For centuries morality has distinguished between human agency and inaction. From initiating a conflict to ignoring one and starting a fire to failing to rescue someone from the flames, we often punish those who act over those who don't. But many now argue this approach is mistaken. When 2-year-old Wang Yue was run over twice, the world was outraged by the 18 passers-by who turned a blind eye. Yet in practice, the same outrage wasn't shown when we failed to save any of the 5.4 million children under 5 who died last year from preventable causes.
Is our emphasis on human agency over inaction a fantasy to justify our moral negligence? Would emphasising the failure to act mark a shift to a radically communitarian society where the needs of the many would be seen as more important than those of the individual? Or are these categories of agency and inaction both defensible and necessary for a free civilisation?
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