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Is there such a thing as non-action ?

  1. Jul 13, 2010 #1
    Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    I'm sure you've all heard this hypothetical scenario:

    A train is barreling towards a junction where (unless you intervene) it will go down one path and kill two people who are tied down. However, there is a switch you can toggle that will send the train instead down another path. Unfortunately, a small child is tied up on this second path! Do you leave the switch alone, allowing the train to kill the two people, or do you purposefully direct the train towards the other path (putting responsibility for the death of the small child solely in your hands)?​

    This scenario is meant to bring up the question of whether non-action can render you morally liable.

    My question to you all, however, is slightly different: Is there such a thing as "non-action" to begin with?

    In other words, regardless of whether not it is practical, plausible, or even possible to do some action, shouldn't we consider the choice to not do it to be an action in itself?

    I don't see any valid reason to distinguish between "doing" and "not doing". Thoughts?
     
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  3. Jul 13, 2010 #2
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Here's an example of a scenario:

    You skim the newspaper, failing to notice an advertisement for a job. You end up unemployed. You ACTED against your own best interest.​

    And another:

    You are a shy person, so you stay inside a lot. This leads you to be unhappy. Your ACTIONS did not serve you well.​

    And another:

    A woman is falling from a building, and you fail to change into Superman and fly up and catch her. You ACTED against the best interests of society.​

    This might seem a bit silly, but think about it for a bit. Maybe you don't have control over your ability to fly. So what? You don't really have control over a lot of the everyday actions you DO perform. For example, could you, even if you tried, NOT wake up in the morning if someone blasted a horn in your ear? Could you NOT eat for 10 days? Could you NOT think about sex for the next month?

    Even without any control whatsoever, you are committing an action. Even right now, I'm committing an action by not going to the grocery store!

    Now, if we take as a given that there is no such thing as a "non-action", does that mean that one ought to strive for as much control over their actions as possible?
     
  4. Jul 13, 2010 #3

    Hurkyl

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    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    That's certainly my preference on semantics -- "inaction" is just a particular kind of action.

    Of course, even if we consider "inaction" not to be an action, we should still give it the same consideration as actions when decision-making.
     
  5. Jul 13, 2010 #4

    apeiron

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    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Neurologically speaking, the inhibition of action is arguably the higher form of action. That is why we say we need to regulate our impulses. The brain gets set up with a host of automaticisms, reflexes and habits. Then "conscious oversight" is higher levels of the brain stopping things happening (until the moment is right, the circumstances appropriate, etc).

    In every moment, there is a whole bunch of things we could be doing. But attention is all about suppressing that host of alternatives and so "choosing" to focus on one (letting that happen freely and refexively because all other options are being suppressed).

    This suppression is a fact that can be measured in many ways. For example, priming. If you are primed to expect a particular event, this suppresses your ability to pick up/imagine alternatives. Your current state of attention has to fade before you can change tack.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priming_(psychology)

    You can see a similar suppression principle down at the level of neural receptive fields.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lateral_inhibition

    And up at the level of cortical organisation.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14527595
     
  6. Jul 13, 2010 #5

    Pythagorean

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    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    What do you mean by choice?

    An obvious lack of choice: If you step on a tack, you withdraw your foot quickly. A reflex managed by neurons exterior to the CNS.

    Less obvious: Noid pisses off Aggro (who has a short temper). Aggro responds by punching noid in the face (and of course later regrets it). What if we can show physiologically that the short-tempered person is more vulnerable to aggressive responses?

    possible choice: we think about our actions and their consequences in our personal history and we begin to change our holistic views of the world (a conglomeration of "truths" that were more-or-less force-fed to us by society in our youth). So that in the future our more emotional, automatic social responses will be tuned appropriately.

    I don't particularly believe there's any choice involved. In the thought experiment in the OP, I wouldn't expect a person (assuming the poor victim of the thought experiment hadn't actually heart the thought experiment before) to rationalize what the best thing to do was.

