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Suppose B is about to do something unjust to C and A is in a position to actively prevent B from doing this with almost no effort yet A refrains from preventing B from doing what he intends to do, resulting in B doing the unjust action to C.

There is clearly something wrong with what A has chosen to do, but I'm finding it very difficult to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with it.

  • It doesn't seem to me that A acted unfairly since to me it seems that for someone to do something unfair he must cause something to happen to someone that the person didn't deserve, while in our case A didn't cause anything to happen to C: he simply didn't prevent what happened to C.
  • It seems to me that A is acting unsympathetically, but I don't think that this really accounts for how wrong A's inaction seems.

So, what exactly is wrong with A's inaction? Why should he help C?

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    what if the action required effort? we would think that A is weak, a coward, vice ridden in a number of ways. hth. i tend to be of the opinion that inaction does not excuse us of consequences.
    – user67155
    Aug 12, 2023 at 23:14
  • the AI answers on morality are actually quite good/fun. are they hypocrites?
    – user67155
    Aug 13, 2023 at 1:04
  • they're like parables, it's hilarious.
    – user67155
    Aug 13, 2023 at 2:36
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    On some moral positions, especially consequentialism, the distinction between action and inaction is morally spurious, see SEP, Doing vs. Allowing Harm. Inaction is just as capable of producing good/harm as action, and should be judged the same way. Even in non-consequentialist ethics, inaction is often culpable. In Christianity this is called the sin of omission:"Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin." (James 4:17).
    – Conifold
    Aug 13, 2023 at 7:37

2 Answers 2

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I think this is a good case of when motive matters.

Laziness - and I guess that's the best case scenario of what vice is here - is usually considered a vice, even if it does not explain all inaction (selfishness is common). Suppose the inaction, despite prompting an injustice, ended up making many people fabulously happy. You would consider A virtuous but... it should not have happened.

You do need empathy with the victims of injustice, even though they should be seeking recompense from B, in whatever sense that is.

In conclusion: A, whatever their motive, is somewhat morally blind.

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There can be many reasons why A may choose not to intervene to prevent injustice against C, even if A can do it easily. Let's have a look at them.

Scenario 1: A hates C

If A refrains from intervening because he himself hates C. A is allowing his personal feelings to override more important moral principles like fairness and preventing harm. Just because A dislikes C does not make it acceptable to enable injustice against that person. A still bears some moral responsibility. But of course we don't know what C did to him in the past. So it's a bit shaky.

Scenario 2: A fears retribution from B

If A declines to intervene because he fears B may retaliate violently, financially or otherwise, this makes A's actions more understandable. Self-preservation is a strong instinct. However, while more sympathetic, A is still displaying cowardice and putting his own interests before ethics. Many would argue A still bears some obligation to act, despite personal risk.

Scenario 3: A doesn't want to meddle

A may feel intervening is meddling in others' affairs. He believes people must take responsibility for themselves and that getting involved crosses ethical boundaries, even to prevent injustice. However, this non-interference argument only goes so far. We may argue that preventing serious harm trumps minding one's business.

Scenario 4: A is prejudiced against C's social group

If A declines to help C because of prejudices against C's race, religion, gender or other group identity, this represents unethical discriminatory behavior on A's part. Bigoted indifference that permits harm against marginalized groups is morally wrong.

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  • i think in this case you you need a language of 'rights'. A has infringed on C's right to justice, the shared duty we have toward others. so A has not behaved ideally, whether or not they should be punished for it
    – user67155
    Aug 12, 2023 at 23:29
  • Thanks for your answer. I understand that what A did is morally wrong, but please could you explain why it is morally wrong, and ethically incorrect? What obligation does A have to help C? Is it just an intuitive moral obligation without any justification? Aug 14, 2023 at 20:40

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