An inventor creates a life-saving drug for disease X, which has no other cure. Worldwide, death by disease X among white people has been eliminated because of his drug; however, the death rate remains at pre-drug levels among non-whites because he has contractually restricted its sale and use to white people.
For non-whites who die from disease X, is this inventor a causal factor in their death?
My friend and I have debated this.
I argue YES. The actions the inventor has taken to restrict the sale of his drug demonstrate intent with full knowledge of the consequences of the actions he has taken. I think his actions are not only causal, but in a world where this medicine is readily available everywhere, he becomes the primary cause of death.
My friend argues NO. The inventor has done nothing with respect to non-whites. There is no causal relationship. Pulling a man from a burning building saves a life, but not doing so doesn't cause a death.
Where I see actions that cause harm, my friend sees...
As you've described the case, there's something the inventor could do that would save lives. There's also a dispute about how to analyze the notion of a cause. Some would say (your friend apparently is in this camp) that absences—in the case, not doing something—can't be causes. Others disagree and provide accounts that allow absences to be causal. This is an abstract and complicated issue, but how much difference will it make to how we judge the inventor? Suppose I'm in a war zone and happen to know that there's an IED in a certain spot. I see someone running on a path that will take him over the IED and almost certainly leave him dead. Let's assume I even know who it is and know that in all relevant respects, he's an innocent. As it happens, I'm behind a barrier, but I could easily warn him. I don't. He runs over the IED and dies in the blast. Is there something I could have done that would have saved him? We've already said yes. Would it have come at any significant cost? We can stipulate for...