ALLOWING THE DEATHS OF OTHER PEOPLE
OR THEIR BODIES
Except for differences of side-effects consequentialist or
teleological arguments against
killing are equally good arguments against letting die, or in favor of
Utilitarians in particular teach that killing is shortening a
life, while saving a life is extending it, and that the
traditional difference of moral evaluation is solely defensible
to the extent that it reflects differences of side-effects on
other people. They do not think that an act like killing
(intentionally) or an omission like allowing someone to die
(intentionally) can ever vary in moral value when having
This may be correct within the consequentialist framework of the
utilitarian, and also within the teleological framework of our
neutralistic, doctrine; it is not correct when this doctrine, or adherence
to this doctrine, is judged from a
Then it has to be taken into account that two persons may adhere to
different teleological, or other, doctrines and moralities.
Acts and omissions do not relate in the same way to active
extrinsic rights and
doctrinaire utilitarian, or other consequentialist, would not be able to
view matters from a metadoctrinal standpoint (like so many religious and
political dogmatizers), it is even possible to attack
'er position from within a
consequentialist doctrine on other considerations than those of
The point is that refraining from a wrong act and a
right omission do not require anything physical of the agent,
whereas a right act and refraining from a wrong omission do.
Thus abstaining from murder requires no physical effort as such
but refraining from not saving lives, or from not striving to
keep alive, does. Now, it is quite possible that everyone can
endeavor to keep one person alive, but no-one may be able to
keep everyone alive. Or, more generally, it is quite possible to
abstain from one, or a limited number of wrong omissions, but it
may physically be impossible to abstain from all omissions
which are consequentially speaking wrong.
This is not a question of
normative conditions in
themselves anymore but of
modal conditions: a person may
be able to do everything
'e should do separately, but is
'e able to do everything 'e should do together?
(Compare the precautions you should take to prevent
the occurrence of one particular disease. You can take
these precautions, yet if you had to take all precautions you should
take to prevent the occurrence of each disease, or of any
disease, you could get, you would probably soon collapse from
In respect of
the DNI there is the additional aspect
that it would fall foul of the spirit of neutralism to require a
(positive) action which somehow involves change.
All we can demand on
the relevantistic interpretation of the
doctrinal principle of neutrality is that if one acts, it
should ultimately serve a neutral purpose.
This, of course, holds also for the consequences or effects of an
intentional omission, yet an omission in itself differs markedly in
character from an action.
The theory on which there can be a normative difference
between an act and an omission with the same consequences is
called "the acts and omissions doctrine". If we completely
rejected this theory (as consequentialists do), not giving to a
famine relief fund without being able to justify one's
alternative spending as more important would be very similar to an act
of killing. (It is to be feared tho that this position might
make people not more willing to give to such relief funds but
less reluctant to murder instead.) Yet, there is one significant
difference: if the act of killing is a murder regardless of the
doctrine espoused, then it is the most serious violation of
right to personhood, whereas not
contributing to a relief fund is not as such. On the other hand, in the
event that the famine concerned results from a large-scale violation of
extrinsic property-rights in a region, or in the world, a
contribution to the relief of this famine is merely a (partial)
compensation for this violation. Not contributing to famine
relief can in that case be on a par with murder even from a
metadoctrinal standpoint. It is only when the country or the
people that suffer from famine have not respected, or will not
respect, the rules of
the extrinsic right-duty
constellation themselves that they cannot appeal to this
compensative, metadoctrinal aspect of helping them.
On the utilitarian reckoning everyone should spend 'er time
on good works right up to the point where the disadvantages to
the benefits to others. The ensuing prospect of an
enormous reduction in income and/or the loss of a lot of spare
time is a very demanding morality indeed for many (comparatively)
One approach suggested to this problem (if it is one), is to accept the
utilitarian, eudaimonist view, but 'to allow a huge discrepancy between
professed beliefs and actual conduct' and to distinguish 'ordinary people'
from the 'few saints [sic] who manage to live up to the utilitarian
(Forget about the connection between saints and the miracle-mongering
ideology which may be largely responsible for the profusion of the needy
This, however, is a serious admission of failure largely due, not only
to the utilitarian's neglect of extrinsic right-duty relationships
but also of the individual's general modal condition. Take
the modal condition of a bridge by way of comparison: a bridge
may easily be able to carry each one of a thousand vehicles,
without being able to carry all of them. In other words, a
bridge has a carrying-capacity, but so has a person, or human
body, in a way. When two people do not live up to the
utilitarian's expectations, it may be that one of them does not
try hard enough, but it may also be that their carrying-capacities
are simply dissimilar. In that case they may both
be exerting themselves to the utmost.
Therefore, we had better forget the naive and deceptive terminology of one
of them being 'a saint' and the other just 'ordinary'.
Not only suppositions about modal conditions but also suppositions about
factual conditions play a role
in consequentialist or teleological ethics.
The positions of two utilitarians, for instance, may radically differ
dependent on their empirical or modal presuppositions.
In discussions on whether famine can be avoided there is a
remarkable difference of opinion amongst utilitarians themselves.
First of all, there is the position of those who believe that a population
growth which is faster than the growth in food supplies leads to famine.
