Awhile ago Donald Trump made a video offering to donate $5 million to charity if only Barack Obama would release his passport and college records. Of course, Barack Obama ended up refusing the offer, fueling Donald Trump’s long “conspiracy nut” belief that Obama wasn’t really born in America.
When the due date for the deal passed, however, Trump remarked how sad it was:
After the deadline came and went, Mr. Trump posted a video on YouTube calling it a “very, very sad day for the United States of America.” He suggested that the president’s snub prevented him from giving $5 million to a group such as the Wounded Warrior Project, American Cancer Society or to the families of victims from the embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya.
But there’s another way to think about this: why can’t Mr. Trump donate the $5 million anyway? Certainly, there’s no requirement that Obama do anything for Trump to donate his money. In a sense, Trump is playing the role of a terrorist – he has it within his ability to easily help the family of victims, wounded warriors, or people with cancer but chooses to hold these groups hostage until Obama gives into his demands.
But, of course, there seems to be a critical distinction between declining to help people with your money (allowing them to be harmed through your inaction) and actively holding people hostage (doing harm to them). However, the consequences are identical – regardless of whether Trump is refusing to make a donation or actively being a terrorist, the wounded veterans and family victims don’t get helped all the same. Utilitarianism, in focusing on the consequences of the act, doesn’t seem to recognize this critical distinction, commonly called the doing-allowing distinction.
In this essay, I aim to further explore utilitarianism by exploring the doing-allowing distinction.
Peter Singer’s Pond
Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. It would be wrong–monstrous, in fact–to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!
Everyone I have talked to endorses saving the child, even at the cost of the shoes. Yet, as Singer argues, there is a twist – if we would sacrifice our shoes to save a child from a pond, should we not also sacrifice our shoes (or at least the monetary cost of them) to save lives overseas? Singer continues:
Yet while we all say that it would be wrong to walk past the child, there are other children whose lives we could save just as easily–and yet we don’t. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, estimates that nearly 9 million children under 5 die each year from causes related to poverty. That’s 24,000 a day—a football stadium full of young children, dying every day (along with thousands of older children and adults who die from poverty every day as well). Some die because they don’t have enough to eat or clean water to drink. More die from measles, malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia—diseases that don’t exist in developed nations, or if they do, are easily cured and rarely fatal.
Describing a case in Ghana, a man told a researcher from the World Bank: “Take the death of this small boy this morning, for example. The boy died of measles. We all know he could have been cured at the hospital. But the parents had no money and so the boy died a slow and painful death, not of measles but out of poverty.
Some people are motivated to deny the analogy, and I agree with those who say it really isn’t that simple. But a strong case can be made: it’s been thoroughly and compellingly established via ample evidence that $1000-$2000 can prevent a case of an otherwise deadly disease in the developing world – saving someone who would have died at 5 and instead allowing them to live out their natural life, dying instead of old age of 60. Or, in simpler terms, $1000-$2000 can save a life.
However, what is the “morally relevant” difference between drowning someone intentionally (doing) and declining to save someone from drowning (allowing)? And what would be the difference between giving someone malaria (doing) and declining to save them from malaria via a life-saving donation? As Peter Singer would argue, there’s little difference at all.
Bathtubs and Doing-Allowing
Speaking of the difference between intentionally drowning someone and declining to save someone from drowning, philosopher James Rachels argues that there is no “morally relevant” difference by arguing a “contrasting case” in his paper “Active and Passive Euthanasia” (PDF):
In the first, Smith stands to gain a large inheritance if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. One evening while the child is taking his bath, Smith sneaks into the bathroom and drowns the child, and then arranges things so that it will look like an accident.
In the second, Jones also stands to gain if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. Like Smith. Jones sneaks in planning to drown the child in his bath. However, just as he enters the bathroom Jones sees the child slip and hit his head, and fall face down in the water. Jones is delighted; he stands by, ready to push the child’s head back under if it is necessary, but it is not necessary. With only a little thrashing about, the child drowns all by himself, “accidentally,” as Jones watches and does nothing.
