Causal Relevance, Permissible Omissions, and Famine Relief

Dialectica 72 (1):25-47 (2018)

Chad Vance
College of William and Mary
Failures are sometimes, but not always, causally relevant to events. For instance, the failure of the sprinkler was causally relevant to the house fire. However, the failure of the dam upstream to break (thus inundating the house with water) was not. Similarly, failures to prevent harms are sometimes, but not always, morally wrong. For instance, failing to save a nearby drowning child is morally wrong. Yet, you are also in some sense “allowing” someone on another continent to drown right now, and this seems permissible. Here, I argue that these two issues are connected. Roughly, I argue that it is prima facie morally wrong to fail to prevent a particular harm if and only if one’s omission is causally relevant to that harm’s occurrence. The result is that, contrary to what Peter Singer claims, failing to donate to famine relief is not morally equivalent to failing to rescue a drowning child in a shallow pond.
Keywords Omissions  Causal Relevance  Allowing Harm  Modal Proximity  Famine Relief  Doctrine of Doing and Allowing  Causes versus Conditions  Letting Die
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DOI 10.1111/1746-8361.12211
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Causation as Influence.David K. Lewis - 2000 - Journal of Philosophy 97 (4):182-197.
Famine, Affluence, and Morality.Peter Singer - 1972 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (3):229-243.
Causation.David K. Lewis - 1973 - Journal of Philosophy 70 (17):556-567.
I Ought, Therefore I Can.Peter B. M. Vranas - 2007 - Philosophical Studies 136 (2):167-216.

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