Philosophy Doing and Allowing
by
Fiona Woollard
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0304

Introduction

According to common-sense morality, the difference between doing and allowing harm matters morally. Doing harm can be wrong when merely allowing harm would not be, even if all other factors are equal: the level of harm is the same, the agent’s motivation is the same, the cost to the agent of avoiding countenancing harm is the same, and so on. Suppose that you have accidentally swallowed poison and you need to get to hospital urgently. It might be permissible for you to refuse to stop and help if you spot Sarah drowning, but impermissible for you to push her into a river to clear your way to the hospital. Without this moral distinction between doing and allowing, it seems likely that our everyday morality would look very different. Treating doing and allowing harm as equivalent seems to leave us with a morality that is either much more permissive than we normally think it is (permitting us to do harm to others to avoid personal sacrifices) or much more demanding (requiring us to prevent harm to others even at great personal sacrifice). Yet the moral significance of the distinction is highly controversial. When serious harm to others is at stake, it may seem puzzling that it should matter whether the harm is done or merely allowed. Powerful critics have argued that the distinction is morally irrelevant. Others have charged that the distinction itself falls apart under scrutiny: our intuitions about whether behavior counts as doing or allowing harm do not reflect any clear, nonmoral distinction. Much of the early contemporary debate on the moral relevance of the distinction between doing and allowing harm focused on appeals to intuitions. We are asked to examine “contrast cases” in which all others factors are supposedly held constant. However, appeals to intuitions are of limited use. They may establish whether we treat the distinction as morally relevant, but they cannot show whether we ought to do so. The real challenge for a defender of the doing/allowing distinction is to provide a clear analysis of the distinction and a convincing argument that, under this analysis, the distinction connects appropriately to more fundamental moral concepts. This article maps out the philosophical literature on the analysis and moral significance of the distinction between doing and allowing harm, from the beginnings of contemporary interest in the issue in the 1960s and 1970s to recent trends and developments.

General Overviews and Anthologies

There are a small number of general overviews of the literature on the doing/allowing distinction. Howard-Snyder 2011 provides a good, free-to-access introduction to the topic, with helpful summaries of the main issues and positions as well as some original criticism. Steinbock 1994 and Norcross 1994 are twin introductions to Steinbock and Norcross 1994, the must-have anthology for anyone working on this topic. These introductions examine and summarize the current philosophical debate, the collected articles—which include almost all the key works written on the topic prior to 1994—and the contemporary status of the distinction in legal and medical practice. Woollard 2012a provides a critical survey of the debate on the analysis of the doing/allowing distinction, while its sister article, Woollard 2012b, explores work on the distinction’s moral significance. Additionally, some journal articles that are aimed mainly at defending an original position start with an overview of the state of the debate. Draper 2005 provides a particularly useful way of understanding the various accounts and relationships between them, because the author groups attempted analyses into five categories before criticizing them. Bennett 1995 surveys and criticizes the key alternatives to his own account at the time of writing.

  • Bennett, Jonathan. The Act Itself. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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    As well as development of the author’s own account of the doing/allowing distinction, this volume contains a careful examination and critique of the main alternative accounts available at the time of writing.

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    • Draper, Kai. “Rights and the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 33 (2005): 255–280.

      DOI: 10.1111/j.1088-4963.2005.00033.x.Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Research article that, before defending the positive proposal, provides a helpful overview of analyses of the distinction between doing and allowing, groups proposals into five categories, and explains main criticisms of each.

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      • Howard-Snyder, Frances. “Doing vs. Allowing Harm.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2011.

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        A useful survey of the main positions, with some original criticism and an extensive bibliography. Free to access online. Suitable for undergraduates, as well as graduate students and professional philosophers.

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        • Norcross, Alastair. “Introduction to the 2nd Edition.” In Killing and Letting Die. 2d ed. Edited by Bonnie Steinbock and Alastair Norcross, 1–23. New York: Fordham University Press, 1994.

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          An additional introduction for the second edition, meant to be read alongside Steinbock’s reprinted introduction to the first edition (Steinbock 1994). Presents a critical survey of the contemporary state of the debate and those articles added to the second edition. A prominent consequentialist, the author rejects the distinction.

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          • Steinbock, Bonnie. “Introduction.” In Killing and Letting Die. 2d ed. Edited by Bonnie Steinbock and Alastair Norcross, 24–47. New York: Fordham University Press, 1994.

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            Originally printed as the introduction to the first edition of Killing and Letting Die in 1980. Introduces the controversy over the moral significance of the distinction between killing and letting die, covering legal and medical aspects as well as prominent philosophical approaches.

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            • Steinbock, Bonnie, and Alastair Norcross, eds. Killing and Letting Die. 2d ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1994.

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              Must-have anthology for anyone working on killing and letting die. Contains almost all the key articles written on the topic before 1994, as well as several original papers, including an exchange on active versus passive euthanasia between Michael Tooley, James Rachels, Bonnie Steinbock, and Thomas D. Sullivan. Also contains helpful introductions, Norcross 1994 and Steinbock 1994.

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              • Woollard, Fiona. “The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing I: Analysis of the Doing/Allowing Distinction.” Philosophy Compass 7 (2012a): 448–458.

                DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2012.00491.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                Paper 1 of a two-part critical survey of the debate on the doing/allowing distinction, this paper explores the analysis of the distinction. Argues the account in Foot 1967 and Foot 1984 (both cited under the Beginning of Contemporary Debate) is most promising but requires development. Identifies two mistaken assumptions that have made debate more difficult.

