Jonathan Glover on the Doctrine of Acts and Omissions: Another Negative Responsibility
In his book Causing Death and Saving Lives, Jonathan Glover undertakes to criticize the acts and omissions doctrine. This criticism forms the key plank of his stand in applied ethics. Is it possible to defend the idea that an act and an omission, if they have the exact same consequences, shall nevertheless have a different moral significance ? This work is devoted to showing that refuting the acts- and -omissions doctrine amounts to an acceptance of the notion of negative responsibility. Mainly developed by Peter Singer, who was Glover's student in the late 60s, the mere idea of negative responsibility implies that a moral agent is not only responsible for what he does, but also for what he omits to do, precisely because he didn't act. The refutation of the acts- and -omissions doctrine leads Glover to the same conclusions as the upholders of negative responsibility. Among all the moral principles Glover discusses in the second part of Causing Death and Saving Lives, the acts- and -omissions doctrine has the leading role. The analysis of the author's line of argument in the chapters devoted to applied ethics issues reveals that this doctrine could be the fundamental axiom of all deontological theories. Glover's method does not only consists in refutating a doctrine in the theoretical part of his work, in order to show right after in concreto that many opposite theories are implicitly based upon this foundation – and are consequently flimsy. It is much more about showing that negative responsibility and the acts- and -omissions doctrine are not fully symmetric. They do have the same principle status, the former for utilitarianism, the latter for deontology ; but the acts- and -omissions doctrine is the only one whose origin is psychological, rather than moral. Negative responsibility is still not perfectly well-established, because its implications remain problematic, but it comes out of the comparison strengthened.
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