Is there a relevant distinction to be made between how we evaluate the character of Smith and Jones? Does one of them seem more malicious than the other? Here’s Rachels’s analysis:
Now Smith killed the child, whereas Jones “merely” let the child die. That is the only difference between them. Did either man behave better, from a moral point of view? If the difference between killing and letting die were in itself a morally important matter, one should say that Jones’s behavior was less eprehensible than Smith’s. But does one really want to say that? I think not. In the first place, both men acted from the same motive, personal gain, and both had exactly the same end in view when they acted.
[…S]uppose Jones pleaded, in his own defense, “After all, I didn’t do anything except just stand there and watch the child drown. I didn’t kill him; I only let him die.” Again, if letting die were in itself less bad than killing, this defense should have at least some weight. But it does not. Such a “defense” can only be regarded as a grotesque perversion of moral reasoning. Morally speaking, it is no defense at all.
The Trolley Problem
Based on the bathtub case, it seems intuitive that the doing-allowing distinction doesn’t hold. But this intuition is challenged by the famous “Trolley Problem”, a thought experiment first introduced by Phillipa Foot and then extensively modified by Judith Jarvis Thompson, which is perhaps even more famous than Singer’s pond. It’s typically given in two different scenarios:
Scenario #1: A train is hurdling down the tracks with failed breaks. There are five people on the track ahead of the train who cannot get off in time. They will die unless the train is diverted onto another track by a switch. However, that other track has one person on it who will not be able to get off in time. Should the train be intentionally diverted, killing one person, or allowed to stay on its present course, killing five people?
Typically, people will remark that the train should be intentionally diverted so that more lives can be saved. It’s important to note, however, that the five people on the train are being allowed to die by mere inaction on behalf of the switch-flipper. So how culpable is the person in their deaths? Consider this additional scenario:
Scenario #2: A train is hurdling down the tracks with failed breaks. There are five people on the track ahead of the train who cannot get off in time. This time there is no switch, but you are on a ledge with a man who would be fat enough to stop the train in time, should you push him off the ledge to his death in order to save the five. Should the fat man be intentionally pushed, killing one person, or allowed to stay on the ledge, leading to the death of the five people?
Interestingly, in this scenario, a sizable majority of people change their mind and argue that the fat man should not be killed, even though they had just endorsed the “kill one to save five” principle established earlier. The difference here does seem to be the doing-allowing distinction – in the case of flipping the switch, you are impersonally changing events to allow one person to die instead of allowing five people to die; but in the case of the footbridge, you are killing (doing) the fat man.
Of Euthanasia and Automatic Bank Accounts
Escaping the world of ponds, bathtubs, and trolleys, we can bring the doing-allowing distinction to the more practical world. Consider the controversial case of euthanasia – if someone is in unbearable pain and is going to die with no hope of rescue, it seems like we should end their pain. However, it is not acceptable to outright kill the patient – that would be murder! Instead, the patient can be allowed to die by declining to continue life supporting treatment, and that’s legal.
But as Richard Chappell points out in his essay “Doing and Allowing”, we could conceive of a strange life support machine that is set to turn itself off automatically unless the doctor intervenes to push a button to turn it back on. That way, whenever a decision is made to terminate life support, it is the doctor merely refraining from pushing the button and allowing the patient to die rather than doing something to the patient.
Likewise, we could conceive of a bank account where we deposit our income that is set to automatically donate 10% of the contents to an effective non-profit organization. Here, any spending of our income deliberately reduces the pool to be donated and thus deliberately deprives people from receiving life-saving treatment, just like your inaction to actually donate a portion of your income used to.
Here, in these two scenarios, the doing-allowing distinction falls apart. So what are we to do? The doing-allowing distinction is on shaky ground, and should be rejected. But does this mean that Donald Trump should be considered a terrorist and that we are all murderers for refusing to donate as much as possible to charity?
In the next essay, I’ll sketch out a utilitarian account of blameworthiness that takes into account quality of will, and argues that we should donate income to charity because it is an incredibly worthy action, not because we are monsters for failing to do so. …Trump, I hope you have your check for $5 million handy.