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                • Woollard, Fiona. “The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing II: The Moral Relevance of the Doing/Allowing Distinction.” Philosophy Compass 7 (2012b): 459–469.

                  DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2012.00492.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                  Paper 2 of a two-part critical survey of the debate on the doing/allowing distinction. Focuses on the claim that the distinction is morally significant. Discusses positive defenses by Foot 1967, Foot 1985, and Quinn 1989 (all cited under the Beginning of Contemporary Debate) plus key objections including the Wicked Uncle case (Rachels 1975, cited under Appeals to Intuitions) and the objection that any acceptable analysis of the distinction leaves the distinction morally irrelevant (Bennett 1981, cited under Critics of the Distinction; Bennett 1995).

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                  The Beginning of Contemporary Debate

                  Contemporary debate on the significance of the doing/allowing distinction began with Foot 1967. Foot begins by discussing the Doctrine of Double Effect, the claim that harms that are merely foreseen may be easier to justify than those that are directly intended. She notes that there are many reasons to find this doctrine dubious, but that it may seem the only way to avoid unpalatable conclusions. Foot 1967 is the source of the now infamous “Trolley Problem.” In Foot’s version, a runaway tram is heading toward five men working on the track, and the driver must choose whether to steer onto another track where only one man is working. Foot contrasts this with a case in which a judge can prevent a rioting mob from killing five hostages only by framing and executing an innocent man. Foot notes that it may seem that only the Doctrine of Double Effect can explain the intuitive difference between the cases, but argues that we should instead appeal to a distinction between doing and allowing harm. The tram driver has to choose between killing one and killing five, and so must kill the one, while the judge must choose between killing one and merely allowing five to die, and so must allow the five to die. She suggests that we analyze this distinction in terms of whether the harm is seen as the result of a preexisting sequence or not. The significance of the distinction is defended in terms of positive versus negative rights. The account is further developed in Foot 1984 and Foot 1985. For discussion of Foot’s account, see Quinn 1989, Davis 1994, and Rickless 1997. Thomson 1976 points out that a modification of Foot’s tram case shows that the issue cannot simply be a distinction between doing and allowing harm. In Thomson’s version, it is a bystander who faces the choice of whether to turn the runaway vehicle from one toward five. (Thomson also changed Foot’s English “tram” into a North American “trolley.”) Thomson’s version of the case is now the classic “Trolley Problem.” Foot 1985 agrees that both a doing/allowing distinction and a “double effect” distinction are needed.

                  • Davis, N. Ann. “The Priority of Avoiding Harm.” In Killing and Letting Die. 2d ed. Edited by Bonnie Steinbock and Alastair Norcross, 298–354. New York: Fordham University Press, 1994.

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                    Sustained critique of the argument in Foot 1967 that doing harm is worse than allowing harm because positive rights are stronger than negative rights. Argues that the doing/allowing distinction may not line up with the distinction between positive/negative rights, and that Foot’s analysis of allowing in terms of sequences fails because our moral expectations affect our understanding of what counts as a sequence.

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                    • Foot, Philippa. “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect.” Oxford Review 5 (1967): 1–7.

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                      Widely reprinted, including in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies), this article began contemporary debate on the moral significance of the doing/ allowing distinction. Foot proposes that the doing/allowing distinction, rather than the intended/foreseen distinction, explains cases that motivate the Doctrine of Double Effect. Source of the famous Trolley Problem.

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                      • Foot, Philippa. “Killing and Letting Die.” In Abortion and Legal Perspectives. Edited by Jay L. Garfield and Patricia Hennesy, 177–185. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

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                        Widely reprinted, including in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies), this chapter develops Foot’s analysis and defense of the doing/allowing distinction, first presented in Foot 1967. We should understand doing versus allowing harm in terms of the distinction between initiating a harmful sequence and not interfering to prevent a preexisting threat. The distinction is significant because negative rights to noninterference are stronger than positive rights to aid.

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                        • Foot, Philippa. “Morality, Action and Outcome.” In Morality and Objectivity: A Tribute to J. L. Mackie. Edited by Ted Honderich, 23–38. London: Routledge, 1985.

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                          Further refinement of the defense of the moral significance of the doing/allowing distinction in Foot 1967 and Foot 1984. Also argues that both the doing/allowing and the intended/foreseen intention are morally relevant.

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                          • Quinn, Warren S. “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing.” Philosophical Review 98 (1989): 287–312.

                            DOI: 10.2307/2185021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                            Defense of the moral relevance of the doing/allowing distinction. Begins by criticizing Foot 1984. Argues Foot’s “preexisting threat” account misclassifies as doings cases where a victim is not seen as under threat until the agent fails to help. Source of the influential Freezing Neighbor counterexample to Foot.

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                            • Rickless, Samuel. “The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing.” Philosophical Review 106 (1997): 555–582.

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                              Responds to Quinn’s influential Freezing Neighbor counterexample (see Quinn 1989) to Foot 1984. Argues that there is a preexisting threat in such cases, so Foot will correctly classify them as doings. Rickless offers further cases that he claims are better explained by Foot’s account than by the account in Quinn 1989.

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                              • Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “Killing, Letting Die and the Trolley Problem.” The Monist 59 (1976): 204–217.