    Instead, I posit that it will first be a matter of his adrenal system. If it doesn't kick in (highly unlikely) then he might not take any action since the event wouldn't be emotionally significant to him. There will obviously be strange exceptions concerning antisocial people. If they're a particularly demented antisocial person, they may be inclined to expand the horizons of their morbid curiosity. I'm a demented, social person, personally. I'd feel obligated to help as a servant of society, but my morbid curiosity doesn't magically disappear in the process.

    If he's a freezer, he's going to freeze and stare (regardless of his philosophical stance; I assume many soft-handed philosophers would fall in this category).

    If he's a doer, he's going to rush over and save the people, regardless of his philosophical stance; this will be people who not only have the appropriate biological response, but have experience thinking quick in dangerous situations: hard labor workers like commercial fishermen and +miners, emergency response people like EMTs, firemen, police.

    I'm not sure there's much choice involved in the responses in these situations.
     
  7. Jul 13, 2010 #6
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    No, the action is doing 'something else'.

    Pull the lever
    Not pull the lever = sit there.

    The action is not what you refrained from doing, it is what you actually did.
    One could imagine a scenario, where the person intended to pull the lever, but was shot in the head before they could.

    What you are really refering to is intention.
    I intend not to pull the lever, so I just sat there.
     
  8. Jul 13, 2010 #7
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Pythagorean,

    I propose that "choice" has very little to do with the matter. We ought to apply the same standard to ourselves as we do to an appliance.

    People are complicated objects. Like a television. A person's value is derived only from their function (the actions they take - whether they have a choice in them or not).

    A "freezer" is deciding a course of action (unwillingly as it may be) through inaction. Even if their behavior is completely out of their control, that's no more relevant than that a television has no choice.


    If we claim (against my belief) that "non-action" is distinct from action, then we lose the ability to judge a "non-action" for its merits relative to an action, even if it is a deliberate choice. If we claim (against my belief) that one's power to choose an action (or not) affects the merit of that action, then there is no merit in trying to increase one's power to choose.

    So, it's not so much that there are "doers" and "freezers", but rather "choosers" and "abstainers". In the heat of the moment, a chooser would choose an action (whether it be to try action A, B, C, etc., or to simply abstain). An "abstainer", on the other hand, would not have any choice but to abstain, and this is a result of the inner-workings of the abstainer.

    We take it, however, that people do have some choice as to whether they become an "abstainer" or a "chooser". Even if you were raised to be an "abstainer", it is likely within your power to become more of a "chooser" if you so desire. If you fail to be a "chooser", then you ought to be just as much at fault for your abstinence as another man is for their actions.

    Basically, there ought not be a moral high place for a timid man who has never been able to get a job to look down upon a drunkard who has had a job but lost it.
     
  9. Jul 13, 2010 #8

    Pythagorean

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    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Ok, well I generally agree that not choosing is a kind of choice, but there's possibly an exception with the freezer:

    Freezers aren't actually deciding on a course of action. They're literally stunned. Their muscles are tense, their brain is scrambled. They may later wish they wouldn't have froze up so they could do something.

    Consider a more concrete example though. If somebody is unconscious during this dilemma, it wasn't a choice not to choose.
     
  10. Jul 13, 2010 #9
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Is it not one's own responsibility to make choices such that they never find themselves in a position such that they are unable to make choices?

    If someone is literally born into a world where they have no ability, at any point, to make choices, then they may as well be a rock. Most people, however, do not fall into that category. Perhaps the choices you've had in your life don't allow you to fly, or be 100 feet tall, but the very nature of choice is that if exercised properly, even a small amount of it can give you way more than you know how to handle.

    If someone were unconscious during that dilemma, then, in all likelihood, they made choices which led them to be in that state of unconsciousness.

    Certainly no human mind can possibly predict even moderately distant outcomes of an action. However, a bad outcome is still a bad outcome.


     
  11. Jul 14, 2010 #10

    Pythagorean

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    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Responsibility is another social dynamic of expectations. I don't think you can really avoid such a thing, honestly. There's lots of things going on all over that you'll never know about, let alone be able to make choices on.

    or the weather, or a computer, or an appliance, perhaps (taking a liberal definition of 'born')? The rock's lifetime is completely determined by it's internal states (the dynamics within the boundary of space that we call a rock) and it's external states (the dynamics outside of the boundary).

