AskPhilosophers puts real philosophers at the service of the general public. Have a big, lofty question that only a professional philosopher can tackle? They’ll answer it on the web. And now on the iPhone. This new, free app (designed by Amherst College) lets you access their Q&A archive on the go. While waiting in line for a coffee, you can chew over this kind of exchange:
Question: If you fail to stop something bad happening to you is it the same as being complicit in the act?
Answer: There is a complicated literature in moral philosophy about how to draw the distinction between doing and merely allowing harm and whether this distinction has moral significance. Without trying to navigate that deep intellectual thicket, it is still possible to begin to address your question. If I’m complicit in doing something bad, for instance, harming another person, then it seems I share the aim of my accomplices in harming someone else. I intend harm. By contrast, if I merely allow someone else to harm, I needn’t and typically don’t intend harm. While not intending harm, I may be indifferent to the harm. It depends. I may not be indifferent to the harm in question. I may be averse to it and perhaps would do something to prevent it but for some significant cost or risk involved in prevention. If the only way to save someone else from harm (whether intended or not) requires risking my life, then we cannot infer indifference from my failure to prevent harm. Perhaps I am averse to the harm and would prevent it if only the costs or risks of doing so had been less. However, if the cost or risk of preventing harm, especially significant harm, is non-existent or very low, then my failure to prevent the harm might be a sign of indifference. Most people would think that being genuinely indifferent to harms to others, especially significant harms, was bad but probably not as bad as actually intending comparable harm. Many people think that, all else being equal, it is morally worse to intend harm than to be indifferent to it. Some think that this difference makes doing harm worse than merely allowing it. Others doubt that it affects the permissibility of our actions and omissions but allow that it should color our assessments of the moral character of the agents in question.