The doctrine of double effect has bugged me for some time. It probably doesn’t help that double effect is usually tagged as Catholic, and in that connection we have Blair’s Catholicism … and Iraq … and the self-exculpatory speechifying, and now the middle east peace envoy business. Double effect: it’s all mixed up in there somehow. Obviously I’m not going to like it.
But what’s going on with double effect anyway? Roughly, it’s a doctrine that says we can make a distinction between actual effects on the basis that not all effects were intended, even if all effects were correctly predicted. Hence, someone who in a single act brought about both a good effect and a bad effect may be excused if:
(1) He or she intended the good effect and not the bad effect, and;
(2) The resultant good effect did in some way compensate for the bad effect.
A double effect advocate who wants to finesse things might add that the bad effect mustn’t precede the good effect in a causal chain. There’s potential for fuzziness here, but what makes double effect unattractive isn’t some difficulty with causation. If the doctrine of double effect is going to be your guide in deciding whether or not to do something, you’re first going to have to work out who will judge what, and when. On condition (1) above, seemingly the actor carries a special burden of judgement: he or she must single out and focus on a good effect, so as to intend it. Whatever ‘intending’ involves, surely no one else can do it but the intender. But on condition (2) above, it’s not at all clear how the judgement of the good compensating for the bad is to be made. Is it the actor who gets to make this judgement, or his or her peers? A government agency? A court of law? And when do they get to judge? The doctrine doesn’t give us criteria for deciding this. It’s not interested.
Of course, other people (neighbours, end users, professionals) do tend to take an interest, depending on what’s proposed. To take Chris Bertram’s example from the recent thread about this on Unspeak: let’s say that you, as an adherent of the doctrine of double effect, propose a bridge-building project. You expect some people will die, but to have a connection from here to there will be good, and it’s the connection you intend, so you proceed. Except that you don’t, because most places with governments exercise oversight of anything larger than the construction of a hen house. You say: ten people will (likely) die building my bridge. The government, in response, says: this bridge (a revised design) is better because although there’ll be one successful and two attempted suicides over the next fifty years, no one will die during construction. Build this bridge instead. The burden for deciding (2) has been taken on by the state, on behalf of interested parties. Additionally, even though the burden for acting in accordance with (1) officially remains with the actor, his or her options are more likely than not shaped by the presence of an outside interest. After all, society, insofar as it can be said to want something, wants us to think of good effects, not bad ones. The upshot? An agent who invites the views of others in an effort to satisfy (2) limits the agency implied by (1).
In short, the doctrine of double effect tends to offer itself as a doctrine for moral lone rangers. My personal finding is that in most cases where heavy moving is planned, there’s a happier result when advice of parties with an interest is actually followed. Just ask; it might even be the law. Even if it’s not the law, it’s likely that someone cares. For bridge-building, seek advice from engineers (and the neighbours). For bombing, seek advice from air force generals (and the bombed).