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Acts and omissions revisited
  1. Tony Hope
  1. Oxford University, Oxford

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    There are some ideas that at first seem simple, but which become more complex and profound the more they are explored. Great art, of course, is like that. When I first saw Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring I was excited by its fresh simplicity. I thought, however, it a painting I would soon understand. I was wrong. It becomes increasingly mysterious with increasing familiarity. It has recently inspired a novel.1

    The distinction between acts and omissions is one of these simple, complex, ideas. When I first studied philosophy I thought I would rapidly be able to decide once and for all whether the distinction is of moral importance or not. I did in fact come to a decision. The problem is that I have kept revising that decision ever since. The issues raised by the arguments over acts and omissions continue to inspire philosophical discussion. They also continue to haunt doctors and relatives at the bedsides of those near the end of their lives.

    Donna Dickenson, in this issue of the journal,2 reports the results of a survey of opinions from those taking part in an Open University course on death and dying. She believes that for many bioethicists the acts/omissions distinction has been shown to be wrong as a distinction of moral worth. Her survey suggests, however, that for many health professionals this distinction is seen as morally important. She asks whether the bioethical consensus, as she sees it, against the distinction is a result of clear thinking, or whether the views of practitioners result from their taking into account, in a way bioethicists do not, the richness of reality.

    There is I believe, less consensus amongst bioethicists than Dickenson suggests. In this issue of the journal, Marc Stauch3 argues in favour of the acts/omissions …

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    • Tony Hope is Editorial Associate of the Journal of Medical Ethics and Reader in Medicine, Oxford University, UK.

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