Indifference to Suffering

Thoughts on Warren S. Quinn’s “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Double Effect”

Today I’m writing a paper on moral philosophy. But instead of thinking about the formulaic essay-question I’ve been given, I find myself enjoying going down thought-paths that don’t address the assigned issues, but do seem, to me, to provide more interesting insights into morality. So to improve my already strong procrastination skills, I thought I’d write this down and offer it to you for your feedback. This is more of an initial response to the reading, so I’ve not yet spent any time arguing with myself to find the flaws in my conclusion, but I’m intrigued as to where this idea might lead, and I hope that after I finish my actual assignment, I’ll find time to come back to this, to explore it further.

In their quibbles about why we are more outraged by actions that result in intended harm to others…


  • giving medicine to half the sick people in order to study the progression of the disease in the sicker, untreated group
  • bombing a market to kill civilians in order to demoralize an enemy population),

as opposed to actions that result in harm that is foreseen but not intended


  • only having enough medicine to treat half the sick people and deciding to give the medicine to the least sick who have a better chance of survival
  • bombing an enemy’s arms-factory on a weekend so it’ll be mostly empty, but knowing there are civilian security guards and people walking nearby who will also die as a result of the bombing)

philosophers debate the merits of a Kantian approach that alludes to our inner divine spark of moral sense, or they argue about such intuitions being largely irrelevant if the outcomes are the same. But what seems to be missing, I believe, is this truth:

We are morally outraged by indifference to (human) suffering more so than to acts that bring (human) suffering about.

It’s the indifference to suffering that matters most, not the actual suffering, because we understand and accept that suffering is an inevitable part of life, but we don’t accept a world in which indifference to our suffering is inevitable.


We don’t wish to live in world of psychopaths.

This ties in to AI, and the inability of reason to lead us to what a more Kantian approach provides.. but maybe we don’t need to hypothesize about the existence of an inner morality (since fewer and fewer people exhibit any evidence of it, it seems today).  We simply need to understand this startling truth: indifference to suffering is a greater *societal* sin than an individual causing suffering.

But I’m growing more and more frustrated by the insistence of philosophers on the requirement that moral guidelines (whether these are decision procedures, that help us to reliably make the best moral decisions, or standards of rightness that allow us to identify the conditions that make actions morally right, that we may evaluate them) be equally valid for both personal/individual and societal morality.

This is an underlying assumption that I believe ought to be challenged and reconsidered.

On the individual level, causing suffering is a greater act of immorality than simple indifference to suffering. We judge a sadistic torturer more harshly than a passer-by who fails to try to rescue the torturer’s victim.

But on a societal level, are we more outraged by the indifference of the wealthy 1% who hoard the wealth that comes from the productivity of a nation’s citizens, indifferent to the suffering of a young man who suffers extreme pain from a treatable medical condition because he is too poor to get treatment despite working 40 hours/week, part-time at McDonalds, part-time at Walmart, than we are by the sadistic drug dealer who beats his rival bloody, for a better corner.

Eeeep! It’s nearly 6pm! I have to get back to my essay now.  Sigh…

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Why you agree or disagree, what exceptions prove the rule or dismantle it. Please comment down below! 😀

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