, had God not meted it out, you and I would suffer interminably in Hell forever. While that would be just and moral, I doubt if you and I would vote for it. The Cross (1) fulfilled the just and moral need for our death penalty – vicariously – while (2) it fulfilled God’s desire to have those who love Him be in Heaven with Him forever… for we too, like the angels, were created as souls not subject to death. There is nothing immoral about God’s desire here. In both cases that would be too easy an escape – and an unjust and immoral escape at that.

    But there’s more…

    Would it be even “more moral” to just let the accused go free (with a reprimand) and thus demonstrate love, kindness and mercy? Would not that achieve a better benefit?

    Yes, except for the risk to society which can not be dismissed. That would not be moral to subject society to further risk and burden.

    However, would it not be more moral to give them work to do to benefit the society they have wronged? In olden days prisoners were chained to triremes – commercial or government ships with oars. Thus society did not have to “pay double” – (1) suffer for the wrong the prisoner has done and (2) suffer secondly by having to give him free board and room plus free supervision in prison for the rest of his life.

    Regarding the “choice” of death penalty vs. “life,” it can be argued from the moral perspective, “life” would cost the tax payer $100,000 per year per prisoner (the average cost must be higher yet today). If “life” represents 50 yrs, let’s say, that equals an immoral cost (burden) to the taxpayer of 50 million dollars per prisoner. Would further punishing the taxpayer thus be considered “moral?”

    Some say to put a man to death costs the taxpayer 1 million dollars for each execution. From the moral perspective, (1) This is less of a burden on the taxpayer than 5 million for life. (2) One million to execute a man is totally unnecessary and immoral. Eliminate the politics leading up to execution. We are too insistent on being politically correct when we execute a man – to the extent we are immoral in so doing.

    Some say execution is wrong because we might execute the wrong person by mistake – and thus execution is immoral.

    The excuse does not hold water. God Himself, who is just, merciful and kind, instigated executions (the book of Leviticus) knowing full well the judgment in each case may be flawed and an innocent person would be put to death. But God knew that burdening the innocent taxpayers for life was not right or moral either. God chose the lesser of two evils. Yes, some innocent people will die. But the alternative, in God’s wise mind, is less moral yet.

    Making sound and moral judgments is not always easy. But we do relieve ourselves of much consternation and guilt (false guilt maybe) by following God’s principles of moral judgment rather than our own, understanding and accepting the fact that no system of judgment in a fallen society is perfect.

    Better to fall into the hands of God and His “take” on an issue than to suffer the (just) consequences of our own feeble, fallible fallen, flawed judgment and wonder if we have made the right decision in each case. Following God’s pattern will assure us of much peace no matter how difficult the ingredients of a case.

    Sorry I am not gifted enough like the previous writer to have an apt illustration like Poe’s “Pit and the Pendulum!”

  2. NXYZ says:

    Lets say I wod rader kill than let someone sufer worst pain and die.But if one does that they will destroy there own life by going to prison and bing jujed by there frends and family for bing a killer.If you dont kill him you will be jujed by yourself and the thots in your mind,how you cound have helped the person and done his final wish as he probobly will hate you for not ending his life in his last moments.On the oter hand how do you eaven know this world is real.Also how do yu define life.Does the life of a old man/woman have the same value as the life of a baby.Are all peoples lifes eaqual and whod you risk your life for a strager the same way you wod for a person you love.Killing or leting someone suffer are boath bad,I wod sugest a alternative like finding a way to save the person or convinsing them to do someting they like before they die.At the end of the day they will die so make sure you make the best of there time for yourself,bekose if a person dies,that dosent mean you will die.

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