Among them we find so-called 'optimists' who believe that famine can be
reduced and averted by bringing the rate of growth of population below the
rate of achievable economic growth, and so-called 'pessimists'
who do not believe that population control programs can end or
avert famine. Furthermore, there are the 'developmentalists' who
hold the view that population growth rates often do not fall
until after a reasonable level of economic well-being has been
reached. An optimistic utilitarian may tend to underestimate the
long-term consequences of saving human beings from famine when
the growth of population is merely going to outstrip the
available resources. A pessimistic utilitarian may see no way
'to curtail population growth except by letting famines run
their natural course' — as has seriously been argued. This
divergence of opinions between thinkers with apparently the same
moral outlook seems to be largely the result of the uncertainty
Utilitarianism (and with it all consequentialism) has been
attacked for not distinguishing justice from beneficence or
'essential duties' which are stringently required from
'supererogatory duties' which are meritorious, but which would
not be required so stringently. In deontological terms it may be said
that the duties of justice require that one act on no maxim
which uses people as mere means, and that duties of beneficence
require that one act on some maxim which fosters other people's ends.
(Note the metadoctrinal basis of the supposedly
doctrinal duty of beneficence.)
It is then said to be 'a matter for
judgment and discretion which of their ends to foster'. (Note
how this valueless evaluative formulation now touches on a
doctrinal dimension.) All those who emphasize this distinction
between duties have to do is to make sure that their acts are
not unjust in that they would use people as mere means (whatever
this might mean). Regardless of whether one is in a position to
do something about it, helping the starving is merely a
supererogatory duty on this deontological reasoning. Assuming
that any beneficence is to be allocated at all, it leaves the
allocation of this beneficence in utter darkness.
Altho it may be mentioned that 'relief of famine should stand very high
among duties of beneficence' since 'extreme poverty and hunger leave
people unable to pursue any of their other ends', it may be
stressed at the same time that 'the important moral choices are
above all those in which one acts directly', that is, those
which involve personal communication. Such a lack of concern
with social issues (and such a lack of socioeconomic insight) on
a larger than personal scale does not even require pessimistic
presuppositions with regard to famine relief.
When metadoctrinal considerations are not mixed up with doctrinal ones,
the difference between so-called 'duties of justice' and 'duties of
beneficence' in matters of life and death resembles that between extrinsic
It is true that a person must not act unjustly in terms of the
extrinsic right-duty constellation, but intrinsic duties are
only supererogatory from the metadoctrinal angle. To maintain
that they would be supererogatory on the doctrinal level is a
fallacy; it is precisely at this level where the core of
morality lies. Thus, on the
Ananormative model we may accept
the eudaimonist, doctrinal considerations of utilitarians with respect to
saving lives if, and insofar as, they do not contradict anyone's right to
personhood, do not disregard other
neutral-inclusive values than the
minimization of suffering, and do take into account that every person is
a being with limited capacities.
What the neutral-inclusivist should suppose with respect to the factual and
modal conditions of famine relief and related issues cannot be laid down
here since the truth and relevance of such suppositions are too much time-
There is a lugubrious similarity between allowing other
people to die of hunger, or of illnesses they would easily have
survived if hunger had not weakened them, and passive
In both cases people die, because they are allowed to die, not because
their deaths are the result of particular actions (discounting the possible
infringement of extrinsic property rights).
And in both cases they die against their will.
If a person's reaction should be different in the instance of passive
involuntary euthanasia, then only because 'e is probably able to do much
more about one isolated case close to home than about so many cases far
But this argument is weak and the strong similarity remains.
No-one can call passive involuntary euthanasia "murder", if 'e does not
equally condemn the situation in which people let other people die of
starvation. If aid is supererogatory in the latter case, it is so in
the former case. Granted that it is not supererogatory on the
doctrinal level, we must either condemn both situations or
neither one. Involuntary euthanasia would, perhaps, hit a person
we know, but only one or a limited number of people (who,
moreover, cannot be cured either). On the other hand, the
number of human beings struck by a famine is likely to be beyond
The least problematic instance of allowing the death of
another person, or 'er body, is passive voluntary euthanasia.
As it is passive, it only requires an omission; and as it is
voluntary, it is an omission which is requested. It is the right
to personhood of every person to refuse medical, or other,
treatment while 'e is still able to communicate this desire, but
also thereafter, if 'e has made it known beforehand that 'e does
not want the life of 'er body to be prolonged. When the decision
is an unmistakably free one, no-one has the right to treat, or
continue treating, the person or 'er body, not even to save 'er
life, if, and insofar as, only 'er own death is involved (and
not the involuntary death, or possible death, of another
person). It may be very regrettable that someone who is
seriously ill or badly injured chooses to die; it may be that
'er life should be saved and could be worthwhile in our eyes.
Yet, it is not our life, and our normative convictions may not
be the other person's normative convictions, or our information
and suppositions may not be the other person's information and
People also allow, risk or cause their own deaths when they do not suffer
from a terminal disease or are not seriously injured, or when their
well-being does not seem to be threatened by demonstrable external factors.
This matter will be our final concern.