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                                Source of the now classic version of the Trolley Problem, modified from the original version in Foot 1967. Also contains an important argument about the use of comparison cases and what it means to say that killing is worse than letting die.

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                                The Moral Relevance of the Distinction

                                Most discussion of the doing/allowing distinction is ultimately concerned with whether or not the distinction is morally relevant. One strand of debate on the moral relevance of the doing/allowing distinction focuses on whether our intuitions about cases really treat the doing/allowing distinction as morally relevant. (See Appeals to Intuitions.) Another strand of debate generally assumes that we do intuitively treat the distinction as morally relevant, and focuses on whether we are right to do so. Critics of the Distinction argue that the distinction is not morally relevant and that we must therefore radically revise common-sense morality. Others provide principled defenses of the moral relevance of the distinction, arguing that we do not need to radically revise our moral judgments about cases (see Defenses of the Distinction).

                                Appeals to Intuitions

                                Rachels 1975 and Tooley 1972 are possibly the best-known articles on the doing/allowing distinction in general philosophical circles. Each appeals to intuitions about “contrast cases” to argue that the distinction is morally irrelevant. Contrast cases are pairs of cases in which all factors are supposed to be held constant except the one under consideration—in this case whether harm is done or merely allowed. As all other factors are supposed to be held constant, it is assumed that there will be a moral difference in the cases if and only if the doing/allowing distinction is morally relevant. In Rachels’s case, popularly although somewhat inaccurately known as the Wicked Uncle case, a comparison is made between a case in which a wicked man drowns his young cousin in a bathtub in order to inherit a fortune and a case in which another man enters the bathroom ready to drown his cousin, but the boy slips and the man ends up merely letting him drown. Tooley 1972 considers a case in which two children are trapped in separate chambers inside a machine. One of the chambers contains a canister of lethal gas. If the agent does nothing, gas will be released into that chamber, killing one of the children. If he presses a button, the gas canister will move to the other chamber and kill the other child. Both Rachels and Tooley argue that there is no difference between killing and letting die in the pairs of cases, and they conclude that the doing/allowing distinction is morally irrelevant. Kamm 1996 and Frowe 2010 criticize Rachels’s and Tooley’s analysis of our intuitions, arguing that we do not treat the cases as morally equivalent. Trammell 1975, Kagan 1988, Quinn 1989, and Kamm 1996 criticize Rachels’s and Tooley’s methodology, arguing that failure to detect a moral difference in such contrast cases does not show the moral equivalence of doing and allowing harm.

                                • Frowe, Helen. “Killing John to Save Mary: A Defense of the Moral Distinction between Killing and Letting Die.” In Topics in Contemporary Philosophy. Vol. 7, Action, Ethics and Responsibility. Edited by Joseph Klein Campbell, Michael O’Rourke, and Harry S. Silverstein, 47–66. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010.

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                                  Criticizes Tooley’s Machine case argument that doing and allowing are morally equivalent. Argues that John may take steps to defend himself against being killed to save Mary that Mary cannot take to prevent an agent allowing her to die to avoid killing John. Available online.

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                                  • Kagan. “The Additive Fallacy.” Ethics 99 (1988): 5–31.

                                    DOI: 10.1086/293033Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                    Argues that the use of contrast cases to assess the moral significance of the doing/allowing distinction commits the additive fallacy, the mistaken assumption that if a factor is morally significant it will make the same contribution, whether positive or negative, to the overall moral status of an act in all contexts, and that the overall moral status of the act is the sum left when we add up all the positive and negative invariant contributions of the factors present.

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                                    • Kamm, Frances. Morality Mortality. Vol. 2, Rights, Duties, and Status. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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                                      Seminal work but very challenging. Argues against the Wicked Uncles argument presented in Rachels 1975. Argues that our intuitions about cases do treat the doing/allowing distinction as morally relevant. Argues (a) Rachels’s diagnosis of our intuitions about the cases in question is wrong, and (b) our intuitions may treat killing and letting die as morally inequivalent even if intuitively morally equivalent contrast cases can be found.

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                                      • Malm, Heidi. “In Defense of the Contrast Strategy.” In Ethics Problems and Principles. Edited by John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza, 272–277. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

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                                        Responds to criticisms in Kagan 1988. Defends the use of the contrast strategy to assess the moral significance of the doing/allowing distinction.

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                                        • Quinn, Warren S. “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing.” Philosophical Review 98 (1989): 287–312.

                                          DOI: 10.2307/2185021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                          Reprinted in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies). Criticizes the use of contrast cases to show that the doing/allowing distinction is morally significant. Argues that the key question is not whether killing and letting die are equally bad when unjustified, but whether doing harm is harder to justify than merely allowing harm.

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                                          • Rachels, James. “Active and Passive Euthansia.” New England Journal of Medicine 292 (1975): 78–80.

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                                            Widely reprinted, including in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies). Argues that the doing/allowing distinction appears morally relevant because frequently associated factors are morally relevant, but that when such factors are held constant, doing and allowing are morally equivalent. Source of the famous Wicked Uncles case.

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                                            • Tooley, Michael. “Abortion and Infanticide.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2 (1972): 59–60.

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                                              Uses thought experiments to argue that doing and allowing harm are morally equivalent. Source of the Machine case, in which an agent can choose whether to press a button (meaning John will die and Mary will live) or not (meaning Mary will die and John will live).

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                                              • Trammell, Richard L. “Saving Life and Taking Life.” The Journal of Philosophy 72.5 (1975): 131–137.

