The No-Action Default

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.

10 thoughts on “The No-Action Default”

  1. Sam says:

    This is only tangentially related your blog topic however I am reminded of the debate that has raged since 2013 about the Superman movie Man of Steel and whether or not Superman should kill under any circumstances.

    There is a school of thought that if Superman kills even to save lives he is less of a hero – less pure, that when he does so he loses his halo.

    Some argue that the solution is to never write Superman into a situation he can’t get out of without killing.

    I’m not personally a fan of killing. I think it rarely solves anything and more often than not creates more problems. I live in a country that abolished the death penalty decades ago and given that crime has remained relatively consistent since then have no desire to bring it back.

    I’m often uncomfortable with what I feel is the blase manner many of your characters kill in your books – acting as judge, jury and executioner often via covert assassination.

    All of this said I don’t think life is all black and white and that you can condemn a person for killing in any circumstance.

    Idealists argue that there is always a better way. I think they are half right. I think many times there probably is a better solution yet not enough time to discover it.

  2. Andreas says:

    I could not agree with you more. The previous comment contains part of the reason; some people like to believe that there is always a better way, one that is without cost. The problem with that line of thought is that we often encounter situations that don’t have a good option, where the choice is between two actions that are both “evil” like choosing to kill one person by pulling a switch, or to kill five by not pulling the switch. This leads to the rationalisation that all the person did was watch as there wasn’t anything that could be done, the sad part for me is that society supports this line of thought; if the person,had pulled the switch and saved five lives, he/she would probably be charged with murder.
    I also understand why the way characters in your books make the hard choice of killing one to save many would upset many who believe there has to be a better way. It goes against what is socially acceptable.

  3. darcherd says:

    There really are some problems that only a good funeral can solve.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    Why shouldn’t inaction be the default, but only in proportion to the scope of the action proposed, and such understanding of its potential risks and rewards as time permitted?

    Take a counter-example: the busybodies in a community association. Because some have painted their houses absurd colors, all house colors become regulated. Apply the same principle to pets, plants, and everything else in any way shape or form capable of being alleged to have nonzero effect on property values or quality of life, and pretty soon you have a planned community…with zero visible individuality allowed. For them, regulatory intervention (action) was the default. Probably most feel hemmed in by all those rules, but the activists are getting their kicks by telling others what to do, which past some point is the real reason for which everything else is an excuse:

    The default of inaction, requiring action to have compelling cause usually subject to public review, and to interfere as little as possible for the achievement of the essential outcome, is a basic principle required to sustain the liberty of a free people. Perversely, a sufficient number of people do have to be involved to insure that a conscious and not merely passive preference to minimal action remains favored; because a passive preference will easily be subverted by the irrational offers of free stuff for everyone.

    1. I don’t have a problem with inaction being a default — so long as taking no action is considered equivalent to taking action.

  5. Daze says:

    There certainly are circumstances in which failure to act is immoral or criminal or both. In many countries there is legislation that requires professionals to report knowledge they come by of criminal acts / child abuse / money laundering / faults in building construction that may lead to deaths / etc.

    Simply restate the trolley problem to 5 people vs no people and it’s clear that inaction directly results in the avoidable death of five people, for which a court might decide you were negligent or liable in some way.

    Or, for a little fun, extend the default of inaction to the police: which BTW is the case now in many places for small burglaries and the like, where cash-strapped police forces just record the details so the victim can claim insurance, but don’t bother to investigate. The obvious extension of R. Hamilton’s reductionist view of liberty is that the state should exit all regulation, including policing, and leave it to people to seek their own redress for criminal acts – though presumably not through the courts, which will likely also be abolished in this scenario.

  6. Sam says:

    Of course as human beings there is what we should do and what nearly any person at a distance from the situation would forgive us for not doing.

    Take the trolley hypothetical for instance. What if it was a choice between 5 adults and a 6 year old child? What if the child was yours?

    Most people would forgive someone for not choosing to kill their child at the expense of 5 other individuals. Unless of course they had a personal tie to one or more of the individuals who were killed.

    1. Daze says:

      Or what if the one was someone you hate? But deliberately taking action to harm someone you hate would be a basis for prosecution.

      Or what if some of the five were people you hate? Could you be seen then to have intent to harm by not flicking the switch?

      If you start basing your moral decisions on your relationship to the individuals involved, then morality is no longer really in play.

  7. darcherd says:

    Of course morality is still in play when personal relationships are in play, it’s just morality with a different set of assumptions. In some cultures, loyalty to one’s family constitutes the highest moral value, one to which all others can be sacrificed when necessary.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    I would rather be damned for acting rather than not acting. I regret more the actions that I did not take rather than the times when I chose to act.

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