I've heard a lot about the supposed evils about not voting/voting for a 3rd party in recent political discussion here in the States. The reasoning seems to posit that (e.g.) in the Trump/Hillary race, refusing to vote for either party seems to morally support Trump, and voting for a party who is predictably never going to win is seen as just as of an immoral approach (within the context that a community of voters don't want Trump in power). Essentially, although both of these solutions would probably ultimately give Hillary a greater advantage, some voters would declare a failure to actively condemn/act against Trump immoral.

I've heard similar ethical reasoning in social situations. For instance, if a child is being bullied at school, and a bystander does nothing to help him, some might say that the bystander was acting immorally not because an indifference to helping people is bad, but because refusing to do so condones the bully's actions. Take another example from biblical hermeneutical disputes. Some say that the last passages of Colossians 3 condone slavery by remaining silent on the justice of the act.

Here's my question: Where is the line drawn between immoral inactivity and a simple lack of action? It seems to me that if I were to carry such principles to certain extremes, half of my life would all of a sudden become immoral because I would be somehow indirectly supporting some all-permeating kyriarchy, for instance, by not acting explicitly against it.

Additionally, Who are some thinkers who have written on the subject that I might be able to read?

  • 2
    – user4894
    May 14, 2016 at 18:07
  • @user4894 It's a shame link-only answers are not valid on SE. Your link comment is actually probably the most important answer to this question.
    – Cort Ammon
    May 16, 2016 at 21:19
  • 1
    Nobody is obliged to action. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to use you. May 16, 2016 at 22:27
  • @CortAmmon Very much appreciate your comment. As you know, short but accurate answers get destroyed on this site. It's a shame but the site is how the regulars want it.
    – user4894
    May 16, 2016 at 22:55

5 Answers 5


Where is the line drawn between immoral inactivity and a simple lack of action?

Under a Kantian framework, inactivity is immoral when it violates a moral obligation you have. This is generally never, since moral obligations are generally negative (i.e. "don't kill someone" is a moral obligation). Kant does posit an ambiguous duty of beneficence, which states that we have a duty to help others. He doesn't say to what extent we have to help others, so it's still unclear if we should vote for Hillary to stop Trump (or vice versa). To be honest, this duty is usually ignored. The main point here, regardless of the duty to help others, is that if Trump or Hillary wins the election, blame can not be placed on any individual who failed to vote. In fact, it's not the voters' fault at all. If Trump does something stupid, only Trump can be blamed.

A utilitarian framework provides a clearer bright line. All inactivity, in the exception of one case, is immoral. It is only moral if any action at all would make the situation worse. The thing is, we have to take into account others' actions here, too, unlike under a Kantian framework. So, if we think Obama is a better president than Hillary or Trump, we should abstain from voting so he can remain president, right? Except, other people will vote for Hillary or Trump, rendering our action moot. So, we have to vote for the "least-worst" candidate under this framework. If this interests you, some utilitarian writers include Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. However, while I believe both discuss inactivity, neither of them specifically describe political participation obligations or the lack thereof, which is more dense.

  • Keeping one's own life (and sentient life in general) is a positive kantian duty, just to mention one. Every single one can be easily transferred into a positive one. Do not lie is just the same as tell the truth. The point is that the kantian concept of morality is way narrower than what most people think under 'ethics'. But it is quite easy to derive that e.g. in the Sophie's Choice dilemma (the most straightforward one) there is a duty to save one life and not be inactive.
    – Philip Klöcking
    May 29, 2016 at 20:20
  • 1
    "Do not lie" is not the same as "tell the truth." In the famous example of a murderer knocking at your door, asking you where his victim is, it's important to remember that your obligation is "do not lie." You cannot mislead the murderer and tell him something false. However, you do not need to tell the truth and respond to him. You can stay silent. The positive obligation "tell the truth" does not allow this option, in my interpretation.
    – ChemSniper
    Jul 22, 2016 at 16:14
  • I think it reveals an inconsistency in an ethical framework to posit a situation where it would be ethical to shoot a threatening attacker in the head, but unethical to lie to them. Apr 7, 2017 at 18:06

Doing nothing may not be ideal, but in itself it is practically neutral. Implying that a person is acting immorally by doing nothing is implying that the person has an obligation (or duty) to act upon these types of situations. A security guard or police officer is a person specifically paid by society to act in this capacity. For such a guard or officer to do nothing would indeed be grounds for immorality (and failing to do one's duties).

