Action vs Inaction – Are they Morally Equivalent?

Today I read about a hypothetical scenario that I’m struggling with, and not exactly sure yet how I feel about it.

Hypothetical scenario 1: A person is tied to a train track and a train is going to run the person over. There is a switch that controls the train. If you flip the switch, the train will stop. If you don’t, the person will die.

Hypothetical Scenario 2: Same situation as above, but in this case, the switch is off and the train isn’t moving. If you flip the switch on, the train will start to move and kill the person on the track.

Is not flipping the switch in #1 just as morally wrong as flipping the switch in #2?

I would say that you are morally obligated to not harm / let the person be harmed in both scenarios. Yet I initially struggled with the idea of moral equivalency for this situation. Could action to hurt ever be equally bad as inaction against harm?

In case #2, if we flip the switch, then we essentially desire the person to die. In case #1, if we choose to not stop flip the switch and stop the train, this does not necessitate that we desired the person to die – it could also mean that we did not feel a moral obligation to save the person’s life (but in that case, we don’t share the same moral values), or that even if we did, we chose not to act on it. So initially, it felt as if flipping the switch in #2 was worse if we took complete intentions into account.

However, if we are just looking at just morality, I guess one could argue that it is morally correct to act on your moral obligations. Therefore, in #2, we are morally obligated not to kill, and in #1, we are morally obligated to prevent death – in that respect, you could argue both action (#2) and inaction (#1) are morally equivalent and equally wrong.

Yet legally, there is a clear distinction between how we would treat an individual in those circumstances – in general, you can’t really be charged with a crime for inaction for such situations (but if you have any interesting spots where you can, let me know). For instance, if this exact situation was presented in court, I would think you could only jail the person who flipped the switch in #2.

A bigger question, however, emerges if we extrapolate inaction into a larger sense. Right now some people in third world countries are dying of hunger, disease, etc. Am I committing an immoral act by sitting here and typing this at my computer instead of directly contributing to improving their lives?

Now that might sound ridiculous at first, but that’s probably because humans tend to feel stronger about immediate events and results – such as actually being at the train tracks with the switch and a person about to die. Besides not being able to visualize it in real time, how is my inaction right now any different from not acting to help?

However, the idea that anytime I am watching a movie is immoral seems pretty ridiculous to me. The question we must then ask is: Are we actually morally obligated to do anything? If so, how can we act on our moral obligations in some cases but not others?

I am definitely not an expert or anything on moral theory – these are ideas I struggle with, and I’d be interested in hearing different opinions, insights, and perspectives on these issues.

What do you think?
  • John Terpack

    There is a flawed premise in the original post; the ability to do something does not create the moral obligation to do something. Just because you can press a button and save the person from being run over does not mean you are required to do so. Inaction NEVER equates to action simply because actions may have unintended consequences. In the train example, what happens if you stop the train? Maybe the train is delivering life-saving medicine to a remote village and will now arrive too late because you stopped the train to save one life. Alternately, maybe the person was tied to the tracks for a reason. Maybe they are a homicidal maniac and the locals prefer execution by train. Unless you are omniscient, taking action always carries the risk of being morally wrong. Inaction, on the other hand, can never be immoral even though many try to make it seem so.

    The bottom line is that inaction is not the moral equivalent of action.

    • medhopeful

      Thanks for your thoughts. I wouldn’t agree with your premise though. The ability to do something is fundamentally related to moral obligations. It’s not possible to have a moral obligation otherwise.