    I posit that a human's lifetime can be determined no differently than the rock except for it being subject to much higher complexity and a lack of human understanding (due to a lack of technology that allows sufficient observations).
     
  12. Jul 14, 2010 #11
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?


    The idea that we should always view something just one particular way is downright midieval and reminicent of Orwellian doublespeak. War is peace and, in this case, nonaction is action!

    Words only have demonstrable meaning according to their function in a given context. Thus every dictionary has multiple definitions for the same word, examples of their uses in specific contexts, and the dictionaries are routinely updated as the language evolves. To suggest that we should stop this process in the name of morality is about as backwards and anti-intellectual a proprosal as I have heard in quite some time. The obvious solution is to continue studying the function of words in specific contexts, not demand that everyone talk some sort of official doublespeak.
     
  13. Jul 14, 2010 #12

    Hurkyl

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    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    wuliheron: Most of the details of your post don't appear make sense as a reply to what you quoted, or anything in the thread.



    Anyways, I must say I'm amused; I've seen people try doing a runaround via an wordplay, but this is the first time I've heard it justified as opposing doublespeak!

    The principle of newspeak was that language constrains thought, and unfortunately a lot of people have their thought constrained by that bit of equivocation you demonstrated -- confusing the more and less inclusive senses of "action".

    Alas, this particular scenario suffers a lot from this unfortunate aspect of English. :frown: I don't know if other languages have this problem too.
     
  14. Jul 14, 2010 #13
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?


    As long as you don't post explicit objections you might as well recite nonsense poetry and claim that demonstrates how my post is meaningless.
     
  15. Jul 14, 2010 #14

    Hurkyl

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    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Or I could opt to ignore it if you don't want to clarify.

    My middle two sentences are responding to your claim "nonaction is action" is doublespeak. Action is sometimes used in a restricted fashion to refer to the opposite of inaction. However, that is not the only usage. However, action also has a broader usage that includes things like "do nothing" -- things that would be described as "inaction".
     
  16. Jul 14, 2010 #15
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?


    Your assertion is patently absurd. Action is commonly used to refer to the opposite of inaction and not merely "...sometimes used in a restricted fashion of refer to the opposite of inaction." If you insist I will post the dictionary definitions of the two and even elaborate upon the use of the prefixes "non" and "in".
     
  17. Jul 14, 2010 #16

    apeiron

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    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Or perhaps it would be more productive to focus on the OP - which asked about the status of non-action. The OP was clearly trying to make a careful distinction, and Hurkyl would have put "inaction" in quotes for the same reason. So it is a waste of time to play dictionary definitions when the subject is about arriving at more interesting definitions.

    My own response that in the real world of hierarchically organised brains, we begin with the possibility of an action, and then need a second level of "inaction" or non-action in the sense of being able to productively inhibit actions.

    So non-action arises out of a context of potential action. And they are indeed a further form of action (the act of inhibition).

    Non-action out of ignorance is simply a matter of never being in a position to act. But deliberate non-action becomes a moral choice for which we can be properly held accountable.

    So in reference to the OP, in this particular moral dilemma, doing nothing is not a strong defence as balanced choices should be expected and non-action, sins of ommission, weigh just as heavy. At the same time, the burden of having made a choice (to kill the child) can be mitigated (as you had to actually make a choice either way if in possession of all the facts).
     
  18. Jul 14, 2010 #17
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    It is up to Hurkyl to clarify what he meant, and so far it certainly is not clear he meant what you are implying.

    The brain has a complex system of both positive and negative feedback systems and, thus far, the neurological evidence does not support the idea of a homunculus.

    Nor does the original post appear to ask about psychological or neurological theories but, instead, focuses sharply on morality alone from the point of view that everything we do and don't do is a moral choice. Thus without clarification as to the meaning of the terms used in the original post we could all speculate until the crows fly home and ramble on in any direction we find amenable in the moment.
     
