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Morality of passive/active

  1. Mar 14, 2009 #1
    I have the ability to give everything that i own to starving Africans, but have chosen not to. Is this morally different from stealing everything I own from them? In actuality the distinction is not so clear, since it is mostly agreed that third world countries remain poor due to unfair trade, tied aid etc and their povery is a direct consequence of our affluence.
    But that is not my point. Is it morally different to not do something "good" which is in your power, as opposed to doing something directly "bad"?
    In either case my choice actions either result in me being rich and them poor, or a more even spread of wealth. I think the distinction between active and passive in this sense is a false one.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 14, 2009 #2
    I'd say there is a general difference, but it would depend on other factors.
  4. Mar 15, 2009 #3
    Can you elaborate at all? I would argue that the distinction between doing something and not doing anything is unclear. By choosing not to do a certain thing, you are in effect choosing to do something else. Either way, you choose a certain action. Ie, not giving to charity is as much an active thing as stealing.
  5. Mar 15, 2009 #4
    Both are a choice, but action and inaction are obviously different.

    If I want a pair of shoes:
    I can keep the pair you forgot at my house.
    I can beat you with a crowbar and steal yours.

    Clearly different, in my opinion, and I hope in yours as well.

    You are equating choice with active choice. This seems nonsensical. I'm not-choosing to do an infinite amount of things by sitting here at this computer. That doesn't really equate to I'm doing an infinite amount of things at the moment.

    You're confusing a counterfactual with a fact.

    Much the same way we can call no-thing: nothing

    By turning a negation into a noun we can then give the negation attributes.
    But this only works on the level of abstraction.

    There was nothing in the glass, so I drank it.
  6. Mar 15, 2009 #5
    If I don’t choose to give then my wealth stays up.
    If I alone choose to give then my wealth goes down, I don’t make much impact, if any (I’m not a Bill Gates) but I get a rosy glow.
    If I encourage many others to give then I use up a lot of time but it may lead to more trade, richer culture, etc., and so we might all be better off.
    Whatever I do or don’t do, in some way I gain.

    Or, say I’m walking down the street and a bum asks for money to buy food.
    I walk on by and he dies of starvation.
    I give him money but he’s an alcoholic, buys booze instead and dies in his own vomit.
    So I’d venture that the moral bit isn’t so much about the action/inaction as about thinking it through - take him to a diner, buy food and watch him eat it.
  7. Mar 15, 2009 #6


    Staff: Mentor

    Yes, clearly it is different. This kind of sloppy moral thinking is not helpful to the world in any way, when innocent parties take the guilt from the truly guilty then there is no chance for justice.

    First, if you have what you have obtained through your own efforts and through voluntary and mutually beneficial interactions with others then what you have has been morally obtained and cannot be considered theft.

    So, who is stealing from the starving Africans if it is not you? The despots and tyrants and their minions that pass for their governments. If you want to assign moral blame and responsibility then assign it where it belongs, or else justice has failed before it even had a chance.
  8. Mar 15, 2009 #7
    Unless I take it from you.
    You should see a doctor about that.
    The road to hell is paved with 'thinking it through'.
  9. Mar 15, 2009 #8
    It would make a massive difference giving all your money to starving africans - it can go further there than it can here. I'm not saying it will help the whole country, but it can help more people there than it helps you here.
    And its ridiculous to say we got our wealth by beneficial interactions. We were born in relatively wealthy countries who got their wealth through colonialism, imperialism and unfair trade which keeps poor countries poor.
    You have a choice to either keep yourself rich and them poor, or make an effort to bridge the inequality and I don't think anyone has made a good argument that the active is more immoral than the passive.
    What if you walked past a starving person on the street while eating you're burger? Would it not be immoral to leave them to starve? Surely this situation doesn't change just because they are far away?
  10. Mar 15, 2009 #9
    The ‘rosy glow’ is a reference to do-gooders taking actions just to make themselves feel good, so I take it we're on the same page there.

    How so?

    I'm new here - is there any way of making it clear which message is being replied to, other than quoting it?
  11. Mar 15, 2009 #10


    Staff: Mentor

    That is not why people starve in Africa today. It is because local gangs of armed thugs steal, murder, rape, and pillage what they want. You do nobody any favors by mis-assigning guilt.
  12. Mar 15, 2009 #11
    Fully agreed. My point is that plonking it in a collection box isn't nearly as useful as working out where it would do the most good and following it through.
  13. Mar 15, 2009 #12
    Is that a symptom caused by us not sharing our wealth, or would it happen anyway?
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2009
  14. Mar 15, 2009 #13
    Gangs have nothing to do with why africans starve today. These countries do not have enough wealth, despite their abundance of natural resources. Their poverty is enforced by unfair trade, ie we take their resources and don't give them a fair deal. We could not live in the affluent conditions we live in without them living in the impoverished conditions they live in.
    I only used africa as example anyway. From a utilitarian point of view, a morality is defined in terms of the total benefit felt by everyone involved. From this sense, surely the active and passive actions are morally equal? In either case there is outcome A - you are rich and they are poor, and outcome B - you are both equal. You decide the outcome, and the outcome decides the morality of the decision (at least for a utilitarian).
  15. Mar 15, 2009 #14
    Utilitarianism is problematic.
    First, there is really no way to know 'total benefit', so its essentially blind.
    Second, it assumes, rather than justifies, the idea that the greatest happiness is moral.
    Some people don't want to be happy, they might want revenge for instance. And in fact experience shows us that most people are rabidly disfunctional in one way or another.
  16. Mar 15, 2009 #15


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    You are correct that choosing not to do something is choosing to do something, but the thing you are choosing to do is not stealing, it is just choosing to not give. There are three potential courses of action in question here, not two. Consider it from the other end: does a thief who gives up thieving then automatically become a giver?

