2 Winston Nesbitt: “Is Killing No Worse than Letting Die? ” Nesbitt’s ProjectNesbitt argues that the examples employed by Rachels (and Michael Tooley) to show that killing is no worse than letting die are faulty, and that, in fact, killing is worse than letting die.
3 The “Difference Thesis”: There is a moral difference between killing and letting die: it is morally worse to kill someone than to let them die.It seems that common moral intuitions favor the Difference Thesis.Consider two cases:Case 1: I push someone who I know cannot swim into the river, thereby killing her.Case 2: I come across someone who is drowning, and who I could easily rescue, yet fail to do so, thereby letting her die.88It seems that my behavior is morally worse in the first case than the second.We assume some malicious motive in the first case, but perhaps only fear or indifference in the second.
4 The “Difference Thesis” James Rachels and Michael Tooley argue that we favor the Difference Thesis because most cases are not adequately set up.Tooley: Besides motives, there are other morally relevant differences between typical acts of killing and typical acts of failing to save which make us judge such cases differently.Typically, saving someone requires more effort than refraining from killing someone.An act of killing necessarily results in someone’s death, but an act of failing to save does not (someone else may come to the rescue).88
5 The “Difference Thesis” Tooley concludes that if one wishes to appeal to intuitions, “one must be careful to confine one’s attention to pairs of cases that do not differ in these, or other significant respects.”Rachels & Tooley: When we compare a case of killing with one which differs from it only in being a case of letting die, we will agree that either agent is as culpable as the other.We tend to think killing is worse than letting die because we tend to think of cases that differ in other morally relevant respects.88
6 Rachels’ Smith and Jones Cases: Recall: Both Smith and Jones stand to gain if their respective six-year-old cousins die.Smith sneaks in while his cousin is bathing, and drowns him in the tub.Jones is planning to do the same, but sneaks in to find his cousin drowning all on his own. He stands ready to drown the child if need be, but the child drowns without Jones having to lift a finger.88
7 Rachels’ Smith and Jones Cases: Rachels assumes that we will agree that Smith, who kills his nephew, is no worse, morally speaking, than Jones, who merely lets his nephew die.Rachels argues that if letting die were in itself less bad than killing, Jones’ defense that “I didn’t kill him; I only let him die” would carry some weight.So we conclude that Jones is just as reprehensible as Smith.But what is the ground of our judgment of the agent in each case?88
8 Rachels’ Smith and Jones Cases: Note that Jones was perfectly prepared to kill his nephew, and would have done so had it proved necessary.“[S]omeone who is fully prepared to perform a reprehensible action, in the expectation of certain circumstances, but does not do so because the expected circumstances do not eventuate, is just as reprehensible as someone who actually performs that action in those circumstances.” (49)To think otherwise would seem to place some moral value on one person having opportunity or luck and the other not.We should judge Jones just as harshly as Smith, given what he was prepared to do, even if he had not let his nephew die.88
9 Rachels’ Smith and Jones Cases: Modified Jones Case: Jones manages to slip and fall and knock himself unconscious before he can drown the child, which he is attempting to do.By the time he regains consciousness, the child (unaware of Jones’ intentions) manages to call his parents, and Jones’ opportunity is gone.Here, Jones neither kills his nephew nor lets him die, but “it would be agreed that given his preparedness to kill the child for personal gain, he is as reprehensible as Smith.” (49)88
10 Tooley’s Smith and Jones Cases: Case 1: Jones wants Smith dead, and shoots him.Case 2: Jones is about to shoot Smith, when he sees that Smith will be killed by a bomb unless Jones warns him, as he easily can.Jones does not warn Smith, and the bomb explodes, killing Smith.
11 Tooley’s Homicidal Sons Case: Two sons are looking forward to the death of their wealthy father, and independently decide to poison him.Son #1 puts poison in his father’s whiskey, and is discovered doing so by Son #2, who was just about to do the same.Son #2 allows his father to drink the poisoned whiskey, and refrains from giving him the antidote, which he happens to possess.Tooley says that the agent who kills is morally no worse than the one who lets his victim die.
12 Revisiting the Cases:We judge Jones to be just as reprehensible as if he had killed Smith, but since he was fully prepared to kill him had he not been saved the trouble by the bomb, we should make the same judgment even if he had neither killed Smith nor let him die (say, if both the bomb and the bullet were duds).
13 Revisiting the Cases:With the homicidal sons, the son who didn’t kill was prepared to do so, and given this, would be as reprehensible as the other even if he had not “let his father die” (say, if he did not have the antidote).
14 Revisiting the Cases:Both Rachels and Tooley overlook that what determines whether or not someone is reprehensible is not simply what he does, but what he is prepared to do.While Rachels is correct that we will be inclined to judge Smith and Jones equally harshly, it is because they were both prepared to kill for motives of personal gain.The same is true of Tooley’s examples.In their efforts to ensure that each person in their cases does not differ in any morally relevant way, they make the agents too similar: each agent is guilty of the same moral offense.
15 Revisiting the Cases:What modifications do Rachels’ and Tooley’s cases require if they are to be used to legitimately gauge our attitudes towards killing and letting die?With Rachels’ case of Smith & Jones, we must remove Jones’ being prepared to kill the child: it must be the case that, though Jones was prepared to let his nephew die, he was not prepared to kill the child.It further cannot be the case that he is not prepared to kill the child because he fears punishment, or that he is too lazy, or that the idea simply hadn’t occurred to him.Rather, he must be reprehensible enough to let the child die for his gain, but not enough to kill the child.With these modifications, Smith’s behavior is, indeed, morally worse than Jones’.
16 The Social Argument:The reason we have morality is to make it possible for people to live together in reasonable peace and security.It is clearly preferable to have (modified) Jones-like people around than Smith-like people: we are threatened by the latter, but not by the former.This is why killing is, indeed, morally worse than letting die.
17 Back to Euthanasia:Nesbitt does not reconnect the killing/letting die distinction back to Rachels’ central topic of interest: euthanasia.If killing is, indeed, worse than letting die, would active euthanasia thereby necessarily be worse than passive euthanasia?If Nesbitt’s larger social theory about morality is correct, does it back up the idea that active euthanasia is worse than passive euthanasia?