  19. Jul 14, 2010 #18

    Pythagorean

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    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    The idea of a homunculus isn't even philosophically sound. You're still left wondering what makes the homunculus work, and if it's another homunculus....
     
  20. Jul 14, 2010 #19
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Its turtles... all the way down.
     
  21. Jul 14, 2010 #20
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    That is merely a Chinese ladder argument which could be applied to anything and everything.
     
  22. Jul 16, 2010 #21

    Danger

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    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    :rofl: :rofl:
    It shouldn't surprise me to see that it's a member of PF who makes up the 3rd leg of the previous bipod who recognizes that reference. (Although I feel obliged to point out that in the case of your statement, "Its" should be "It's"... Sorry; I was flashing back to a different thread there.)
    My immediate take toward the question is that, the way it is worded, a normal human nervous system wouldn't have time to consciously react either way.
    There is also the complication that trying to either stop or derail the train would result in possible injury or death to those on board. Given the average population of a train, that is ruled out on humanitarian grounds.
    No way can anyone know which is the proper path to take, given the scenario. First logical approach is the "good of the many outweighing the good of the few", which would indicate that the brat should be sacrificed as an individual in order to preserve the lives of 2 individuals. On the other hand, it is hard-wired into human nature to preserve children, even those of other parents.
    I can't begin to tell you the number of times that I've attended a gathering of some sort and discovered something less than a metre tall clinging to my leg, usually in a snow-bunny suit. I dislike small children almost as much as I dislike dogs, and neither one of them will leave me alone. I remember trudging around a campground for well over an hour, in winter, with a great-grand niece (whose existence I had never even know of until then) in the bunny suit hanging on as if her life depended upon it. :grumpy:
    Anyhow, are you choosing to save Mary and Louis Leaky to sacrifice a baby Charles Manson, or save a baby Louis Pasteur and leave Hitler and Eva to their fates?
    There is no way to evaluate the importance of a single human life, without knowing who they are, in the sort of time frame that the question indicates.
    I'm neither proud nor ashamed to say this, but I think that if this came up in a panic situation, I would try to take the train straight up the middle in hope that it would split and miss both targets. That would probably fail, and there would definitely be casualties aboard the train whether or not the targets were avoided. My only consolation regarding that choice is that I would most assuredly be dead, so nothing that anyone could say about it would affect me.
     
  23. Jul 24, 2010 #22
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Instead of "action" or "inaction" we should better talk about "conscious choice".
     
  24. Jul 25, 2010 #23
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    Way I see it, refusing (maybe too strong a word; /abstaining) to save someone's life when there would be no foreseeable comparable negative repercussion to someone else or put anyone else's life in jeopardy is not morally equivalent to, effectively, refusing to choose who lives and who dies.
     
  25. Jul 28, 2010 #24
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    inaction = nonexistence

    Unless you're capable of popping out of existence on command (or non-command, rather), you can never 'not do'. A choice to refrain is a choice made is an action.
     
  26. Jul 28, 2010 #25
    Re: Is there such a thing as "non-action"?

    But, you have distinguished from doing and not doing in your example. You have effectively defined the meaning of "non-action" in your post. Non-action is not affecting the system and letting it follow the same course it would if you had not been there and were unaware of the situation. I would draw an analogy to quantum mechanics here. Making an observation in quantum mechanics is fundamentally different than not making an observation. This example is not quite the same thing, but is similar. In the train example, you are a "potential" observer in the sense than you may decide to take an action that affects the system. You may also decide not to affect the outcome. One case is action and one case is non-action. One can argue that deciding not to act is an action, but this is a different definition and just a matter of semantics.

    By the way, I don't think that this particular example has a clear morally correct choice. It really depends on your thoughts, not on which choice you make. If one adds ulterior motives to the mix, then morality questions are racheted up a level. Perhaps, the child is that of your enemy, or the people on the main path promise you cash if you save them. Perhaps both are true. Now how do you decide and how can you be sure your choice is moral?

    On a separate note, my decision would be to try and throw the switch at the exact point where it would be impossible to know which way the train would go. My thinking is that I may derail the train, and if I don't succeed, then at least I tried, and fate decided who would die. :smile:
     
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