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                                                Reprinted in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies). Criticizes the argument for the moral equivalence of doing and allowing in Tooley 1972. Argues that (a) factors such as maliciousness may mask intuitive differences between doing and allowing harm, and (b) by focusing on cases where there is little cost to the agent Tooley misses that we are intuitively required to make very great efforts to avoid killing but not to avoid letting die.

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                                                Critics of the Distinction

                                                Early doing/allowing skeptics appealed to contrast cases to argue that our moral intuitions about cases do not treat the doing/allowing distinction as morally relevant (see Appeals to Intuitions). They were followed by a group of critics who tried to show that the distinction could not be morally relevant. Bennett 1981 argues that the only satisfactory analysis of the distinction is that an agent does harm if and only if her behavior results in harm, and most ways she could have moved would not have resulted in that harm. Alternative distinctions are examined and dismissed on the basis that they either reduce to the “most ways I could move account” or fail to withstand scrutiny. But Bennett argues that whether most ways the agent could have moved would have led to an outcome is obviously morally irrelevant. His argument is later expanded and developed in Bennett 1995. Kagan 1989 argues that no analysis of the distinction is able to match our classifications of cases without appealing to moral intuitions. He argues that if classification of cases into doings and allowing appeals to moral intuitions, the difference between doing and allowing cannot justify moral judgments. Cushman, et al. 2008 uses experiments to provide empirical evidence that may seem to support Kagan’s argument. Persson 2004 argues that our practice of attributing relevance to the doing/allowing distinction runs into a series of paradoxes, related to the possibility of allowing oneself to do harm either by failing to repress muscular spasms or by failing to intervene in the consequences of earlier intentional actions. Bennett and Kagan, like most critics of the distinction, argue that it should be rejected even if this requires us to radically revise our moral judgments about cases. Others, such as McGrath 2003 and Draper 2005, argue that the doing/allowing distinction should be replaced: the intuitions about cases that originally motivated us to think that the doing/allowing distinction is morally relevant should be explained by appeal to some other feature or features. Isaacs 1995 argues that the doing/allowing distinction is not morally relevant, but that acceptance of this need not have drastic implications for our moral judgments.

                                                • Bennett, Jonathan. “Morality and Consequences.” In The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Edited by Sterling McMurrin. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1981.

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                                                  Argues that on the only satisfactory analysis of the doing/allowing distinction, whether an agent counts as doing or merely allowing harm depends on whether most ways he could have moved his body would have led to the harm occurring. Claims this analysis leaves the distinction “obviously morally irrelevant.” Argument developed in Bennett 1995.

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                                                  • Bennett, Jonathan. The Act Itself. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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                                                    Argues that the doing/allowing distinction reflects two underlying distinctions: the positive/negative relevance distinction (whether most ways he could have moved his body would have led to the harm occurring) and the active/ passive distinction (whether the harm would have occurred if the agent had lost the power to act). Claims these analyses leave the distinction morally irrelevant. Carefully criticizes alternative analyses. Development of arguments first presented in Bennett 1981.

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                                                    • Cushman, Fiery, Joshua Knobe, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. “Moral Appraisals Affect Doing/Allowing Judgments.” Cognition 108 (2008): 353–380.

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                                                      Presents two experiments recording people’s classifications of behavior as doing or allowing. Argues these experiments show that moral appraisals affect our doing/allowing classifications. In particular, when we see behavior as bad, we are more likely to see it as doing harm, while we may see apparently similar behavior that is not morally bad as merely allowing harm.

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                                                      • Draper, Kai. “Rights and the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 33 (2005): 255–280.

                                                        DOI: 10.1111/j.1088-4963.2005.00033.x.Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                        Argues that the doing/allowing distinction is unhelpful: the cases that motivate appeal to a moral distinction between doing and allowing are better understood by thinking about rights.

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                                                        • Isaacs, Tracy. “Moral Theory and Action Theory, Killing and Letting Die.” American Philosophical Quarterly 32.4 (1995): 355–368.

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                                                          Argues that the distinction is not morally relevant, but that this does not have severe repercussions. Identifies three worries we might have about the implications of abandoning the doing/allowing distinctions, and argues each worry can be assuaged.

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                                                          • Kagan, Shelly. “Doing Harm.” In The Limits of Morality. By Shelly Kagan, 83–127. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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                                                            Argues that there is no adequate noncircular analysis of the doing/allowing distinction. Considers a serious of promising analyses. Produces a range of “gimmicky cases” to show these accounts all fail. Accessible enough for an undergraduate; meaty enough for a professional philosopher.

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                                                            • McGrath, Sarah. “Causation and the Making/Allowing Distinction.” Philosophical Studies 114 (2003): 81–106.

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                                                              Argues that correct analysis of the doing/allowing distinction leaves an overlap: some doings are also allowings. Uses this to argue that the doing/allowing distinction is not morally relevant. However, suggests this need not lead to radical revision of common-sense morality.

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                                                              • Persson, Ingmar. “Two Act-Omission Paradoxes.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 104 (2004): 147–162.

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                                                                Argues that our practice of attributing relevance to the doing/allowing distinction runs into a series of paradoxes, related to the possibility of allowing oneself to do harm either by failing to repress muscular spasms or by failing to intervene in the consequences of earlier intentional actions.

