Journal of Value Inquiry 20 (1):3-17 (1986)

We can see from the analysis set out here that the two accounts that were the focus of consideration are complementary to one another. It has been my contention that a problem like specifying a concept such as ‘refrain’ is highly complex. One part of it is the problem of determining the relation between the action (or event) and the result. Another part of the problem is that of describing the event itself; what kind of an event is it? These two projects are related and so it is clear that the results must be consistent. However, it is equally clear that the definition which is useful for one project is not the same as that which is helpful for another. The point is that it should not be assumed that an account that initially looks incompatible with one's own must be refuted. It is sometimes better to consider what is needed for a complete account, and whether many different approaches may contribute pieces to the puzzle.We have here one puzzle piece: an analysis of refraining. It should not be assumed that we have thereby completed the puzzle of omission, but omission can be approached the same way; that is, by coordinating parallel projects.Accordingly, the first benefit of the present analysis is that it sets up an approach which is modular in nature. It allows for parallel projects to be pursued separately and coordinated. This kind of approach is sorely needed in this area to counter unproductive dispute.To see how such an approach can be applied to further problems profitably consider the following persistent controversy. Many philosophers are at odds over the importance of the notion of duty, or more informally, reasonable expectation in the understanding of refraining. A number of them (e.g., Hart and Honore, John Casey, and Phillipa Foot) hold that the determining feature for the ascription of responsibility to an agent for not doing something to prevent a harm (say, a death) is the presence of a duty or reasonable expectation that the agent do something about the situation. For example, John Casey holds, “If a man does not do x, we cannot properly say that his not doing x is the cause of some result y, unless in the normal course of events he could have been expected to do x.” Casey, Actions and Consequences (1978).Other philosophers object that a person can cause a result by refraining from (causally) preventing it, and that such an event can be explained without any reference to duty. These two views appear to conflict, but in fact they are both right (but both incomplete). The reason that the above statements are generally thought to constitute a disagreement is that ‘refrain’ is generally taken as the fundamental term of analysis for omissions. Thus, if Casey says, “If a man does not do x...” he is taken to mean “...if a man refrains from doing x...” But he need not mean that. He may mean to say only that the man failed to do x. See my analysis in “Contemplating Failure,” supra note 10. Failing to do something can be, and ordinarily is, thought of as stronger than simple nonaction. But it is much weaker than refraining. For one thing, it has no awareness requirement. Thus, an account like Casey's can explain the ascription of responsibility and the presence of an omission where Green's account (or the account offered here) cannot, and vice versa. Casey's view can explain why we hold (or at least that we hold) responsible the night watchman who forgets to check one of the windows, the bookkeeper who (accidentally) omits an entry in the accounts, or the private duty nurse who fails to prevent a death by falling asleep on the job. No refraining is present in any of these cases. Consequently, any thesis based on refraining alone cannot explain them. But in many cases refraining is precisely what is important, and Green (and others of the same persuasion) are correct to point out that no reference to duty is necessarily required to account for these cases. Analysis based on refraining best explains intentional or conscious omission. Analysis based on duty or reasonable expectation is the only way to explain unconscious omission. More often than not, both elements are present. A complete account of omission needs both. So here again, the better way to view these putatively competing accounts is as parallel projects which work toward a common, but complex end. The approach taken here allows for this kind of much needed coordination. The second benefit of the present analysis is that it clarifies and focuses on the significance of the mental element of refraining. Refraining is conscious omission. Consciousness and omission are its distinguishing features. The effects of seeing the concept this way are pervasive. Here is one example. If I refrain from reporting my full income to the IRS, I have committed fraud, and punitive or even criminal sanctions may be reasonable. If I fail to report my full income through ignorance or mistake (say, I misunderstood the instructions) correcting the error and requiring payment is reasonable, but certainly criminal sanction is not. This oversimplifies the distinction, but it illustrates the focus of my pursuit.With regard to positive actions, law and philosophy have long recognized this important distinction as manifested in the difference between negligence and intentional tort, or manslaughter and murder. Due (I think) to the extraordinary flexibility of language and the weakness and variability of social conventions regarding omissions, this distinction has not been clearly articulated. I think such an analysis is worth pursuing. The present account is one step in that pursuit
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References found in this work BETA

Refraining.Robert E. Moore - 1979 - Philosophical Studies 36 (4):407 - 424.
Killing and Letting Die.O. H. Green - 1980 - American Philosophical Quarterly 17 (3):195 - 204.
Omitting, Refraining and Letting Happen.Douglas N. Walton - 1980 - American Philosophical Quarterly 17 (4):319 - 326.

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Citations of this work BETA

The Varieties of Agnosticism.Filippo Ferrari & Luca Incurvati - 2022 - Philosophical Quarterly 72 (2):365-380.
What is an Omission?Randolph Clarke - 2012 - Philosophical Issues 22 (1):127-143.
Disagreement and Suspended Judgement.Filippo Ferrari - 2022 - Metaphilosophy 53 (4):526-542.

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