Ask a Philosopher, Part Four: Causing Harm Versus Failing to Prevent Harm

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Ask a Philosopher, Part Four: Causing Harm Versus Failing to Prevent Harm

Robert Johnson is a British ethicist and moral philsopher. He is the author of Rational Morality: A Science Of Right And Wrong and commissioning editor of Ockham Publishing. He kindly agreed to allow me to pester him with misspelled, sophomoric questions. This week, I asked him about the difference between causing and preventing harm.

PMF: Like all deliberate choices, veganism is a political stance. Vegans choose to withdraw their support from animal industries in order to reduce their negative impact on the world. Unfortunately, as we all know, that doesn’t completely solve the problem, and some vegans actively engage in trying to reduce the negative impact of others. Is there a moral difference between harm one inflicts and harm one fails to prevent?


RJ: What a question! It depends on who you are! The government, for instance, could be acting out of brutal cruelty (often known as Conservatism) for failing to do something to alleviate forecasts of huge homelessness increases. Similarly, they might have been well intentioned by trying to do something about it and building more social housing, which could end up with them destroying the habitat of several native creatures. Thus there is a complex relationship not just between the harm one inflicts and one fails to prevent, but also whether or not the infliction or failure was intentional or not.

Generally speaking, we all agree that an intentional harm is morally problematic. Whether or not unintentional harm is morally wrong depends on the circumstance; for severe acts, where someone dies as a result, we might see unintentional harm the same way as knowingly failing to prevent. We define these kinds of acts as criminal, for instance, when a person has a moral duty of care. Normal citizens have this kind of moral responsibility whenever they see someone in harm’s way, and so long as helping the victim would not cause themselves harm, then the moral act in that situation is clear.

This all gets a bit blurry when the acts you are failing to prevent are happening somewhere other than right in front of your face. Are we acting immorally by failing to prevent climate change? Well, if we’re doing everything we personally can – as in recycling or walking instead of driving where reasonable – then its unclear how we could actually be preventing it. We individually don’t have the power to stop climate change, which is perhaps why we have failed to act collectively: there’s a lack of recognisable responsibility on anyone individual’s part, so it gets left to a small group of people with consciences bigger than the average. A group arguably too small to manage the task.

If that all seems way too unclear as an answer to the question, that’s because we’re a species desperate for answers when we hear what sound like logical, solvable questions. “Is there a moral difference between harm one inflicts and harm one fails to prevent?” It sounds like a simple question about obligations, but of course there are many deviations and different types of actions which could be classed as inflicted harm or preventative failure. And many more that could be a mixture of each. So many that a simple, full answer to the question would be dishonest. In a previous Ask a Philosopher I spoke of morality as being about expanding basic and agreed moral beliefs; the expansion of this would likely lead to answers straddling either side of the linguistic lines set by this question. So the honest answer is that sometimes there is a difference. There’s no simple holy book to follow in this rational ethics lark.

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