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4-02-2009 by Joshua Liu

Action vs Inaction - Are they Morally Equivalent?

Today I read about a hypothetical scenario that I’m struggling with, and not exactly sure yet how I feel about it.

Hypothetical scenario 1: A person is tied to a train track and a train is going to run the person over. There is a switch that controls the train. If you flip the switch, the train will stop. If you don’t, the person will die.

Hypothetical Scenario 2: Same situation as above, but in this case, the switch is off and the train isn’t moving. If you flip the switch on, the train will start to move and kill the person on the track.

Is not flipping the switch in #1 just as morally wrong as flipping the switch in #2?

I would say that you are morally obligated to not harm / let the person be harmed in both scenarios. Yet I initially struggled with the idea of moral equivalency for this situation. Could action to hurt ever be equally bad as inaction against harm?

In case #2, if we flip the switch, then we essentially desire the person to die. In case #1, if we choose to not stop flip the switch and stop the train, this does not necessitate that we desired the person to die - it could also mean that we did not feel a moral obligation to save the person’s life (but in that case, we don’t share the same moral values), or that even if we did, we chose not to act on it. So initially, it felt as if flipping the switch in #2 was worse if we took complete intentions into account.

However, if we are just looking at just morality, I guess one could argue that it is morally correct to act on your moral obligations. Therefore, in #2, we are morally obligated not to kill, and in #1, we are morally obligated to prevent death - in that respect, you could argue both action (#2) and inaction (#1) are morally equivalent and equally wrong.

Yet legally, there is a clear distinction between how we would treat an individual in those circumstances - in general, you can’t really be charged with a crime for inaction for such situations (but if you have any interesting spots where you can, let me know). For instance, if this exact situation was presented in court, I would think you could only jail the person who flipped the switch in #2.

A bigger question, however, emerges if we extrapolate inaction into a larger sense. Right now some people in third world countries are dying of hunger, disease, etc. Am I committing an immoral act by sitting here and typing this at my computer instead of directly contributing to improving their lives?

Now that might sound ridiculous at first, but that’s probably because humans tend to feel stronger about immediate events and results - such as actually being at the train tracks with the switch and a person about to die. Besides not being able to visualize it in real time, how is my inaction right now any different from not acting to help?

However, the idea that anytime I am watching a movie is immoral seems pretty ridiculous to me. The question we must then ask is: Are we actually morally obligated to do anything? If so, how can we act on our moral obligations in some cases but not others?

I am definitely not an expert or anything on moral theory - these are ideas I struggle with, and I’d be interested in hearing different opinions, insights, and perspectives on these issues.

The preceding article is cross-posted from - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.

JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.

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