Letting die and letting be murdered

You’ve probably heard about the act/omission distinction, about how people have different attitudes toward killing someone versus letting them die.

I’d like to break down that “letting die” category further into two sub-categories: letting someone die by failing to save them from a rights violation versus failing to save them from other causes.

An example of the first would be when you allow someone to be murdered. An example of the second would be when you fail to provide them with food or medical care.

Are those two kinds of letting die equally bad? What about if the entity doing the letting is the government?

Suppose the government rearranged its budget so that it stopped putting any money into anti-terrorism efforts and instead sought to eliminate malaria from the world. Is such a move justified as long as we prevent more malaria-related deaths than terrorism-related deaths?

I get the sense that most people think that letting a murder happen is worse than letting someone die of disease, but I don’t know if I share this view.

4 Responses to “Letting die and letting be murdered”

  1. David Says:

    Thanks for catching this.

    A few differences that come to mind. Not sure if they really do make a difference:
    1) If you don’t stop a (serial) murderer, you may be leaving the door open to future murders. Different harms have different “repeatability” and the “repeatable” ones are worse over the time, everything else equal.
    2) If there are fewer people who can act to prevent a death, then it seems the moral burden on each of them may be higher. A police officer may be in a unique position to stop a murder but not so to contribute food to a starving family. If the officer doesn’t act to stop the murder, then someone will certainly die. If they don’t provide food, then someone else may still act.
    3) Connected with 2), the actors may be seen as having explicitly taken on the responsibility for preventing the harm. A police officer may have taken an oath to jump in and prevent crime, for example. So failure to act may represent breaking a promise or contract.
    4) A murder tends to take place over a short period of time. Some other types of letting die (malaria) come as a result of conditions that built up over a longer time (and will require longer term solutions). Perhaps shorter term actions require more decisive thinking and so sharper incentives/moral prods.

    Finally, I think ordinary people (not officers) might be held less culpable for not preventing a murder — the risk involved to the actors is much greater (maybe death) for intervening in a murder than in preventing death by starvation, etc.

    Curious what your thoughts are.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks, David.

    1) If you don’t stop a (serial) murderer, you may be leaving the door open to future murders. Different harms have different “repeatability” and the “repeatable” ones are worse over the time, everything else equal.

    Under this theory, some deaths are more important to prevent because allowing them will lead to more deaths, so the importance of preventing murder is greater than preventing malaria for simple arithmetic reasons. This makes sense. And a society that has too lax a view of murder will be one in which people do not trust each other out of fear.

    2) If there are fewer people who can act to prevent a death, then it seems the moral burden on each of them may be higher.

    Yes, this also seems reasonable. I wonder if the wrongness of the omission is tied to the probability of the act occurring. If I see someone is about to be stabbed, and I’m the only one who can block it, then the probability the person is stabbed depends greatly on whether I try to block it (assuming that trying to block it would be effective). If there are other people around, the probability may not change as much if I don’t act since someone else could act.

    Notice that if we increase the number of people who could block it, we reduce the blameworthiness of each person. This would seem to have the effect of making people callous to suffering they observe in large crowds, which is a problem.

    I remember a time in Mexico when I was walking on a sidewalk and saw a woman with no legs attempt to cross the street by walking on her hands. I did not stop to help her, although later I thought I should have, despite the fact that other people could have but didn’t. It seemed that my responsibility to help people shouldn’t depend on whether other people fulfill their responsibilities or not.

    A police officer may be in a unique position to stop a murder but not so to contribute food to a starving family. If the officer doesn’t act to stop the murder, then someone will certainly die. If they don’t provide food, then someone else may still act.

    3) Connected with 2), the actors may be seen as having explicitly taken on the responsibility for preventing the harm. A police officer may have taken an oath to jump in and prevent crime, for example. So failure to act may represent breaking a promise or contract.

    I agree. Police officers may also be useful for solving the earlier problem of diminishing responsibility with crowd size. While an average’s person feels his responsibility diminishes with crowd size, an officer does not feel that way since he feels special responsibilities owing to his occupation.

    At this point, I should say that reliance on police has its own problems.

    Allow me to quote one of my favorite libertarians, David Friedman, explaining why firearm ownership is a good thing:

    David Friedman:In my view, the real argument for private firearm ownership is a different one. The less able individuals are to protect themselves from crime, the more dependent they are on protection by government law enforcement. The more dependent they are on protection by government law enforcement, the more willing they will be to accept abuses by government law enforcement. The more willing we are to be pushed around by the police, the harder it will be to prevent a tyrannical government from arising. Indeed, in some contexts, most obviously the War on Drugs, one can argue that one has already arisen. And been tolerated.

    Back to the discussion…

    4) A murder tends to take place over a short period of time.

    The murder itself may take place over a short period of time but most acts to prevent murder are usually preventing murders far into the future. Shooting a criminal who has a gun to a hostage’s head prevents an imminent murder but these scenarios have to account for a tiny fraction of murders prevented.

    Take the criminal justice system. We put murderers in prison on the theory that we are preventing murders they would have committed in the future and also deterring other murders that others may have done in the future.

    Wars are also waged ostensibly to prevent murders well into the future. The U.S. is killing members of the Taliban presumably under the assumption that if it did not kill them then more Americans would be killed by terrorists from Afghanistan. I think that’s what drives support for the war in Afghanistan, to the extent there is support for it anymore.

    Finally, I think ordinary people (not officers) might be held less culpable for not preventing a murder — the risk involved to the actors is much greater (maybe death) for intervening in a murder than in preventing death by starvation, etc.

    The risk of preventing imminent murders is surely high, so I agree that ordinary people should not be as culpable for allowing a murder than for allowing an easily prevented death.

    Give Well is an organization that investigates charities to see if they are effective. Its top-rated charity is the Against Malaria Foundation. The Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) supplies mosquito nets treated with insecticide to Malawi. Give Well estimates that $2,000 spent on these mosquito nets saves one life.

    Does this constitute an easily prevented death? It’s hard to escape the feeling it is, and that we should be responsible for preventing it.

    How much does it cost to prevent a terrorism related death? Numbers on this are sketchy. John Mueller estimates that the US has spent $1 trillion on domestic anti-terrorism operations since 9/11. If the US saves lives as efficiently as AMF, that means it saved 500 million lives. That seems a little high.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Hi. I’m a little oblivious in regards to laws. Just wondering what would actually happen to someone who was found guilty of, for instance, knowingly letting someone murder an individual. Would that have the same penalty as letting someone die of a disease? If so, what exactly is the punishment?

    I’d also like to mention that surely this law could only apply if you had the ability to stop the death. For instance, if someone were dying and you had medical care but didn’t apply it, that’d be an entirely different story to letting someone die if you could do nothing to stop them from passing. In the former, couldn’t that be classified as manslaughter just as readily?

    Also, thank you for the article. Personally, I think if you had the ability to save someone in either circumstance and yet stopped yourself from doing so you are practically equally guilty. However, I do think letting someone die of a medical cause might be slightly worse in the sense that preventing someone getting murdered – in a normal situation – would risk your own life. I can understand the mentality of not risking yourself for someone else, but I cannot understand the mentality of letting someone die willingly when you have the means to help them live. I understand the variables, but the basic idea of that is what leads me into thinking that it is slightly worse letting someone die of something like medical needs or starvation than of murder (as a general rule; I’m sure a variety of situations would alter my opinion).

    Again thank you.

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    [...] category — a category that seems to be intermediate (I’d like to thank Andy Hallman for raising this question). On a certain view, immigration restrictions involve the use of aggression and coercion, but to [...]

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