In This Article Doing and Allowing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Anthologies
  • The Beginning of Contemporary Debate
  • Defenses of the Distinction
  • Removal of Barriers

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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

  • 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.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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

  • 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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

  • 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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

  • 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.xE-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.

  • 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.xE-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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