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                                                                Defenses of the Distinction

                                                                One group of defenders of the distinction focuses on showing that our intuitions suggest that the doing/allowing distinction is morally relevant (see Appeals to Intuitions). A second group focuses not on whether our intuitions treat the distinctions as morally relevant, but on whether they should do so. Foot 1967 (later developed in Foot 1984) defends the moral significance of the doing/allowing distinction by appeal to a distinction between positive rights to assistance and negative rights to noninterference. Doing harm infringes negative rights, while merely allowing harm infringes only positive rights. As negative rights are stronger than positive rights, doing harm is harder to justify than merely allowing harm. Quinn 1989 criticizes Foot’s account for incompleteness: we need a defense of the claim that negative rights are stronger than positive rights. (See the Beginning of Contemporary Debate for further critiques of Foot’s argument.) Quinn argues that negative rights need to be stronger than positive rights because (a) positive rights taking priority leads to incoherence, and (b) if we do not have some rights that take priority we are left with a consequentialism on which an agent’s person and body are common property. Strudler and Wasserman 1995 argues that Quinn fails to establish that priority for positive rights leads to incoherence. Howard-Snyder 2011 objects that Quinn does not explain why, given that we need some rights that take priority over others, the division between rights should be based on the doing/allowing distinction rather than some other distinction: he does not pick out anything special about the doing/allowing distinction. Woollard 2013 attempts to fill this gap by offering an analysis of the doing/allowing distinction which shows that constraints against doing harm and permissions against allowing harm are needed to protect patients and agents against harmful imposition. Woollard argues that without such protection, nothing genuinely belongs to a person, even that person’s body. Scheffler 2004 argues that some distinction like the doing/allowing distinction is needed to coherently hold ourselves and others to norms of responsibility or moral standards. Holding each other to norms involves drawing a normatively significant distinction between what a person does and what she merely allows. Bradley and Stocker 2005 criticizes the arguments in Scheffler 2004.

                                                                • Bradley, Ben, and Michael Stocker. “‘Doing and Allowing’ and Doing and Allowing.” Ethics 115 (2005): 799–808.

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                                                                  Reconstructs and criticizes the argument in Scheffler 2004, claiming that the argument fails (a) because it depends on a false premise that holding oneself to norms of responsibility is something one does rather than allows; and (b) because even this premise were true, one might see oneself as being required to do something without attaching special importance to what one does rather than merely allows.

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                                                                  • Foot, Philippa. “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect.” Oxford Review 5 (1967): 1–7.

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                                                                    Widely reprinted, including in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies). Proposes that the doing/allowing distinction rather than the intended/foreseen distinction explains cases that motivate the Doctrine of Double Effect. Doing harm is worse than merely allowing harm because negative rights to noninterference are stronger than positive rights to goods or services.

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                                                                    • Foot, Philippa. “Killing and Letting Die.” In Abortion and Legal Perspectives. Edited by Jay L. Garfield and Patricia Hennesy, 177–185. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

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                                                                      Widely reprinted, including in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies). Develops Foot’s analysis and defense of the doing/allowing distinction. Argues that the distinction is significant because negative rights to noninterference are stronger than positive rights to aid. Interference requires us to break into an existing sequence of events and initiate a new one (i.e., to do harm rather than merely allow it).

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                                                                      • Howard-Snyder, Frances. “Doing vs. Allowing Harm.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2011.

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                                                                        Free to access online. Suitable for undergraduates, as well as graduate students and professional philosophers. Criticizes Quinn 1989 by arguing that even if Quinn is right that some rights must have priority over others, he does not show why it is rights against doing that matter, rather than some set of rights picked out by an alternative to the doing/allowing distinction.

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                                                                        • Quinn, Warren S. “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing.” Philosophical Review 98 (1989): 287–312.

                                                                          DOI: 10.2307/2185021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                          Defense of the moral relevance of the doing/allowing distinction. Argues that negative rights must be stronger than positive rights. A system under which positive rights take precedence is incoherent. Some kind of precedence is necessary for the agent to have a say over his person, without which his person becomes common property.

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                                                                          • Scheffler, Samuel. “Doing and Allowing.” Ethics 114 (2004): 215–239.

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                                                                            Argues that we need some distinction such as the doing/allowing distinction. Morality involves holding others to standards or “norms of responsibility.” But a practice of holding others to standards that does not distinguish between doings and allowings is incoherent. A rich suggestive paper, but rather challenging.

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                                                                            • Strudler, Alan, and David Wasserman. “The First Dogma of Deontology: The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing and the Notion of a Say.” Philosophical Studies 80 (1995): 51–67.

                                                                              DOI: 10.1007/BF00990536Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                              Criticizes Quinn’s defense of the moral relevance of the distinction between doing and allowing (Quinn 1989). Quinn claims that a system under which positive rights take precedence over negative rights is incoherent. This paper argues that (a) Quinn underestimates the ways such a system may maintain consistency, and (b) Quinn mistakenly diagnoses some doings as allowings.

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                                                                              • Woollard, Fiona. “If This Is My Body . . . : A Defence of the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 94 (2013): 315–341.

                                                                                DOI: 10.1111/papq.12002.Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                Defense of the moral relevance of the doing/allowing distinction. Uses analysis of the doing/allowing distinction to show that constraints against doing harm and permissions to allow harm are necessary for anything to belong to a person, even that person’s body. Expanded in Woollard 2015 (cited under Threats, Sequences, and Interference).

