I blogged about the doctrine of double effect at the beginning of last year. It comes up just about any time thereâ€™s mention of the morality of warfare, and here it is in a piece by David Edmonds, writing for Prospect, on the popularity of trolley problems. Edmonds reports that West Point cadets engage in tutored discussions on ethics (this is actually something Iâ€™d heard about before). Double effect and trolley problems come up in these discussions. The cadets interviewed by Edmonds are unanimous in saying that itâ€™s wrong to push the fat man off the bridge but OK to switch the trolley onto the spur. This – the cadets say – is because pushing the fat man intends the death of the fat man, whereas switching the trolley involves no intention to kill the lone person tied to the track of the spur. Likewise – according to the cadets – itâ€™s wrong to intentionally target civilians (like Al Qaeda does) but OK to carry out a bombing in which civilians might be killed as – yes – collateral damage.
Iâ€™m not going to attempt to dissect double effect again. It does, though, disturb me that trolley problems seem to have carved out some sort of justificatory pattern in the minds of West Point cadets. Double effect considerations might explain why certain people give certain answers to certain trolley problems (apparently most people think itâ€™s OK to switch the trolley onto the spur). Trolley problems as a set of thought experiments might help to explain why we make the ethical decisions that we do in fact make. However, I donâ€™t see that worked out answers to trolley problems are therefore adequate guides to action. If youâ€™re a military person tasked with dropping bombs on targets of opportunity, the plane you’re piloting (or directing) is not a trolley and there isnâ€™t anyone tied to the track; there is no track. Trolley problems are highly stipulated; real life usually presents additional options. Likewise with many double effect characterisations. We’re not required to operate as though the use of JDAMs were an institution, such that the only moral problem concerns targetting. This is part of what I was trying to get at before.