Right Question

Asking the right question is usually more productive than trying to prove the right answer.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Seductive Vice of Inaction

In honor of Paul Wolfowitz's recent nomination to head the world bank, I'd like to recall possibly his most important contribution to the national debate: considering the cost of inaction. You will still hear arguments about the Iraq War asking if the direct costs of the war (the lives of our soldiers and of Iraqis, the destruction of homes and infrastructure and the staggering monetary cost) are made worthwhile by the apparent benefits (a democratic Iraq, moves towards democracy throughout the Middle East). These arguments typically ignore the enormous toll exacted by the status quo (the cost of maintaining the "no fly" zones, the human and propaganda costs of the sanctions, the corrupting influence of Oil-for-Food kickbacks international organizations, payments to Palestinian suicide bombers, Baathist atrocities beyond counting) -- the cost of doing nothing.

I think this natural creep back towards ignoring the costs of inaction stems from the basic principle that we're responsible for the consequences of our actions, but that we get a pass when we stand aside and do nothing.

Occasionally, this principle itself is debated, as with "good Samaritan" laws, brought to national attention by the final episode of Seinfeld. But the corrupting influence of this principle, which seems to stem more from fear of blame (or legal liability?) than from any moral judgement, extends through every kind of issue.

On abortion, some find a negative responsibility not to interfere with even a fertilized egg in utero, but find no analogous positive responsibility with respect to "extra" embryos during IVF. In our prisons, we are properly outraged when a guard abuses a prisoner, but turn a blind eye to over a hundred thousand prisoners raped each year by other prisoners. We agonize over the death penalty, but see no problem when serial killers are murdered in prison in far less time than most prisoners spend on death row. Nowhere is this principle more deeply embedded than in our medical system: First, Do No Harm. We forbid assisted suicide, but permit terminal patients to refuse treatment (or have it refused on their behalf), resulting in horrible deaths and needless suffering. Letting a patient slowly drown from pneumonia or starve without a feeding tube is accepted practice, but a simple, painless injection is murder.

With power and with freedom come responsibility. The temptation to shirk that responsibility by casting our inaction as non-interference is as old as civilization -- Pilate washing his hands, the Priest and the Levite put to shame by the Good Samaritan -- but so are the moral injunctions to resist.

We seem to be approaching another national debate on euthanasia, between Million Dollar Baby and the Terri Schiavo case. Has the time come for a national discussion of the supposed virtue of doing nothing?


Post a Comment

<< Home