June 29, 2011

Taking Something Away vs. Not Doing Something

I while ago I read Sam Harris's book, The Moral Landscape, which I have referenced a couple times in previous posts. Harris, at one point, talks about how taking away something is viewed as worse then not doing something, and gives an example using two people.

The first person is a girl who has an 160 IQ and great musical ability, this person isn't given the correct treatment and because of that her IQ drops to 100 and she looses her musical ability. This is contrasted with a girl who has an IQ of 100 and with a pill given at the right time would have her IQ go up to 160 and gain a great musical talent, but the pill isn't given so she remains the same.

Now the end result is the equal and each girl has lost something, but people view the first girl as suffering much more than the second. It is from answering questions like these that it is learned that an act of taking something away from someone is viewed as much worse then not doing something to help someone.

This I don't really have a problem with, because it is worse to lose something then never get something, because there is a greater appreciation of what was actually lost, the old adage, "You don't know what you have till it's gone."

I do have a problem when this line of thinking is combined with the belief that anything natural good, or is at least acceptable, and this recently came up in a conversation. Somehow the topic came of reincarnation came up and a older woman said that, "If it's true than you should be good or you'd come back as something like a worm."

Now I don't believe in reincarnation, but I wouldn't usually have had a problem with other people believing in it, or someone talking about it, but that statement I do and did take offense too. There are people with the belief that if you have done something bad in a previous life that you are punished in the next life for it, so nothing should be done for people who face a 'natural' problem and thus they should be left in a state of suffering, which is horrible. 

So I interrupted the person and stated exactly what I summarized in  the paragraph above, when another lady, who happened to be very well educated, disagreed with what I said and talked about how living with a problem could be a learning experience and lead to enlightened/diverse perspectives.

Only someone educated could come up with such stupid reasoning to accept the suffering of others, and actually come up with a justification for finding nothing wrong in doing nothing at all for someone in pain.

It's as if because something is natural then it can be said to be alright, so if someone goes blind it might lead natural path, but if I stabbed someone in the eyes then it's a bad thing. The scale has tipped too far in the direction of taking something away being bad and not doing something being thought of as alright.

Not doing something is bad, should someone have to live with ALS, MS, or Cancer because living with them might lead to a different life view, or should people born deaf not have the hearing restored because some deaf people don't see it as a disability.

Ask anyone with hearing if they would go back and make it so they couldn't hear when they young, and it'll be easy to see the ethics in changing somethings natural course. Not doing something may not weight equally with taking something away, but it still has weight.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic


  1. We, as human beings, are born, sprogged, expelled from the womb. What happens next is a confluence - perhaps conflagration - of learning. Some learn to survive, some to succeed .. and some fall by the wayside.

    it is not for me to choose which.

  2. Funny, I had a friend who argued something very similar. If you fall walk off a cliff, you get hurt. It is natural. Therefore, it is fine.

    I incorporated it in an essay satirizing her position:

    Escaping Justice

  3. Yeah, I too will have to disagree with everything Davoh said with the exception of humans being born.

    I'm not sure anyone learns to fall by the wayside, just as they don't learn to get cancer, MS or genetic diseases. The genetic lottery isn't a zero sum game where everyone gets different strengths, some people are unlucky and get great burdens.

    As for not choosing, you can deny to have the choice but it's there ethically and legally all the same. If you stood idly by while a toddler wandered into the crocodile pen and then didn't notify anyone, you'll be looked at as a monster and could be criminally negligent.

    Anytime you give to a charity to help others, swerve for someone walking into the road, or just try to help someone out your making a choice.

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