Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and I are running a series of experimental studies on the doing/allowing distinction, and we’d love to have your input on some of the results.
In essence, we want to show that people’s moral judgments can sometimes determine whether they classify a given case as ‘doing’ or ‘allowing,’ and we then want to gain a better understanding of how this effect arises. So we put together two cases that are extremely similar in most respects but which differ in their moral status.
In both cases, a patient is suffering from a cancer that would normally kill him, but he is attached up to a machine that prevents the cancer from having its normal effect. Then the doctor comes in and shuts off the machine. The patient immediately dies.
In the ‘morally good’ case, subjects were told that the patient wants to die and the doctor is acting in accordance with his wishes. In the ‘morally bad’ case, subjects were told that the patient does not want to die but the doctor hates him and therefore detaches the machine anyway. (If you’d like, you can read the original questionnaires.)
The results showed a striking asymmetry. Subjects said the doctor killed the patient in the morally bad case but not in the morally good case.
We also asked subjects a question about causation. Here again, we found an asymmetry. Subjects said that the doctor caused the death in the morally bad case but not in the morally good case.
Moreover, further statistical analyses showed that people’s causation judgments predicted their judgments about killing even controlling for their judgments about whether the action was morally right or morally wrong.
These results suggest a hypothesis about the way in which moral judgment feeds into the doing/allowing distinction. Perhaps the connection is an indirect one. Moral judgment might play a role in the concept of causation, and the concept of causation might in turn play a role in the doing/allowing distinction itself.
Does that seem like a plausible view?