Allowing bad outcomes is a teaching tool

My video log this morning made me think about the moral difference between doing harm and allowing harm. When I was young, I knew this parent of another kid. She was always very prudish and restrictive. She felt good about herself when she prevented things she saw as bad.

I think her intuition came more from the act of intervention then the consequences that she prevented. It’s sort of like the doing versus allowing harm puzzle in moral philosophy.

The question came up in that show Breaking Bad. The main character thinks about killing someone, but can’t bring himself to do it (it’s only the second season or so). But when he sees her overdosing, he refrains from saving her. She’s a problem for him, and by overdosing she has solved that problem. He could have saved her. He chose not to. Is he as morally culpable as if he murdered her?

Let’s change the scenario. If you see someone about to do something unhealthy, and you choose not to intervene, are you then responsible for their ill health? Does this intuition change if you are the parent of a child and thus the outcome is more your responsibility?

I think that this moral intuition drives some parents to make bad choices. I am sure that it feels very good to intervene and prevent an unhealthy outcome. I’m sure it feels very bad to choose not to act and thereby allow a negative outcome. But that feeling is not a good principle upon which to make decisions.

Clearly, when death is on the line, intervention is required. But some short-term negative consequences that naturally result from a kid’s actions are really important for a kid to experience.

I don’t have kids but I do have students. Learning from failure is important in teaching. Especially in the lab. I can’t let someone injure themselves if I can prevent it, but I can let someone screw up an experiment. That’s a learning experience.