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                                                                                Analysis of the Distinction

                                                                                Many authors have suggested that before we can work out whether the doing/allowing distinction matters morally, we need a clearer account of that distinction. What makes something a doing rather than an allowing? We might divide attempts to analyze the distinction into several rough groupings. The first group comprises counterfactual accounts. Here, pick out some feature, F, and say that an agent counts as doing harm if and only if feature F had not been present. We might ask what would have happened if the agent had not been alive, had not been present, had not been conscious, and so forth. The idea is that if the harm would still have happened if, for example, the agent had not been there, then it cannot be her doing. Kagan 1989 discusses and rejects a series of counterfactual accounts. (See Counterfactual Accounts.) The second group of attempted analyses elaborate on ideas from Foot 1984, according to which what matters is whether the victim was under a preexisting threat, whether the agent originated the sequence leading to harm, or whether the agent can be seen as interfering with an independent causal flow. (See Threats, Sequences, and Interference.) Other notable analyses include the suggestion in Quinn 1989 that what matters is whether the behavior of the agent that most directly explains the harm is an action or an inaction; and Bennett 1995, according to which an agent counts as doing harm if and only if most ways the agent could have moved her body would not have resulted in harm. (See Action versus Inaction and Most Ways of Moving.) McMahan 1993 argues that cases involving the Removal of Barriers present significant problems for many attempts at analysis. Since this seminal article, there has been increased interest in the removal of barriers.

                                                                                • Bennett, Jonathan. The Act Itself. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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                                                                                  Argues that the doing/allowing distinction reflects two underlying distinctions: the positive/negative relevance distinction (whether most ways he could have moved his body would have led to the harm occurring), and the active/ passive distinction (whether the harm would have occurred if the agent had lost the power to act). Carefully criticizes alternative analyses. Development of arguments first presented in Bennett 1981 (cited under Critics of the Distinction).

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                                                                                  • Foot, Philippa. “Killing and Letting Die.” In Abortion and Legal Perspectives. Edited by Jay L. Garfield and Patricia Hennesy, 177–185. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

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                                                                                    Widely reprinted, including in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies). Develops the analysis and defense of the doing/allowing distinction originally offered in Foot 1967 (cited under the Beginning of Contemporary Debate and Defenses of the Distinction). We should understand doing versus allowing harm in terms of the distinction between initiating a harmful sequence and not interfering to prevent a preexisting threatening sequence from leading to harm.

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                                                                                    • Kagan, Shelly. “Doing Harm.” In The Limits of Morality. By Shelly Kagan, 83–127. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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                                                                                      Considers a series of counterfactual accounts which say that whether an agent counts as doing or allowing harm depends on whether the victim would have been better off in specified counterfactual situations. Each successive account is dismissed using a new “gimmicky case.” The accessible style makes this a good introduction for students.

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                                                                                      • McMahan, Jeff. “Killing, Letting Die, and Withdrawing Aid.” Ethics 103 (1993): 250–279.

                                                                                        DOI: 10.1086/293495Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                        Widely reprinted, including in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies). Notes that many analyses offer a unified account of the removal of barriers to harm, either treating all as doings or all as mere allowings. McMahan uses a series of cases to argue that neither approach is acceptable. Led to considerable interest in the analysis of cases involves removal of barriers.

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                                                                                        • Quinn, Warren S. “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing.” The Philosophical Review 98 (1989): 287–312.

                                                                                          DOI: 10.2307/2185021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                          Argues that whether an agent counts as doing or merely allowing harm depends on whether the contribution of his that most directly explains the harm is an action or an inaction. Then defends the moral relevance of this distinction by arguing that negative rights to noninterference must take precedence over positive rights to aid. Also contains important criticism of prominent alternative accounts.

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                                                                                          Counterfactual Accounts

                                                                                          Counterfactual accounts of the doing/allowing distinction pick out some feature, F, and say that whether an agent counts as doing harm depends on what would have happened if F had not been present. If the harm would not have occurred if F were not present, then the agent counts as doing harm; if the harm would still have occurred if F were not present, then the agent counts as merely allowing harm. We might ask what would have happened if the agent had not been alive, had not been present, had not been conscious, etc. The guiding thought here is that if the harm would still have happened if the agent lacked these important features, then it cannot be her doing, but, on the other hand, if the harm would not have happened if the agent had lacked these features, the harm seems to be the result of the agent’s presence or action or agency, and thus can be laid at her door. Donagan 1977 argues that an agent counts as doing harm if the harm would not have occurred if the agent had lost the power to act. A version of Donagan’s account is developed in Bennett 1995 and endorsed as an alternative to Bennett’s main analysis of the distinction. Kagan 1989 explores a series of counterfactual accounts, but produces counterexamples to each.

                                                                                          • Bennett, Jonathan. The Act Itself. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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                                                                                            Argues that the doing/allowing distinction reflects two underlying distinctions, one of which is that picked out by Donagan 1977 (an agent counts as doing harm if and only if the harm is a result of her agency, so that it would not have occurred if the agent had lost the power to act). Adds much detail to Donagan’s original suggestion.

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                                                                                            • Donagan, Alan. The Theory of Morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

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                                                                                              Offers an account of the doing/allowing distinction according to which what matters is whether the harmful act would have occurred if the agent had refraining from exercising his agency; that is, if he had let everything happen just as it would if he had no control over his body. Discussed and refined in Bennett 1995.

