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On acts, omissions and responsibility
  1. John Coggon
  1. University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
  1. Dr J Coggon, Centre for Social Ethics and Policy and Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, School of Law, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK; John.Coggon{at}

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This paper questions the relevance of distinguishing acts and omissions in moral argument. It responds to an article by McLachlan, published in this issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics (see page 636).1 I argue that McLachlan fails to establish that there is a moral difference between active and passive euthanasia and that he instead merely asserts that the difference exists. I suggest that McLachlan’s paper relies on a false commitment to general rules that do not apply in every case. Furthermore, I question the lack of a moral framework provided in his argument. Finally, I briefly argue why some omissions may well be considered equivalent to some actions. I conclude that until McLachlan (or other commentators) demonstrates that it would be wrong, we should focus on agency and responsibility, rather than seek to derive normative conclusions from contrasts between active and passive causes.

In bioethical debates relating to euthanasia and associated end-of-life issues, commentators dispute the relevance of distinctions between so-called active and passive euthanasia. As a general means of assisting analysts in their studies of different practices, a taxonomy that distinguishes active and passive euthanasia can be useful, principally as we can not usefully argue about these matters unless we are clear about what our arguments touch upon.2 Although it seems to have become received wisdom from ethicists of quite conflicting views that moral propriety can not hang merely on whether a situation obtains because of (inter alia) an agent’s action or inaction, there continue to be defences of the act/omission distinction.3 4 In his paper,1 McLachlan has attempted to add support to those who argue that the distinction between active and passive euthanasia is a moral one. Here I respond to McLachlan’s paper, arguing that in it he fails to do more …

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  • Competing interests: None.

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