I'm a fan of the television show "Law & Order" and there was an interesting closing argument made by the defense lawyer in Wednesday night's episode. The scenario was this.
A very slick con man had kidnapped a six-year-old girl to blackmail her father into robbing the bank he managed. When the police tracked down this con man, the girl was no where to be found and one officer used excessive force to get the information out of him and save the girl's life.
In the summation, the defense lawyer contrasted the kind treatment the kidnapper gave the girl - giving her candy, holding her hand as he led her off, letting her pizza and watch T.V. - with the rough treatment the police officer gave him. Because one was gentle and the other violent it was supposed to make a difference in the jury's judgment of the overall acts of each man. It was a moral appeal to the jury because the judge had already allowed the evidence obtained by the police for reasons I won't go into.
The problem with his argument (from a moral perspective, not a legal one) was that he tried to divorce the actions from the intent. No matter how kind the kidnapper was to the girl, everything he did was subsumed under the intent to kidnap her, threaten her father, and rob the bank. All of his actions were morally part of that intent. Though the police officer's actions are possibly difficult to justify, still all of his actions were part of his intent to save the girl's life.
Actions don't exist in a vacuum apart from the intentions. Intentions are part of the moral nature of the act.
The reason I bring this up is because it reminded me of arguments made about active and passive euthanasia. Some ethicists argue that the difference between these two distinct kinds of acts is whether we move body parts or don't. Something is active euthanasia only if you do something to kill the patient and passive if you don't do something.
Now, in the case of the kidnapper and the police officer, I think it's pretty clear that the difference in their actions is not whether their actions were gentle or violent, but what their intentions were. The entire moral act is made up of the action and the intentions, and the intentions are often the most important factor that can change the nature of the actions. Similarly, the morally significant difference between active and passive euthanasia is not moving body parts but the intent.
When evaluating the morality of euthanasia, we don't just judge whether the person acted or didn't act; we judge their intentions, as well. So active euthanasia might involve no action at all if the intent is to allow someone die when intervention could prevent it. Not acting can be active euthanasia if the intent is to cause death.
Causing someone's death can be a result of acting or not acting when intervention was possible. It's the intention that makes the morally significant difference.