I have several criticisms of James Rachels thought experiment on the moral identity of killing and letting die in his article “Active and Passive Euthanasia”. To summarise the thought experiement, two men desire the death of their respective six-year-old nephews in order to gain an inheritence. They know their nephews are bathing, so they intend to go into the bathroom and drown them. The first man enters the bathroom and drowns his nephew. The second man enters the bathroom and notices that his nephew is drowning already from hitting his head, so he stands and watches. The intuition this is intended to evoke is that these acts are morally equivalent, and that there is therefore no difference between killing and letting die.

There are several criticisms:

1) Cute kid – May we please have a moratorium on cute, little drowning kids in thought experiments? In order for a thought experiment, it needs to evoke our moral intuitions, not an emotional reaction. The problem with cute kids in thought experiments is that they evoke our parental instincts, not necessarily our moral ones, and it is difficult to tell them apart.

2) False Generalization – At best, this experiment shows that in this instance, we have the intuition that killing and letting die are morally equivalent. However, one cannot move from a single case to a general principle, especially one as broad as “there is no moral difference between killing and letting die”. For instance, many people have the intuition that active and passive euthanasia are morally different. Why should the bathtub case trump that intuition, rather than vice versa? In fact, thought experiments that help create distinctions are better than those that blur them. They help clarify things that might be murky in other thought experiments.

3) Introspective Difficulty – When simply mining for moral intuitions, it is difficult enough to say something is wrong, and if it is wrong, whether it is impermissible or merely criticisable. No one would deny that either drowning or watching a child drown are morally bad, but the degree of moral badness is trickier. More spefically, that our intuition would be that these two actions are precisely identically bad is beyond intuitive reach. Moral intuitions are not that precise; they are the clay out of which moral arguments are made, but on their own, they are unmoulded.

4) Judging the Action or Agent? – It is unclear whether the action or the agent are being judged in these two cases. Certainly, we react in horror at the thought of people intending to drown their nephews and then either doing so or standing back and watching them drown. However, the thought experiment is constructed in such a way that it is unclear whether we are being asked to judge the agents or their actions. Yes, both these men are equally despicable characters (which doesn’t contradict my last point, since Rachels goes out of his way to say that they are utterly alike except for this one action). However, their actions may not be equally despicable.

5) Killing Snuck into Intention – Finally, and fatally, Rachels sneaks the intention to actively drown his nephew into the mind of the uncle who watches his nephew die. This destroys Rachels’ thought experiment utterly. If Rachels wants to claim that there is no difference between killing and letting die, then he should include this in the character’s intentions, too. However, in order to make their actions appear equal, Rachels sneaks the intention of actively drowning into the mind of both uncles, which makes us think of both of them as active murders. In order for the thought experiment to be fair, one of the uncles would need to intend to drown the nephew, and succeed, and the other would need to intend not to help his dying nephew, and then get lucky. Once this is the comparison, the equality of their actions is not so clear. ( By David )