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July 08, 2002

Sins of Omission/Sins of Commission

Leo comments that "But the sins of a Bush, a Blair, a Schroeder and a Mbeki with respect to AIDS are sins of omission, not sins of commission... The deliberate taking of innocent human life on a mass scale is an evil of a different order, and the two should not be treated as comparable."

Good Samaritan Morality- a first response is that a person refusing to throw a life preserver to a drowning person is a moral degenerate of the highest order. Omission of action is often as deeply evil as deliberate action.

And moving from personal to political responsibility, almost all great crimes involve mostly sins of omission by those we hold responsible. Unless we want to attribute all the mass murders of the world to a few people giving the orders and the actual hangmen, the shock of the Holocaust is that so many Germans looked the other way as it happened and failed to do anything to prevent it. "All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing." In the political world, the insane and murderous of the world are rather uninteresting-- it is the response of those who politically stop them or step aside to let them do evil that is the ultimate moral determinate of success. Was Hitler more evil than Bush? Sure. But are Americans sitting by watching mass death in Africa more morally culpable than Germans who allowed the Nazis to triumph? Probably more so, since it is so easy for us to act to prevent evil.

Should we also remove the Soviet deaths from the list, since refusing to send food to the Ukraine and other dissident areas in need can be considered a "sin of omission." And global capitalism is a system that distributes food and medicine in a particular way, refusing it to those without money-- how is that any less an induced starvation than what the Soviets imposed/allowed?

And finally, there are many sins of commission by the West in regards to Africa, from IMF restructuring programs imposed on countries to WTO rules that used IP laws to restrict the availability of needed drugs. And while the tangle is complicated, the long legacy of colonialism on the continent was hardly an act of "omission." One major genocide of the last century that did not make TruthLaidBear's graph was the colonial Belgian genocide in the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th century, where an estimated 10 million people lost their lives, half the population. And the direct ravaging of Africa has continued through proxy wars and exploitation. The line between omission and commission can look awfully thin.

Posted by Nathan at July 8, 2002 01:27 PM

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Sins of omission and sins of comission are both sins, but there are good reasons why a distinction is drawn between the two. Sins of omission are a deliberate act of the will, a conscious decision to commit a wrong; sins of omission are much more murky, and usually involve significant elements of denial, ignorance, and self-selected comfortability -- a foreshortening of one's moral vision so as to see a fairly narrow range of personal responsibility when it comes to moral action. A person can easily convince himself, with only a minimum of bad faith, that he has done no wrong in many a sin of omission; he can not do so in a sin of comission.

It is not difficult to point out the complicity with evil in sins of omission, or to summon forth Edmund Burke to denounce those who do nothing in the face of such evil. But is that all we should demand from our moral reasoning? That sins of omission are wrong does not eliminate the fact that there is a meaningful difference between the two -- between the German who operated the death camps and the German who stood by and did nothing in the face of the death camps. The in/action of both should be condemned, but we should not pretend, in so doing, that they are evil of the same kind and degree.

I know I betray my Catholic upbringing with my insistence upon knowing intention and deliberate willful action to do wrong as the significantly greater evil, but I think there is something to it, just as there is to the Catholic emphasis on redemption by good deeds, as opposed to the Protestant emphasis on faith. A German who witnessed the death camps did not have such a clear way to end its functioning at his disposal, and certainly not a way which would cause no risk to himself and his loved ones. His choices of moral action were quite limited, and I do not think that we can demand of every person a Bonhoeffer willingness to surrender his own life in a Quixotic attempt to bring evil to an end.

In this respect, the classic example Nathan offers as a sin of omission -- the refusal to cast a life saver to a drowning man -- really has more in common with a sin of comission than omission, since it involves a situation where one can take a clear action to save a life, at no cost to oneself. In most cases of a sin of omission, the choices are not that clear. If we put the question "What have we done personally to confront the pandemic of AIDS in Africa?" to ourselves, as we should with all such moral questions, do we have an adequate answer? I have to admit that the best I can muster is my support, financial and moral/political, for the efforts of my union, the American Federation of Teachers, to work with African teachers' unions to mount campaigns of education. And I do not have a much better answer for what I could do.

Yes, the Bushes, Blairs, Schroeders and Mbekis have more choices that would impact positively on this situation than we do, but they, too, do not act without limits on their effectivity. That they could do significantly more, I would not dispute. That they should be condemned for their failure to do more, I would agree. But they could do a great deal, and still have only a minimal impact on the progress of the AIDS pandemic. And reasonable people can have reasonable differences about what are the best ways to combat AIDS. The situation is just much less stark and more ambiguous than climbing into the pilot's seat of a 747 and send it into a building which houses thousands of people, hoping to slaughter every last one of them. That is a difference, I would suggest, that is obvious in the moral compass of ordinary men and women, and we ignore it at peril to how they view our morality.

Leo Casey

Posted by: Leo Casey at July 8, 2002 08:43 PM

But America collectively is in the position of the person with the life preserver. We are rich and sending the drugs and aid to signficantly impact this devastation is about as minimal for us as any thing.

As for the WTC bombers, the individuals involved are not the point. We launched a war against the Taliban and its supporters who were in a much more defuse relationship of responsibility. We considered their sin of omission- failing to hand Bin Laden over to us - to be a sin of commission that deserved death.

My point is that in the political sphere, we hold all sorts of people responsible for such omissions (which I don't necessarily disagree with) but exempt ourselves as society quite often from the same standard.

Posted by: Nathan at July 9, 2002 12:17 AM

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