Ask Philosophers Goes Mobile

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.

via @philosophybites

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