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                                                                                              • Kagan, Shelly. “Doing Harm.” In The Limits of Morality. By Shelly Kagan, 83–127. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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                                                                                                Argues that there is no adequate noncircular analysis of the doing/allowing distinction. Considers a serious of counterfactual analyses which say that whether an agent counts as doing or allowing harm depends on whether the harm would still have occurred in counterfactual situations (e.g., if the agent had not been present). Produces a range of “gimmicky cases” to show these accounts all fail. The accessible writing makes this a good introduction for students.

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                                                                                                Threats, Sequences, and Interference

                                                                                                One key group of attempted analyses of the doing/allowing distinction focuses on the agent’s relationship to the sequence leading to harm. Foot 1984 uses several different formulations to explain Foot’s understanding of what it takes to make a person “the agent of harm”: at some points she says that an agent counts as merely allowing harm if and only if the victim was under a preexisting threat; at others she says that the key question is whether the harm occurs as a result of a sequence that the agent originates or one that she simply allows to continue. (See the Beginning of Contemporary Debate section for further detail and for criticism of Foot’s account.) Woollard 2015 argues that an agent counts as doing harm if and only if the relevant fact about her behavior is part of the harmful sequence, and it offers an account of what it is for a fact about an agent’s behavior to be part of a sequence leading to harm. Kamm 1996 picks out a number of conceptual properties of letting die, including that letting die does not create an original threat of death, and that the victim of letting die loses only life he would have had via the agent. Munthe 1999 discusses various ways of filling in the thought that doing harm involves interfering in a causal flow, while allowing harm involves simply refraining from intervening in a causal flow that itself leads to harm.

                                                                                                • Foot, Philippa. “Killing and Letting Die.” In Abortion and Legal Perspectives. Edited by Jay L. Garfield and Patricia Hennesy, 177–185. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

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                                                                                                  Widely reprinted, including in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies). Develops the analysis and defense of the doing/allowing distinction originally offered in Foot 1967 (cited under the Beginning of Contemporary Debate and Defenses of the Distinction). We should understand doing versus allowing harm in terms of the distinction between initiating a harmful sequence and not interfering to prevent a preexisting threatening sequence from leading to harm.

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                                                                                                  • Kamm, Frances. Morality Mortality. Vol. 2, Rights, Duties, and Status. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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                                                                                                    Seminal work, but very challenging. Picks out a number of conceptual properties of letting die, including that letting die does not create an original threat of death and that the victim of letting die loses only life he would have had via the agent. Argues that killings may also have some of these properties.

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                                                                                                    • Munthe, Christian. “The Morality of Interference.” Theoria 65 (1999): 55–69.

                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-2567.1999.tb00114.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                      Explores various ways of understanding the thought that doing harm involves interfering in a causal flow, while allowing harm involves simply refraining from intervening in a causal flow that itself leads to harm. Argues that on any “interference” analysis of the doing/allowing distinction, the distinction is morally irrelevant.

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                                                                                                      • Woollard, Fiona. Doing and Allowing Harm. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199683642.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                        Development of arguments in Woollard 2013 (cited under Defenses of the Distinction). Argues that an agent will count as doing harm if and only if the relevant fact about his behavior is part of the harmful sequence. “Nonsubstantial” facts count as mere background conditions rather than part of the sequence leading to an upshot. If a fact is only relevant through a nonsubstantial fact, then it will not be part of the sequence.

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                                                                                                        Action versus Inaction and Most Ways of Moving

                                                                                                        The key idea in the analysis of Quinn 1989 is that an agent counts as doing harm if and only if the behavior that most directly explains the harm is an action; the agent counts as merely allowing harm if the behavior that most directly explains the harm is an inaction. However, Quinn also claims that we must complicate the analysis to allow for action through objects: if harm comes about due to the action of an object under your control and you allow the action because you intend it to happen, then you count as doing harm. Bennett 1995 criticizes Quinn’s use of the distinction between action and inaction, arguing that this distinction does not withstand scrutiny. Fischer and Ravissa 1992 criticize Quinn’s account of action through objects, arguing that it leads to unacceptable classification of some Trolley cases. (See the Beginning of Contemporary Debate for details of the Trolley case.) Rickless 1997 defends Quinn against Fischer and Ravissa 1992 before offering his own criticisms. Bennett 1995 argues that one of the key distinctions underlying our classifications of behavior as doing or allowing is the positive/negative relevance distinction. An agent is positively relevant to harm if and only if most ways the agent could have moved her body would not have resulted in harm. She is negatively relevant if and only if most ways she could have moved her body would have resulted in harm. The thought is that the fact that an agent has merely allowed harm does not tell us much about what he or she did: you can fail to rescue someone from drowning while reading a book, doing aerobics, or sleeping; in contrast, pushing someone into a river requires a quite specific set of movements. The most prominent criticism of Bennett is the Immobility Objection, which is raised in Quinn 1989 and Dinello 1971, among others. Bennett responds to the Immobility Objection at length in Bennett 1995. Thomson 1996 objects that Bennett’s account leaves the distinction so obviously morally irrelevant that our belief in its moral relevance is puzzling.

                                                                                                        • Bennett, Jonathan. The Act Itself. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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                                                                                                          Argues that one distinction underlying the doing/allowing distinction is the positive/negative relevance distinction (whether most ways he could have moved his body would have led to the harm occurring). Carefully criticizes alternative analyses, including the use of the idea of action/inaction in Quinn 1989. Development of arguments first presented in Bennett 1981 (cited under Critics of the Distinction).

