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acts/omissions doctrine

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The doctrine that it makes an ethical difference whether an agent actively intervenes to bring about a result, or omits to act in circumstances in which it is foreseen that as a result of the omission the same result occurs. Thus suppose I wish you dead. If I act to bring about your death I am a murderer, but if I happily discover you in danger of death, and fail to act to save you, I am not acting, and therefore according to the doctrine not a murderer. Critics reply that omissions can be as deliberate and immoral as commissions: if I am responsible for your food and fail to feed you, my omission is surely a killing. ‘Doing nothing’ can be a way of doing something, or in other words, absence of bodily movement can also constitute acting negligently, or deliberately, and depending on the context may be a way of deceiving, betraying, or killing. Nevertheless, criminal law often finds it convenient to distinguish discontinuing an intervention, which is permissible, from bringing about a result, which may not be, if, for instance, the result is death of a patient. The question is whether the difference, if there is one, between acting and omitting to act can be described or defined in a way that bears general moral weight. See also double effect, trolley problem.

Subjects: Philosophy

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