The Principle of Double Effect

Some philosophers, such as Peter Knauer, have argued that the principle of double effect is the "fundamental principle of ethics." I would argue that this position is overstated, but that nonetheless, an analogous extension of the principle of double effect might correctly be called the fundamental principle of ethical "problems." How so? The truly fundamental principle of moral action is "do good and avoid evil." And so the fundamental moral "problem" to be encountered and dealt with, is the twofoldness of an action, when an action has something good and something bad about it.

The principle of the double effect is usually traced back to Thomas Aquinas, but its modern formulation derives from Cajetan and others. The principle is usually articulated along the following lines: an act with two effects, one good and bad, is a morally good action if:
(1) the act is in itself good or at least indifferent;
(2) the agent intends the good effect, and does not intend the bad effect, neither as an end, nor as the means to the good effect;
(3) the bad effect is not in fact the means to the good effect;
(4) the goodness of the good effect sufficiently outweigh the badness of the bad effect.

So basically, the "principle of double effect" is an articulation of how the basic principle "do good and avoid evil" is to be applied in certain situations of conflict between some good and some evil.

Extension of the principle

There are other situations of conflict between some good and some evil that arise in human life, which do not seem to be resolvable by the principle of double effect, at least not if causes, effects, means, end, etc., are taken in their ordinary sense.

Some examples of such problems:

(1) A spouse must make a decision whether to have marital intercourse with a spouse who engages in contraception.

(2) A married priest (a Catholic Eastern Rite priest, or an Orthodox priest), learns through a confession he hears, that his wife was actually already married to another man, and so his marriage with her is invalid.

(3) A judge in the highest court of the land has weighty personal or private reasons indicating that an accused person is innocent, yet all the public evidence is decidedly against that person.

(4) Doctors must decide whether to make an experiment aimed at discerning the effectiveness of a drug, an experiment whose effectiveness depends upon the use of placebos, and thus upon not giving the drug to many persons who would benefit from it, if it is in fact beneficial.

(5) An agent who expects his imminent capture by the enemy considers deliberately making himself drunk, so that he will be entirely unable to give information about a code, even under torture. (The code is so complex he would not be able to explain it in a drunken state).

These problems cannot be straightforwardly resolved by recourse to the principle of double effect, at least not in its normal modern formulation. Still, if any general principle can be formulated to resolve them, such a principle will be somewhat like the principle of double effect, i.e., based upon a comparison of the conditions of the good and bad aspects of the act.

I will return to this issue in later posts.

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