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                                                                                                          • Dinello, Daniel. “On Killing and Letting Die.” Analysis 31 (1971): 83–86.

                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1093/analys/31.3.83Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                            Reprinted in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies). Criticizes Bennett’s account of the doing/allowing distinction in terms of positive/negative relevance (Bennett 1995). Includes a version of the Immobility Objection, that Bennett misclassifies cases in which whether a victim will be harmed depends on whether the agent makes any movement at all.

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                                                                                                            • Fischer, John Martin, and Mark Ravissa. “Quinn on Doing and Allowing.” Philosophical Review 101 (1992): 343–352.

                                                                                                              DOI: 10.2307/2185538Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                              Criticizes Quinn’s inclusion of action through objects in his analysis. An agent counts as doing harm through an object if and only if the harm occurs because of the intended action of an object under her control. Fischer and Ravissa argue this implies that we are required to push the large man off a bridge to save five innocents from a runaway trolley in the Fat Man variation of the Trolley case.

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                                                                                                              • Howard-Snyder, Frances. “Doing vs. Allowing Harm.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2011.

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                                                                                                                Original version published 2002. Includes the Pre-emption Objection to Bennett’s analysis of the doing/allowing objection: Bennett misclassifies as mere allowings cases like Sassan, in which Sassan, an assassin, shoots Victor, but a second assassin would have done so if Sassan had hesitated (Bennett 1995).

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                                                                                                                • Quinn, Warren S. “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing.” The Philosophical Review 98 (1989): 287–312.

                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.2307/2185021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                  Argues that an agent counts as doing harm if and only if the contribution of his that most directly explain the harm is an action or the intended action of an object under his control. Argues that Bennett 1995 misclassifies cases where an important upshot depends on whether or not the agent makes any movement at all.

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                                                                                                                  • Rickless, Samuel. “The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing.” Philosophical Review 106 (1997): 555–582.

                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.2307/2998512Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                    Defends Quinn 1989 against the objections of Fischer and Ravissa 1992, but presents an alternative counterexample to Quinn’s account.

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                                                                                                                    • Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “Critical Study of Jonathan Bennett’s The Act Itself.” Nous 30 (1996): 545–557.

                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.2307/2216119Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                      Review of Bennett 1995. Includes the criticism that Bennett’s account is so obviously morally irrelevant that it makes widespread acceptance of the relevance of the doing/allowing distinction mysterious—and thus it seems likely that Bennett has not correctly analyzed the distinction.

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                                                                                                                      Removal of Barriers

                                                                                                                      McMahan 1993 uses a series of cases to argue that it is unacceptable to either treat all cases of removing barriers to harm as doings or treat all cases of removing barriers to harm as mere allowings. Instead, McMahan claims, some removals of barriers count as doings and some count as mere allowings. Since this paper, there has been considerable interest in the analysis and moral status of cases involving the removal of barriers. Hanser 1999, Hall 2008, and Barry, et al. 2014 all argue that thinking in terms of a binary doing/allowing distinction is inadequate, and that a third category is needed. Rickless 2011 responds to McMahan 1993, arguing that removal of barriers is morally equivalent to mere allowing.

                                                                                                                      • Barry, Christian, Matthew Lindauer, and Gerhard Øverland. “Doing, Allowing and Enabling Harm: An Empirical Investigation.” In Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy. Edited by Joshua Knobe, Tania Lombrozo, and Shaun Nichols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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                                                                                                                        Uses empirical studies to argue that our classificatory judgements include a third category, enabling harm, in addition to doing and allowing harm, and that this third category differs morally from both doing and allowing harm. Makes important philosophical points, such as the importance of distinguishing five victims versus one victim cases, as well as agent versus victim cases.

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                                                                                                                        • Hall, Timothy. “Doing Harm, Allowing Harm, and Denying Resources.” Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008): 50–76.

                                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1163/174552408X306726Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                          Argues that a third category of ways of being relevant to harm is needed. Agents may do or merely allow harm, but they may also deny resources. Denials of resources are morally distinct from standard doings and standard allowings. In contrast to standard doings and allowings, for denials of resource, questions about claims to certain resources are key to moral permissibility.

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                                                                                                                          • Hanser, Matthew. “Killing, Letting Die and Preventing People from Being Saved.” Utilitas 11.3 (1999): 277–295.

                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1017/S095382080000251XSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                            Argues that the binary doing/allowing distinction is too simple. A third category, preventing people from being saved, is needed. Behavior in this category shares key features with doing harm, but is morally on a par with merely allowing harm.

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                                                                                                                            • McMahan, Jeff. “Killing, Letting Die, and Withdrawing Aid.” Ethics 103 (1993): 250–279.

                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1086/293495Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                              Widely reprinted, including in Steinbock and Norcross 1994 (cited under General Overviews and Anthologies). Argues that some removals of barriers to harm count as doings, others as mere allowings. Uses a series of cases to support this conclusion and to argue that whether the removal of a barrier to harm counts as doing depends on whether the barrier belongs to the agent, whether the barrier is self-sufficient, and whether the barrier is already in operation to prevent the harm when it is removed.

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                                                                                                                              • Rickless, Samuel. “The Moral Status of Enabling Harm.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 92 (2011): 66–86.

                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0114.2010.01385.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                Argues that enabling (removing a barrier to) harm is morally equivalent to allowing harm. Uses thought experiments to support this conclusion. Also contains detailed response to the arguments in McMahan 1993.

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