Youth Canada

Action vs. Inaction Part 2: I am immoral a lot of the time, and I’m okay with it

11-02-2009 by Joshua Liu

Action vs. Inaction Part 2: I am immoral a lot of the time, and I’m okay with it

Earlier, I wrote about a hypothetical moral situation and ended up questioning whether or not I am meeting my moral obligations (if they do exist).

Essentially, the hypothetical situation poses the question of whether causing harm is just as morally wrong as not preventing the same harm from occurring. I’d like to believe that, yes, action and inaction that produces the same result (in a simple scenario) can be morally equivalent. The bigger problem then was that if I am morally obligated to prevent harm from occurring, then am I not morally obligated to spend as much of my time and money as possible to help others? (That is, without doing harm to my own life, obviously. For example, it may not be moral to donate all of my money such that I can no longer pay for my own food, shelter, etc.)

How and whether you can answer this question first depends on what beliefs your general morality system is based on. Some people have no moral system, and therefore, these questions are irrelevant to them. But it seems as if most people do have some morality system, and in general, I would say that most people believe in the morality system that it is “moral to not cause harm and moral to prevent harm if possible”. You may not agree with this, but assume this is true for the sake of my argument.

Let’s return to the question “am I not morally obligated to spend as much of my time and money as possible to help others?”. Given the above morality system, if you say “no, I am not morally obligated to spend all my time/money helping others”, then it must follow that inaction to prevent harm is not immoral, and therefore, you cannot say committing a crime is immoral either. If you do, then your entire morality system breaks down. The reason I say this is that if you agree that not preventing harm from occurring is immoral, then you are morally obligated to always prevent harm from occurring - and well, harm to individuals is occurring every second right now.

Again, this is true only if you believe that given the same result, action or inaction are morally equivalent - if you don’t agree with this, then we can’t go any further. But if you don’t agree, then you have no moral system or a different one - but aren’t most people’s moral systems pretty close to what I suggested?

This is the Idea I was Struggling With

Here I am, writing this article, while numerous individuals I could probably help are hungry, sick, and dying. How can I believe I am a generally moral person if according to my own logic and morality system, I am indeed conducting immoral acts for the vast majority of my life?

I decided to talk to good friend of mine today, who is probably the first person I talk to about stuff like this. He basically played devil’s advocate with me many times, and it forced me into new situations about these ideas.

I posed another hypothetical to him. I asked him, let’s assume I have an infinite amount of money, and that without any real effort or time required, I can donate some money and instantly save X number of innocent lives - am I morally obligated to do so? He said yes.

I then asked him, assuming I have a finite amount of money, at what point am I no longer morally obligated to donate money? He said he didn’t think it was fair of me to ask that because then I’m bringing outside factors into account, which makes it hard to specify.

It was at that point that I posed an altered version of the original train situation. In my altered version, if you don’t kill the person/let the person live, then you lose X amount of money. The idea here is essentially the same - you are paying money to save lives. I asked him if it is ever morally justified to choose money over the lives. He kept insisting that the amount of money and its relative value to you mattered, but I only cared about whether it was moral or immoral and not the degree of morality.

My Realization

It was at this point that I came to a sudden realization, and have decided how I feel about this issue.

First, I decided that yes, whenever I am not spending my time helping someone in more need, I am committing an immoral act. I feel I must accept this concept because I see no other way to ever justify the idea that preventing harm is the moral thing to do. (If you can find a way, please do tell)

The reason I think this is confusing is because of the concept of immediacy. If we see a train going to hit a person, then we think it is immoral to not try and stop it if we can – due to the immediacy of the danger and actually being there. If someone was dying of hunger in front of you, would you not feel morally obligated to help? Well, what if that person was 10,000 km away - are you less morally obligated to help? I would say yes you are less morally obligated to help to some degree, but you are still morally obligated to help to an extent. Therefore, even if it is harder to help, it is technically immoral not to act, but to a lesser degree - that’s how I am interpreting the situation.

Therefore, I also agreed with my friend that the amount of time/money/effort, etc. required to conduct a moral act does affect the degree of morality of the act/decision. For instance, it is more immoral to not flip a switch that could save a life than if I needed to spend X dollars and Y hours to save that same life. I think the ease with which we can make the decisions should affect the degree of morality.

However, the fact of the matter is that I don’t make decisions completely on my moral values and their implications. Whenever I make a decision, I also factor in things like happiness, which in fact, I often value much more highly than morality. That is who I am, and I am okay with that. This is why I’m here writing this article instead of donating my entire bank account to charity even though I could probably afford to do so (since my family can still support me).

At the same time, I don’t believe that someone who values their moral obligations more highly is necessarily a “better” human being than I am. Because what does it even mean to be human? Is there a universal, widely accepted definition of what it means to be human beyond the obvious physical aspects? Even if there is, I don’t think “upholding moral obligations” would be considered the only essence of being human.

So this is what I’ve decided to conclude about this. Yes I am being immoral by typing this, but that’s okay, I am not the most ardent follower of moral obligations, and I’m okay with that.

The preceding article is cross-posted from MedHopeful.com - 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.

For more articles like this one, check out Joshua's blog at MedHopeful.com