DERISION OF YET ANOTHER DISTINCTION, this time between act and omission, is also something seen among objectors to the principle of double effect. An advocate of traditional morality would distinguish, as morally significant, acts from omissions, from doing something as distinguished from having failed to do something. There are good acts, and there are bad acts. Likewise, there are good omissions and there are bad omissions. Determining when an omission, or a failure to act, is to be morally blameworthy, and when the omission is to be regarded as morally good, or at least not morally objectionable, can sometimes be difficult. When am I compelled to act, under a duty to act, so that in not acting I suffer moral failure? The traditionalist thinks these questions make sense. A consequentialist, who looks at consequences alone, does not. But the consequentialist's failure seriously to consider the difference between act and omission leads him to place unrealistic moral burdens on people which puts them under a false sense of guilt, and, ultimately unravels the basic fabric of morality itself. There is, to be sure, an axe already at the foot of the tree, and trees that do not bear good fruit shall be cut down and thrown into the fire (cf. Matt. 3:10), but the axe ought not to be used to cut down trees that are not bearing fruit when out of season. Even God does not require trees to bear fruit year-round.
Do we use the axe to chop down trees not bearing fruit year-round?
(Unknown Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale 1372, Detail)
Consequentialists in particular seem to deride the difference between act and omission since it seems to lay the axe at their own theoretical tree. This is because they focus on consequences, on outcome alone and disregard the whole host of things that come into play in assessing moral acts. For a consequentialist, if an act and omission have the same consequences, then the difference between them, if there really is one, is irrelevant and immaterial to the premises. For the consequentialist, then, ceteris paribus, if I fail to give money to an African aid organization and, as a consequence, twenty starving Africans die, I am as equally blameworthy as a man who sends poisoned food to Africa and twenty starving Africans die.* The consequence is the same, so the moral act is equally blameworthy, though one actor omitted, and one actor committed.
Parable of the Good Samaritan
When is a man obliged to do good?
When is a man at fault for an omission?
Is this sort of view sensible?
In assessing the question distinctions have to be made. The first such distinction relates to duty. There are some duties that may be called "negative" duties, and some duties that may be termed "positive" duties. We may distinguish two pairs:
- A negative duty not to do something to another.
- A positive duty is a duty to ensure that that same thing is not done to another.
- A negative duty not to bring it about that someone lacks a particular thing.
- A positive duty to provide someone with a particular thing.
Positive duties may oblige in a general sense exceptionlessly, but they do not bind us in all particular circumstances. For example, we have a duty to worship God through public worship, but that does not mean each and every instance of our life we must be worshiping God through public worship. If for no other reason, our attendance to other positive duties (for example the duty a mother has to care for her child, or even our duty to take care of our health and sleep from time-to-time) would require that, in some cases, some other positive duty or duties will go unfulfilled. "Ought implies can." One simply cannot fulfill all positive duties all the time, so it follows that they cannot all bind all the time. It's true that in some instances, circumstances (such as one's ability, office, or the existence of pre-existing duty) may stiffen the positive duty. For example, while someone without medical training does not have the duty to perform a tracheotomy on a choking victim, a surgeon might. Someone who cannot swim is not obliged to jump into a pool to save a drowning child, whereas the lifeguard, who has both the ability to swim and a pre-existing duty, is so obliged. From all this it sensibly follows that not complying with a positive duty, then, can sometimes be wrong, but is not always wrong.
Negative duties, on the other hand, do not have the same characteristics as positive duties. Negative duties, if exceptionless, bind every time, every place and do not raise the same impossibility as positive duties. (Though the lack of impossibility does not mean that, in any given instance, it may not be difficult, and even require extreme sacrifice, to abide by the negative duty.) It is incumbent upon one, regardless of where he may find himself, not to blaspheme, steal, cheat, kill or torture the innocent, rape, enslave, lie, or commit adultery. Both the untrained and the surgeon have a duty not to kill the person who is choking. Both the person with an inability to swim and the lifeguard have the duty not to drown someone. In contradistinction to positive duties, the failure to comply with a negative duty is always wrong, and is independent of circumstance.
The failure of consequentialism's ability to handle the distinction between act and omission and positive and negative duty is perhaps the biggest problem with consequentialist thinking. It leads to unrealistic moral impositions, practically impossible to fulfill without absurd sacrifice. The objection may be called the "demandingness objection." Oderberg, 133. The failure to fulfill these unrealistic and artificial obligations, which are entirely derived by measuring consequences without regard to whether an act or omission is involved or whether there is a positive duty or a negative duty at issue, leads to a false sense of guilt, and then ultimately leads to a kind of neurosis, both individual and social. If a consequentialist's charge is to maximize X, then if X is not maximized there is moral failure. The moral failure exists whether the failure to maximize X is the result of omission or commission, and the issues of positive duty or negative duty, of act or omission, of right are entirely irrelevant.
This often means that [the persons under a consequentialist ethos] are duty-bound to charitable causes, neglecting their health, their friends, even their family, and undertaking strenuous and even dangerous activity in order to maximize X anywhere in the world. . . . . [I]t turns out hat consequentialism makes demands that are so extreme they fly in the face of morality itself, and so make the theory self-defeating. The duty to maximize X . . . requires even the violation of the rights of others, and other duties in general, in order that the goal be achieved. It may be heroic to leave one's family in order to live a life of self-sacrifice among the poor; but family members have rights, and a person has a duty to provide for his family, or at least to see to it that they are provided for. It would not be an act of heroism to leave them to starve in one's quest to feed the starving, but an act of callous injustice.
Oderberg, 132-33. But that's just the thing: if it maximizes X, then any particularly callous injustice, any trampling of right, any obligations to his neighbor, is excused in the consequentialist's eye. So, not only have they imposed upon themselves unrealistic obligations--a fool's errand, as it were--, they have, at the same time, given themselves license to flout all rules to achieve their quixotic dream.
This is moral insanity, or at least a recipe for social neurosis. It seems that the consequentialism may be the impetus behind liberalism's well-documented neurosis.**
*The example is Philippa Foot's, and is cited in Oderberg, 127-28.
**See, e.g., Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., M.D., The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness (St. Charles: Free World Books, 2006).