Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Doctrine of Double Effect

Recently, the doctrine of double effect has been mentioned in the context of discussing the morality of contraception.

I want to take a few posts to discuss the doctrine and its applicability in Catholic ethics. In this post I will simply try to explain the doctrine.

What is the doctrine of double effect?

The doctrine states that one may if certain other conditions are met, perform an action where certain intrinsically bad results are foreseen but not intended. These conditions are:
  1. The results intended must be good or at least neutral.
  2. The action itself cannot be intrinsically bad.
  3. The bad results foreseen must not be a necessary means to achieve the intended results.
  4. The good results must sufficiently outweigh the bad results.
  5. There are no practicable alternatives that have fewer bad results.
  6. There must be due diligence in minimizing the bad results.
The necessary means condition is in a sense a way to prohibit cheating regarding intentions. Consider this claim:
When I robbed the bank and fatally shot the bank guard, my intention was not to kill the guard, but to fund an Hawaiian vacation. Thus, the guard's death, while unfortunate was merely foreseen (or at least foreseen when I pulled the trigger) but not intended.
It is the means condition that prohibits this sort of sophistry. I had to, or at least I thought I had to given the circumstances, shoot the guard to carry out my greater intention (otherwise the guard would have shot me or arrested me, etc). Thus, in an important sense, his death (or at least his incapacitation carrying with it a high chance of death) was indeed intended by me, whatever I might say after the fact.     

It will be useful to look at two examples from war, one general or hypothetical, the other unfortunately real:

Suppose one is fighting a just war. Many thousands have died in this war, including both soldiers and civilians. If the war continues, many more thousands will die. However, imagine that there is the opportunity to conduct a military operation that will end the war: If a certain set of bridges in enemy territory is bombed, the enemy will realize the situation is hopeless and thus surrender. Assume, however, that despite taking the greatest precautions, it is highly likely that some civilians will die in the bombing operation. Is it morally permissible to bomb the bridges?

We can go down the list:
  1. The intention is to end the war--a good result.
  2. While destroying bridges is often a bad thing, it is not an intrinsically bad thing.
  3. The bad results foreseen--the probable deaths of some civilians--is not a necessary means to achieve the end. If, by some happy circumstance, no civilians are killed, the end will still be accomplished.
  4. By assumption, the number of lives--military and civilian--that will be saved by ending the war, are much greater than the number of lives that will probably be lost in the bombing action.
  5. There is no other military operation that will end the war quickly.
  6. Everything possible has been done--by properly instructing the flyers to bomb only a small area, operating at night so there will be fewer civilians nearby, etc.--to minimize civilian casualties.
Given these answers, double effect would say the act is permissible.

Contrast this with a case taken from history--the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Some of the answers to the above conditions will be similar. Assume the intention is to end the war, not to take revenge on the Japanese or send a message to the Russians, etc. Assume also, that even though thousands will die in the bombing, many more thousands, perhaps even many millions will die if the war continues. No other significantly different alternative exists to end the war. Assume that the Japanese leadership is sufficiently cynical or hardened that exploding the bomb over the ocean or in an uninhabited area would have no effect or might even be interpreted as cowardice.

The key difference, though, is with condition 3 (and also therefore 6). Many thousands will die in the bombing. Are their deaths not a necessary means to achieve the intended result--ending the war? I think the answer is No. Their deaths are in fact the necessary means by which the end is accomplished. The reason the enemy will surrender is his horror at those deaths, and by extension his horror that more deaths will occur as a result of more atom bombs being used.

Thus, condition 3 is violated. Double effect says the Nagasaki bombing was not permissible.

Further thoughts:

It might be argued that the deaths of those at Nagasaki were, as in the first example, simply unavoidable casualties. Thus, their deaths were not a means for the result to be achieved. The inhabitants of Nagasaki were simply and tragically (so continues the argument) like those who lived near those bridges, caught in the middle, so to speak. While this is not really very credible, there is no doubt that some of the participants in the actual bombing looked at things in this manner. The city was "strategic," war materiel was produced there, it was a port and rail hub, etc. The means used to convince the enemy to surrender included the destruction of a city, not the killing of civilians (or so some of the participants may have convinced themselves). But of course this description is belied by a number of facts including the assumption that exploding the bomb simply as a demonstration, would not have worked. While one might claim that the goal was simply to destroy buildings or whatever, it's pretty clear that this would be false claim. 

The immorality of terror bombing is not based on numbers. Let's assume 50,000 souls perished at Nagasaki. That's not what made it wrong per se. Imagine an alternative scenario where the only way to end the war and thus save millions, would be to (somehow) sneak into the palace and kill the Emperor's young son. Assume that only this will be enough to make the Emperor see reason, etc. Killing the son would still be wrong.

We may not kill even one innocent person to save millions of persons.

It is here that we see that double effect is not a tricky license to do more, but a constraint limiting us to do less. War examples help us see this. Once one is involved in a war, any action or inaction will almost certainly result in the deaths of many, including civilians. If we advance, some will die. If we retreat, some will die. If we do nothing, some will die. Recalling the plane sent to bomb Nagasaki will spare the lives of some of its inhabitants, but it will also result in thousands or even millions of others dying due to the continuance of the war. Looking at it this way makes it clear that it is only the doctrine of double effect that keeps conventional morality from collapsing into pure utilitarianism. If every action has bad results, shouldn't we simply choose the one that minimizes them? Double effect says that while consequences are important, there are still certain things we cannot do, regardless of how the consequences are weighed.

I hesitated in using the Nagasaki example, partly because it is fraught with implications I want to avoid. Bombing Nagasaki was wrong. But moral culpability is a separate question. That it was wrong doesn't mean that President Truman was morally equivalent to Hitler, or that the pilots of the bomber were morally equivalent to concentration camp guards. This doesn't relieve the participants of responsibility, of course. But whatever any Catholic or non-Catholic might say, moral reasoning is often difficult or complicated, especially in war. And good men can often do the wrong thing while at least in part trying (in some sense of trying) to do the right thing. That bad excuses can almost always be offered for even the most gravely evil actions does not mean that there cannot be justly deserved mitigating factors in many situations, even the most horrific.

Or to put it another way, the purpose of the doctrine of double effect in particular and Catholic moral theory in general is not merely to point fingers at how various people did the wrong thing, but to offer clear guidance on how we can do the right thing.

Clear guidance. That the right thing is not always the easy thing or the obvious thing is all the more reason why voices in the Church should never be ambiguous on these matters.  

Next, double effect in abortion and contraception.

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