James Rachel's Criticism Of The Drowning Cousin

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James Rachel's example of the "drowning cousin" is a well-known case. With his story, he presents two examples, all conditions equal but for one, which is supposed to reveal that causing harm is no worse than allowing it to happen. This illustration has been the subject of various comments. I will start with my own criticism of it to develp a theory that, amusingly enough, reaches the same conclusions. The main issue with Rachel's case relates to the relevance of such an example. I find two main mistakes in his idea: the first is the assumption that morally judging an act must be done independently of several factors. In this case, it is believed that intention and the possibility of saving the child don't have any importance. Here it is…show more content…
During the second world-war, many citizens let the genocide happen because they made the conscious choice of protecting their families rather than risking these lives to save others. Their intention can hardly be considered as bad. Does this mean that we shouldn't admit there is harm as long as the intentions are good? I believe that stating a difference between acting and not acting is a way of fleeing from our responsibility. This is why I will develop the idea that it is the harm done we need to evaluate. This relates to the second mistake I find in Rachel's case: He takes the definition of harm for granted. This is a purely moral debate, and, as moderns, we have to agree on the possibility of reaching different conclusions. Still, several things should be asserted before we decide on anything else. First, that when we act it is silly to believe that morals don't play a part ex-ante. This is because, independently of whether you believe moral truth is transcendent or simply an historical construct, it is always present in our minds and defines the way we consider an issue. So judging harm can sometimes be done in relation to pre-existing ethical considerations. In the case of collaboration, it is obvious that violence at such a level was historically new. However this does not imply that letting a whole part of the population get killed was okay by any standard. The second point is that, contrary to action/inaction, which is always the result of an individual decision, our reflection on morals can be done collectively and with time. More precisely, I will argue that to construct a moral view that allows us to answer the new, difficult cases imposed by real life, we need to open the definition of harm for debate. In this sense, I believe that we should get away from the kantian idea that morals more or less ressamble a list of "do nots". But, as Weber would put it, we should use the combination of two kinds of
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