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Positing a difference between acts and omissions: the principle of justice, Rachels’ cases and moral weakness
  1. R Mohindra
  1. R Mohindra, 63 Newlands Road, High West Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 3NT, UK; raj.mohindra1{at}


The difficulty in discovering a difference between killing and letting die has led many philosophers to deny the distinction. This paper seeks to develop an argument defending the distinction between killing and letting die. In relation to Rachels’ cases, the argument is that (a) even accepting that Smith and Jones may select equally heinous options from the choices they have available to them, (b) the fact that the choices available to them are different is morally relevant, and (c) this difference in available choices can be used to distinguish between the agents in certain circumstances. It is the principle of justice, as espoused by Aristotle, which requires that equal things are treated equally and that unequal things are treated unequally that creates a presumption that Smith and Jones should be treated differently. The magnitude of this difference can be amplified by other premises, making the distinction morally relevant in practical reality.

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  • Competing interests: None.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • i For the purposes of this paper these are considered to encompass discrete factual states that hold a single moral valuation. If, within a single outcome state, there are different morally valued aspects we enter a different realm which includes the doctrine of double effect etc.

  • ii In passing consider case where: A sends money to a starving population and thereby saves a life; B sends a poisoned parcel and thereby causes a death (see eg, Hope18). The relationship between these two cases is of complementary chirality not identity. Note how the sending of money is the choice between Act1 and OM2 (compare Jones), while the sending of poison is the choice between Act2 and OM1 (compare Smith). The surrounding circumstances amplify the difference between the cases.

  • iii For provoking this counterargument I am grateful to the views of two unnamed reviewers of a previous draft of this paper.

  • iv For example, we could make the difference between the respective choices offered to Smith and to Jones greater. However taking this approach would be to restate Rachels’ cases rather than to address them directly.

  • v By “moral frameworks” I mean: the value set of the agent; and the set of principles they use to connect the selections they make from the choices available to them to their value set.

  • vi “it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than one innocent suffer”23; Article 6, Human Rights Act 1998.24

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