    You only got halfway there with your line of logic....

    That said, it isn't quite the same question as this:
    Similar to your above question, the morality of the situation has 3 levels. Most people consider them to be moral, neutral, and immoral. I, however, tend to argue that neutral is immoral because if you are truly in a situation where it does you no harm at all to render aid, then to not render aid is a purely selfish choice.

    However, giving money to charity is not, for most people, completely without harm to them, so I don't fault people for not doing it and I don't give much to charity myself*. But there are lots of everyday examples where people decline to be good samaritans for mostly selfish (or apathetic) reasons.

    *Caveat: short term stinginess may be an enabler of long-term altruism. Early-on in his career, Bill Gates was faulted for not giving enough to charity. But that wasn't so much selfishness as it was just him being wrapped-up on his career and his efforts to grow his company. But he's only 53 and about 5 years ago realized he has nothing left to do professionally and shifted most of his focus to altruism, becoming the greatest giver the world has ever seen. Though most people don't end up as Bill Gates, most peoples' financial situations improve as they get older, making charitable giving more practical and thus more common.
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2009
  17. Mar 15, 2009 #16


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Every bit of that is patently false. Rich countries got their wealth that way up to about a hundred years ago, but the wealth they had at the turn of the 20th century is an insignificant fraction of the wealth they have today. Rich countries have the wealth they have today almost exclusively by generating it from scratch, internally and from mutually beneficial foreign trade (which really is no different from generating it intermally - national borders are just lines on a map).

    It's easy to see with simple statistics: Altogether, foreign trade is about 20% of the US GDP and of that, another 90% is with developed countries. That leaves 2% of our GDP - 2% of our wealth coming from trade with developing or undeveloped countries. Most of our trade with developing countries (imports and exports) is with China and it is a simple fact that the staggering GDP growth that China has had over the past couple of decades is because of, not in spite of their foreign trade. Most of the rest after that is oil imports from the middle east, which is wealth they are generating from scratch, literally pumping money out of the ground.
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2009
  18. Mar 15, 2009 #17
    Thats a bit misleading. If the world was run completely on a free trade model, and reset so that everyone started with the same amount of cash, your numbers would be different.

    One of the political realities is that 3rd world countries are a source of cheap labor because they don't have the laws 'developed' countries do. Westerners earn more for doing the same work, not based on expertise or workmanship, but on where they live. Westerners also control trade: by owning companies, lands and mineral rights...etc...
    So they can maintain their higher standard of living by exerting control over production and trade. In this sense, the GDP is merely a symptom of this control.
  19. Mar 16, 2009 #18
    But the cost of living in developing countries is also lower than developed countries. After all, that’s why companies invest there. Investment, by generating skills and wealth, has great potential for good provided that it is well controlled. More than just sending food parcels anyway.
    And as the workers gain wealth, they buy shares in their company, and the ownership moves.

    I wouldn't argue that capitalism does anything like a perfect job or shouldn’t be better regulated, but it does do a job.
  20. Mar 16, 2009 #19
    If I see an appeal from Médicos Sin Fronteras following a disaster, saying they urgently need money to fly in penicillin and tents, I would probably pick up the phone, punch in my credit card, and give because they need the money now and tomorrow is too late.

    But dealing with a disaster, which can happen anywhere including New Orleans, is very different from helping to spread wealth. If, as per the OP, I’m intent on giving away all I own, imho just giving it to a charity isn’t a particularly moral act. Guilt may be lifted from my shoulders, but my money may end-up in some third-world politician’s pocket to buy arms, etc.

    I could instead recognize that Africa is complex and subtle, and first research where I think my action will do the most good -micro-loans, investing in a free-trade company, paying for school books, working in Uganda for a year, etc. Giving a lump-sum isn’t necessarily the most moral act.

    If I never heard of Africa through no fault of my own, then doing nothing is fine. But now that I know, I wouldn’t want it on my gravestone.

    That said, there is firm evidence that in evolutionary terms we are built to care more for our immediate family and less for other members of the tribe. For that reason alone morality is also complex and subtle, and I don’t believe we can ever turn it into a finite set of rules.
  21. Mar 16, 2009 #20


    Staff: Mentor

    It has everything to do with why Africans starve today. When the local government is not based on the rule of law, but on the whim of some petty dictator then there is no way for any entrepeneur, either forigen or domestic, to have confidence that his efforts will be rewarded. There is thus no percieved incentive for productive economic behavior.

    No, the ends do not justify the means. I completely reject your utilitarian measure of morality.
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