It became clear that subjects felt more uncomfortable making decisions about who should die than about who should live; in one group of subjects, the majority refused to express any opinions at all about the relative wrongness of killing an older person instead of a younger person. But on questions about assistance, such as who should receive a life-saving medicine, participants were more discriminating. And they offered the most preferential treatment to people who were about ten years old.
In other words, when it comes to avoiding harm, we try to treat everyone equally, but when it comes to saving lives, age plays an important role. The authors suggest that we treat assistance differently from harm avoidance in part because help is often a limited resource.
via The New Yorker.
Our current culture has a tendency to confuse issues of positive/negative, active/passive.
The two are not the same – and the distinction is ethically significant.
I think it might even be the case that the line between not giving someone resources or priority vs. actively harming them might be the line where dehumanization occurs. Is it possible to harm another human being without first dehumanizing that person?
We can dehumanize formally (“due process”) or informally (absence of due process – a process that is sometimes called scapegoating or “lynch mob mentality” at its extremes). But we have to take away their status before we can harm them. We do not have to take away their status in order to simply not give them something.