John Stuart Mill on Sins of Omission

The world is hurting. A big reason that the world is in as much trouble as it is this: how many people have done less than they should to make things better. We rightly honor those who have helped make the world a better place. It is also right to criticize those who, though able to do so, have failed to help make the world a better place. And each of us should examine themselves closely to see if we should be doing more.

As a practical matter, the law must tilt toward attacking sins of commission–things that people do that stand out from everyday actions and are bad. This can lead people to miss the moral gravity of doing nothing when doing something is called for. John Stuart Mill points out the importance of individual conscience in judging when we have done too little. In the 11th paragraph of the “Introductory” to On Liberty, he writes:

It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a primâ facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation. There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow-creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former. To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil, is, comparatively speaking, the exception. Yet there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception. In all things which regard the external relations of the individual, he is de jure amenable to those whose interests are concerned, and if need be, to society as their protector. There are often good reasons for not holding him to the responsibility; but these reasons must arise from the special expediencies of the case: either because it is a kind of case in which he is on the whole likely to act better, when left to his own discretion, than when controlled in any way in which society have it in their power to control him; or because the attempt to exercise control would produce other evils, greater than those which it would prevent. When such reasons as these preclude the enforcement of responsibility, the conscience of the agent himself should step into the vacant judgment seat, and protect those interests of others which have no external protection; judging himself all the more rigidly, because the case does not admit of his being made accountable to the judgment of his fellow-creatures.

Although the distinction between action and inaction is intuitive to many people, from a Utilitarian perspective, the difference is not morally meaningful. As I wrote in another context, “Anything one does has consequences. There is no true ‘inaction.’ There is only “Do A” or “Do B.” As John Stuart Mill points out, the difference between what we call “inaction” as opposed to what we call “action” is relevant to the balance between law, social opprobrium and individual conscience as checks against a socially bad choice. But the fact that something is called “inaction” does not make it any more innocent when one is examining oneself. 

One could argue that if one rejects the distinction between so-called “action” and “inaction” as morally meaningful, then when we think that something is genuinely permitted as “inaction,” it may be that it should be permitted as “action.” For example, think of the fact that it is generally accepted in our culture as OK for someone to say that even moderate medical measures–for example, taking a round of antibiotics–should not be taken to keep them alive since they feel that they are ready to die (say because someone else they cared about deeply has already died, rather than because of some other more intractable physical problem). For those who genuinely think that it is OK to reject such moderate medical measures because they want to die, it seems it is not a big step to say that they should then logically view it as OK for who someone in the same situation–except for not needing the antibiotics–to press a button for an overdose of morphine for themselves that would lead them to die. 

But that line of thinking is suspect for a simple reason. Our intuitions are better and more reliable for judging the morality of what we tend to call an “action” are better than our intuitions for judging the morality of what we tend to call an “inaction.” Therefore, I argue that the standards we tend to use for “actions” should be applied to “inactions” rather than applying the standards we tend to use for “inactions” to “actions.” Thus, rather than providing an argument for euthanasia (which might be justifiable on other grounds),I view the moral equivalence of “actions” and “inactions” with the same kind of effect as suggesting that people have a duty to try to stay alive if moderate medical measures would suffice to keep them alive and in reasonable health that does not include severe physical or intolerable mental pain (where “intolerable” mental pain means something beyond the normal, but intense, grief one typically feels when someone close has died first). 

But despite the interest many of us have in the ethics of euthanasia and the ethics of instructions to limit medical efforts to save one’s life, I think there is a more important application of the principle that our more reliable judgements of the ethics of what we call “actions” should be used to illuminate our duties in relation to what we call “inactions.” The moral equivalence of “actions” and “inactions” (that have the same effect) points to the duty each one of us has to do what we are individually capable of doing toward trying to save the world. 

See links to other John Stuart Mill posts collected here.