HARMS, OMISSIONS AND MORALS: AN ANALYSIS OF THE NATURE AND RELATIVE STRINGENCY OF THE DUTY TO PREVENT HARM (NEGATIVE, POSITIVE DUTIES).
AuthorMALM, HEIDI MEREDITH.
KeywordsLife and death, Power over.
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractMy aim is to provide the foundation for a theory about the duty to prevent harm by investigating how this duty compares and contrasts with the duty not to cause harm. I begin by addressing the moral significance of the difference between killing (causing harm) and letting die (refraining from preventing harm), arguing that neither of the prevalent and rival views ('killing is inherently worse than letting die', and 'killing and letting die are, other things equal, morally equivalent') is entirely acceptable. By analyzing the notion of a morally significant difference I argue that these views are only contrary. I then develop an alternative view which locates the difference between killing and letting die at the level of the general moral prohibitions against such acts, and is grounded on a difference in the 'strength' or 'type' of reason that can justify violations of those prohibitions in relevantly similar circumstances. This account is summarized into three intermediate principles. To develop these principles into a general theory, I introduce and clarify the distinction between negative and positive duties, arguing that it is independent of the distinction between negative and positive acts. After exploring the grounds for and against recognizing the significance of the former distinction, I conclude that while it is significant, and that negative duties are in some sense stricter than positive duties, the prevalent interpretation of "stricter" and its corresponding moral principle are unacceptable. I then develop an alternative definition and a theory entailing (a) that while causing harm is sometimes morally worse than failing to prevent harm (other things equal), it is not always worse, (b) the cases in which it is worse are cases in which the agent's negative or positive duty conflicts with another morally relevant consideration, and (c) that negative duties are stricter than positive duties in that the former are more difficult to justifiably violate. Finally, I defend this theory as one which captures the strong points of the rival views, while escaping their problems, and thus provides both a resolution to the current debates and the foundation for a complete analysis of the duty to prevent harm.