«Being or not being» is a key question in philosophy. But no less relevant is the question of «doing or not doing», another of the central topics of philosophy: it refers to the ability of the human being to act in different ways and, therefore, to take responsibility or take care of it. It’s the question of ethics.
To wonder and think about what we do that has an impact on our environment, personal, family, social and natural is to question ourselves for our moral life. We attribute a moral responsibility to people based on their ability to act one way or another and therefore freedom is a necessary condition for moral life.
The roots of morality lie in the freedom of the human being inso as it is seen in the need to «choose» from a range of possibilities and, above all, that individual must make the good choice and take responsibility for it.
Social beings, moral beings
‘Good’ and ‘duty’ are the two fundamental moral terms and the human being, while being social, is necessarily also a moral being. And morality is a social fact that can be seen in two ways:
It has a specific language: imperatives, normative expressions (duty, permission, obligation, prohibition), valorative expressions (fair, straight, unfair, good, evil…) relating to approval or disapproval.
Its partial institutionalization in law. Thus, morality is a social fact (every society has a code of standards) that is lived collectively and individually (social and personal dimension of morality).
Moral lived, morally thought out
When we rationally justify morality, we are making ethics. Ethics is therefore a reflection on morality, about the foundations of one’s own conduct.
Ethics (which is prescriptive) aims at establishing and justifying very general criteria that can be recommended as preferable and that allow a foundation of specific moral standards («something is a duty») and, more generally, moral judgments («something is good»). Aranguren calls morality «moral lived», and ethics » moral thought».
Ethics is therefore the branch of philosophy that reflects precisely on good and duty, and is unfailingly linked to action and the practical and lively dimension of human behavior. But only stocks? What about the omissions?
Don’t do: the omission
One omission is not to do something one could (and sometimes should) have done and does not do. Just as action consists of a positive work, a doing, omission instead, consists of a do not, in a non-acting, in an abstain.
But not everything a person doesn’t do is an omission. We talk about omission when being able to do an activity and having some reason to do it, it does not take place. Omissions involve circumventing «expected» behavior in some sense (such as when parents do not feed or care for their children, or when those who are in danger are not helped) and these omissions may be not only intentional but also by negligence and neglect.
The example of euthanasia
However, it is not easy to distinguish actions from omissions. On the one hand, the very characterization of behaviors as active or omissions is determined by the assessments made of these behaviors: people tend to classify as omissive behaviors that seem morally more acceptable to us and as active those that are most unacceptable to us.
For example, on issues as debated as euthanasia, it is argued that no action can be taken to kill although it is permissible to omit to let die (limitation of life support effort).
But the question is complicated if it can be killed by omissions (not by providing a vital medicine) and left to die by means of acts (removing a respirator at the request of a patient) or if it is understood that there are omissions that deserve more moral rebuke than actions with identical results (letting an evicted sick person die of hunger and thirst or providing terminal sedation).
In short, our prior assessment preconditions what we distinguish as shares and omissions.
Is it worse to do something wrong or not do something good?
On the other hand, the so-called «bias of omission» has been demonstrated in psychology, that is, the tendency that most individuals have to judge as morally more serious harmful behaviors resulting from an action than those that are the result of an omission.
Moreover, it seems that actions and omissions can be considered a wider range of possibilities: not to prevent, to facilitater, contribute. For example: pushing someone from a cliff into the sea is harming; if I see that someone is going to throw themselves into the water at risk of their life and I do nothing, I do not prevent the damage; If I don’t t t t t t t t t t t give you a rope that I have on hand, I allow the damage with my omission; if I don’t let someone else throw a rope at him to keep him from drowning, I’m facilitating damage.
Whether or not it facilitates harm does not initiate the causal process by which the damage is committed, but without his conduct, the damage in question would not be carried out at all.
The spectator effect
And at this point we have to talk about the dilution of responsibility and the «spectator effect», according to which the probability of intervening in emergency situations is inversely proportional to the number of spectators who witness them.
What is our responsibility as observers and connoisseurs of evil, but who do not act? Are leave, passivity, indifference, apathy, or inaction ethically acceptable? We can raise this from the perspective of some of the most pressing and urgent global challenges of our time, such as poverty and exclusion, migration or climate change, certainly related to each other.
In short, the ethical question pivots not only on doing, but also a lot about not doing and all the variants between them. Doing nothing is obviously a way of doing something. As subjects of a world of spectators, deeply interconnected, we cannot evade our responsibility, either by action, or by omission.
A world of unethical spectators in schools
The third Thursday of November marks World Philosophy Day. On 19 November 2020, the inclusion or other not of the subject of Ethics in the 4th year of Compulsory Secondary Education is also definitively voted on in the Spanish Parliament.
Ladies and gentlemen, you have the possibility to do or not to do, to enable or not to allow a rigorous teaching of the concepts, theories and arguments of ethics so that our young people, future generations, ask questions about asking or not to ask and not become mere spectators of a challenging and to build future.
Do or not do to be active subjects of social life. Here’s the thing.
Txetxu Ausín, Senior Scientist, Institute of Philosophy, Applied Ethics Group, Center for Human and Social Sciences (CCHS – CSIC)
This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.