Omission Bias

Imagine we have two sleeping people. One is dying and needs medicine. The other is healthy. The first dies because a person nearby who is capable of giving her a life-saving drug does not do so. The other dies because another person injects them with poison. Which is more in the wrong, the one who failed to give the medicine, or the one who injected the poison?

Even if, intellectually, you feel both are equally at fault, you very probably have a nagging gut feeling that the injector did something worse than the abstainer.

This is the "omission bias," which is the tendency to consider harmful actions as worse than equally harmful inactions. It's debatable, morally, whether this is a bad bias or not. That is, some think it should not be considered a bias at all.

I want to talk about it in terms of governmental drug approval. Kurzweil suggested in his The Singularity Is Near that people are loathe to approve drugs that might kill you. The way he sees it, (and I'm sympathetic to this view) is that people think that giving someone a drug that will kill 20% and save 80% of terminally ill people should not be put on the market. I see this as omission bias at work. People think that letting people die because they did not get a drug is better than killing someone by giving them a drug.

Accepting the omission bias as a bias to be overcome, however, has some disturbing ethical results. Is there anyone on Earth that has ever died because of your inaction? Let me rephrase that: are there any actions you could have taken in the past that would have saved anyone at all? People who could not afford medicine? Is there anything you can do now that would save the life of anyone in the future? If so, and you believe that omission bias is actually an illegitimate bias, then you're as guilty as a murderer.

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The way you set up the problem at the end seems to confuse two different things: (1) The difference (if any) between action and inaction, and (2) our possible moral obligations to far-away strangers. Imagine a different example. A toddler with a fatal peanut allergy is reaching for a peanut butter cookie. Surely doing nothing and failing to stop him counts as a grave moral wrong. Do we really have the same obligation to any toddler, anywhere in the world, whose lives we may be able to save through our charity? Perhaps we do, but this would need to be argued.

But I agree with the wider point you're making. We would all do well to think about the consequences, not only of our actions, but also of our inaction.
Jim Davies said…

I suppose I am confusing the two issues. I've been thinking about the idea of agapeism lately, which I take to be the ethical philosophy that all people should be given the same amount of care. To me, thinking about this, and the omission bias, has made me question whether or not it is ethically justified to pay a lot of money, say, to save a loved one's life when the same money could save many other people's lives. People you don't care about.
One of the most important ethical principles is "Ought implies can." If you claim that one ought to care for all people equally, this implies that such an attitude is psychologically possible. I wonder if it is. I also worry that caring about everyone equally means, in the end, caring about no one in particular. Close, caring relationships and friendships are such an important part of a good life that I would reject any ethical system that doesn't allow them a place.
Beautifully articulated, Jeanette. The psychological strain on "doing unto others as you would have done unto you" as well as "caring for all people equally" are both daunting and draining, but also risk things like ethnocentrism/egocentrism and "caring about no one in particular".

I think an oversimplified interpretation of agapeism overlooks the complex needs of each person. We already have policies that attempt to cookie-cutter unique circumstances that place people in need of help at a disadvantage. In addition, sometimes people need to help themselves; we have certainly seen a trend of rejection in the discourse about international aid, for example, in favour of local grassroots solutions.

Agapeism has only been discussed in terms of a one-way relationship, but needs can and should be differentiated on some scale, or else we risk treating the whole world like toddlers.
Anonymous said…
Jeanette, I think a main issue is: had you known that the toddler had a fatal peanut allergy, and GAVE them a peanut butter cookie, this might be even more stimulating, both at the psychological and neural level, then had you failed to stop the toddler from reaching for the peanut butter cookie himself. For some reason we intuitively feel one as beign worse than the other - what are the mechanisms for such a distinction? Are they learned though socialization? Are they an innate part of our neural architecture? How can we overcome them?

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