As for solutions to this problem, I have two possible suggestions:

  1. If you would rather not get directly involved in the wrongdoing that you are witnessing, then film it or otherwise make known (accurately and honestly) who did what. This way, society can rely on the usual reputation of individuals to punish the wrongdoer and deter others from wronging similarly.
  2. Simply speak out publicly, such as Online, about these types of events in general. This option avoids becoming directly associated with the specific instances witnessed while still potentially having an effect on society in general.

The basic premise here is that there are more ways to have a positive effect on the world than directly getting involved in specific instances of wrongdoing. Sometimes just bringing an issue to light, especially if you have clear evidence of the wrongdoing and a clear argument as to why it is wrong, can make a big difference in the long run of society. The history of humanity will always have wrongdoing in it. In fact, these events may even be necessary since we learn from our mistakes -- and without mistakes, we can hardly learn. Pointing out mistakes can go a long way, even when done after the fact.

On the topic of Trump and Hillary, if you honestly would rather not vote for either, then another option is to speak out your reasoning. Explaining why you do not accept either candidate lets others in a similar situation know they are not alone. For maximum effect, be honest, clear, and well-composed. Remember: The long term is bigger than the short term; you may not be able to change a particular election cycle, but you can still have an effect on society.


First, as a human being you set a pre-defined goal in your life, maybe you want kids, maybe you want riches, maybe you want to travel, maybe you want to be moral. Whatever it is, this is the end goal of your behaviour.

In a universal sense you have no obligation to do any particular thing, insofar as you're willing to accept the consequence of either action or inaction. I would say that if action or inaction enhances or impedes your ability to fulfil your long-term goal, that should dictate whether or not you do it, not some ephemeral sense of obligation to a situation.


With the question of action, the issue is that consciously not doing anything (e.g. not voting for either candidate) is an action anyway. You point this out in the bystander case. Any basic ethics would put responsibility on the person who is aware of a specific evil and does nothing to stop it. Thus, let's apply voting for the president to this scenario.

It is fair to state that voting ought to express our political beliefs and we ought to not vote for someone we don't agree with. If we consider that both Trump and Clinton are not good candidates, then we ought to vote for a third party candidate since we won't vote for either Trump nor Hillary. This is not the same as not voting since we ultimately still acted in a sense of civic duty and expressed an ethical political opinion. If we do not vote and have not had our voting prevented, then we have failed to try to stop them and acted unethically. Altogether, it can be said that it is unethical to be conscious of some evil and not do anything about it.

A lack of action would, therefore, imply a lack of knowledge. If we did not know something was wrong, how could we act against it? We wouldn't be able to consciously do so, thus measuring the practical ethics of that situation is absurd.

As it stands for philosophers, I would direct you towards a man named Thomas W. Smith who writes Revaluing Ethics: Aristotle's Dialectical Pedagogy and towards Aristotle in general. Also, Jean-Paul Sartre may have an answer for you in Being and Nothingness. More specifically, David Banach's commentary of it would be good to read over (http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/sartrelecture.htm).


There is a classical bias in Aristotle that the natural state of things is rest, and inaction is generally forgivable. After all, it is the direction the universe would take anyway. Aside from avoiding an excess of rest, which would be a vice through its sheer excessiveness, rest is always safe.

This pervades our history and our law, so it is still a common approach to morality. Only negligence is culpable, not simple inaction. You have to have a responsibility, in order to be held responsible.

But Galileo changed all that. The new metaphor is that momentum perpetuates itself. And we observe this to be true in a fairly broad metaphorical sense. So from the viewpoint of many modernists, from Nietzsche to Sartre, this distinction, like many others, simply does not exist. Any tiny inflection, therefore, has a real effect on the future, because the direction of the whole is permanently affected.

From a "Will to Power" perspective, if you do not act, when control is open to you, you have let an opportunity to exercise power pass, which is always a waste, unless it is the best use of your power available.

From a more basic Existentialist point of view, whenever there is an opportunity, you are in a trap: inaction simply is a form of action, and splitting hairs won't help -- you will act.

From the psychodynamic point of view embedded in Critical Theory, drives are active. Action is the default behavior -- you can tell by looking at children. So we work hard to restrain it by layering it over with fear and rules (a la Freud) or balancing out forces to make our degree of engagement and decision-making bearable (a la Lacan). Those choices to learn control and accept inaction as a default state may be unconscious. But they are still choices, and we are responsible for making them.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .