Acts, omissions, intentions and motives: a philosophical examination of the moral distinction between killing and letting die

J Adv Nurs. 1998 Oct;28(4):865-73. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.1998.00700.x.


Health care professionals frequently justify moral decisions by appealing to the acts and omissions distinction and the principle of double effect. These principles are often quoted and criticised in the nursing literature, particularly in relation to active and passive euthanasia. Authors are, however, inclined to acknowledge the fact that they are a philosophical minefield, but fall short of providing a substantial critical analysis. Those who uphold the acts and omissions distinction claim that we are morally less responsible for our omissions than for our acts. The principle of double effect suggests that there is a moral distinction between direct and indirect intention and that we are morally less responsible for that which we intend indirectly. This article offers an examination of these often quoted, but sometimes little understood, principles and it is hoped that it will serve as a basis for debate. Since the intention is to challenge assumptions which can lull us into believing that our moral decisions can be justified by appealing to principles such as these, it is necessary to examine them critically and to go beyond a superficial grasp of the implications of such distinctions. There is a tendency to appeal to the acts and omissions doctrine and the principle of double effect in life and death situations such as euthanasia, infanticide and abortion, but are they valuable tools which should be used in moral decision making, or are they so flawed that they can seriously mislead us when it comes to hard cases? The conclusion reached in this paper is that there is no significant moral difference between an act and an omission, particularly within the context of killing and letting die, and that the principle of double effect encourages hypocrisy rather than honesty.

MeSH terms

  • Double Effect Principle*
  • Ethics*
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Ethics, Nursing*
  • Euthanasia, Active*
  • Euthanasia, Active, Voluntary
  • Euthanasia, Passive*
  • Humans
  • Intention*
  • Motivation
  • Northern Ireland
  • Right to Die*
  • Suicide, Assisted*
  • Withholding Treatment