Omissions, Acts, and the Duty to Rescue

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



In criminal law, if the defendant omits to perform an action, he will typically not be liable unless he is under a duty to act. This chapter argues that the reason that individuals do not generally have a duty to rescue is part and parcel of a broader principle that also applies to acts. The means principle underlies the reason individuals need not act absent a duty, the constraint that their bodies and property may not be appropriated for the general good, and the permissibility of performing actions that allow others to be harmed. This principle also extends to a set of cases that look nothing like omissions: mediated harms, in which an attacker will harm a third party if and only if the defender fights back. Omissions, then, are not special, as the normative principle that underlies the duty requirement exists both when we act and when we omit.


omission, means principle, duty to rescue, doing/allowing, agent and patient claim

Publication Title

The Ethics and Law of Omissions

Publication Citation

In The Ethics and Law of Omissions (Dana Kay Nelkin & Samuel C. Rickless eds., Oxford 2017)

Full text not available in Penn Law Legal Scholarship Repository.