Philosophers have debated what is a good or moral action for thousands of years, but from what I can tell, there’s one aspect of the problem that I’ve not seen often debated – and that’s what constitutes an act or action.
This might be illustrated by the “runaway trolley” dilemma. An empty trolley breaks loose and is heading down the track toward a group of five unsuspecting workers. A bystander sees a switch and realizes that she can throw the switch and divert the trolley onto another track, where there is only one worker. Should she turn the switch?
If she does, one argument goes, she has taken an action that will kill one person, and that death is by her act. If she does nothing, the trolley does what it would do, absent intervention, and kills five, but the bystander did not cause those deaths.
Now, speaking frankly, I think the reasoning here is absurd, but it’s clear that there’s a school of thought [the intentionalist school] that believes that it’s somehow less moral to throw the switch because that’s an affirmative act that causes a death. The results school of thought, of course, simply says that one death is preferable to five.
To my way of thinking, the problem with the intentionalist view is that it doesn’t recognize that the failure to act is in fact an action. Deciding not to act should be judged on the same grounds as acting is.
Yet more and more I see people deciding not to act, or not to get involved, because they see all courses of action, particularly in politics, as immoral or unethical. All too often, they’re correct about the perceived courses of action, but what I don’t think they’re correct about is that not acting, i.e., participating, discussing, voting, even running for office, is also an immoral action, because it abdicates responsibility for the outcome to those who are willing to dirty their hands, particularly since, in this day and age, those willing to speak out long and loudly, and vote, and persuade others to do so, seem to be those who represent the extremes in civil dialogue and politics.
Today, in a political sense in the U.S., we’re facing a form of the runaway trolley dilemma, and part of the dilemma occurred in the past when fewer and fewer non-extremists decided not to get involved in grass-roots politics, either through inertia or through the misguided belief that political involvement was immoral.
Failure to act is an act.