Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tough double effect cases

I think the distinction between the foreseen and the intended is central to a lot of our moral thinking, and that some form of the Principle of Double Effect is correct.

Here is a pair of cases that I find particularly difficult, however.  This post owes things to a discussion I've been having with Daniel Hill.

Case 1: Matilda knows that a house contains two people, one an innocent and the other a terrorist.  Matilda is flying over the house and can drop a bomb on it, and if she does so, both people will die.  However, the terrorist will then be unable to detonate a bomb that would kill hundreds.  Matilda has no other way of preventing the detonation of the bomb.  Is it permissible for her to drop the bomb?

Case 2: This time Matilda is on the ground, and has a gun.  The two residents of the house are in front of her.  One of them is the innocent and the other is the terrorist.  She can't tell which is which.  The only way to prevent the detonation of the bomb is by killing the terrorist.  (Why is wounding not good enough?  Maybe from her position, she can only aim for the head, and so she'll either kill or miss.)  Is it permissible for her to shoot both?

The first case seems to be just like the standard double effect case of tactical bombing where if you drop the bomb on the enemy HQ, innocent visitors to the HQ (e.g., spouses of officers), will also die.  It is hard to distinguish Case 2 from Case 1, since it doesn't seem like it should morally matter whether one drops one bomb or takes two shots.  But the action in Case 2 seems wrong if you have strong deontological intuitions.  It sure seems like you're intentionally killing two people, where you know that one of them (but you do not know which--and that may change things) is an innocent.

So the challenge for the defender of double effect reasoning is to either show in a morally compelling way how Case 2 differs from Case 1, or show that the intuitions that the shooting in Case 2 is wrong are mistaken.

I will try for the first, but I don't know how morally compelling my story will be.  I think it will only be compelling to those who find double effect reasoning compelling.  Still I hope the story will have some plausibility.  Let the two people in the house be Susan and Tricia.  Matilda's intention in Case 1 is that the terrorist in the house die.  By what means?  By means of the place where the terrorist is being seared by an explosion.  Matilda need have no intention in Case 1 regarding the non-terrorist, or regarding Susan qua Susan or Tricia qua Tricia.  Her intention is explicitly about the terrorist as such.

Now consider Case 2.  Suppose Matilda has Susan in her gunsights and squeezes the trigger.  What are Matilda's reasons for so doing?  The most plausible account seems to be something like this: "Susan may be a terrorist, and if so, then many lives will be saved by her death, so I will shoot her."  In other words, the plan of action seems to be: "Shoot Susan dead, so that if she is the terrorist, the terrorist is dead."  If that's the plan of action, then Matilda is (literally) aiming to kill Susan.  And by the same token, Matilda is aiming to kill Tricia. Therefore, Matilda is intending the death of two persons, one of whom she knows to be an innocent.  She knows, thus, that in her overall action plan there is an innocent whose death she is aiming at.  And that is wrong.

Elsewhere, I have speculated that there are some actions that are only permissible with certain intentions.  For instance, perhaps it is only permissible to assert with the intention of avoiding the assertion of a falsehood and perhaps sexual relations are only permissible with the intention of uniting maritally.  It now seems quite plausible to me that intentional killing is like that.  To kill someone intentionally and permissibly it is not enough that one believe that the person is an aggressor (or is probably an aggressor?) that one is duly authorized to kill, or however exactly the exceptions on the prohibition of killing should be put.  The soldier or police officer needs to kill because the person is an aggressor that one is duly authorized to kill.  The Allied soldier who justly kills a German soldier must do so because the German soldier is an aggressor.  If the Allied soldier, instead, solely kills Helmut because Helmut is German or because Helmut has a long nose or because target practice is fun, the Allied soldier is morally corrupt.  (What if the Allied soldier kills Helmut both because Helmut is an aggressor and because Helmut is German?  I think more detail will be needed about the deliberative structure here, and I want to bracket this case.)

Now, let us suppose that in fact Susan is the terrorist.  Then Matilda in intentionally killing Susan is not killing Susan because Susan is a terrorist.  Rather, Matilda is killing Susan because Susan might be a terrorist.  And that is not good enough.  The intention to kill someone because she is a terrorist is compatible with love of that person, since doing justice to someone is compatible with love, and sometimes required by love.  But that is not Matilda's intention.

This has an interesting implication for military ethics.  It is often said to be necessary for soldiers to dehumanize their enemy in order to kill, to see them as enemies rather than as people, and this is often seen as a criticism of the military enterprise.  But if I am right, it is morally required that the soldier kill Helmut under a description that includes something like "enemy aggressor" rather than simply under the description "Helmut" or "that man over there, who no doubt has a family who are awaiting his return."  Perhaps in the ideal the humanity of the enemy, and the fact that he has a family who are awaiting his return, does enter into how the action is done--with compassion, sadness and only as necessary for due defense of the innocent.  But Helmut's aggressor status needs to be in the soldier's intentions.

But let us go back to Case 2.  One might cleverly object that it need not in fact be Matilda's intention that Susan die (Daniel Hill queried me about such an idea).  It could perhaps be Matilda's intention that Susan die if she is a terrorist.  Now, it is certainly possible to have such intentions.  If one has, or thinks one has, a magic bullet that kills only terrorists, one could shoot Susan intending that she die if she is a terrorist.  In that case, one's means to the conditional end that Susan die if she is a terrorist is shooting a bullet that discriminates between terrorists and non-terrorists.  But in the actual Case 2, one brings it about that Susan dies if she is a terrorist by bringing it about that Susan dies: the conditional end is brought about, in this case, by the unconditional means.  So one still intends that Susan die, as a means to the conditional end that Susan die if she is a terrorist.

But what if Matilda is a clever double effect casuist, and says: "My intention is that a bullet should go through such and such a location in space, and that if there be the head of a terrorist in that location, that terrorist should die"?   However, I think this is an incorrect statement of Susan's intentions.  Intentions aren't inner speeches.  They embody our actual reasons for acting.  Matilda's reason for sending the bullet to that location in space is that she can see Susan's head there.  Her plan for making sure that the terrorist in that location should die seems to be that Susan should die, and hence if the terrorist is there, the terrorist should die.  Susan's death still seems to be a means to the death of the terrorist in that location, if there be one there.  And likewise for Tricia's death.  I am not completely happy about this story, but it has some plausibility.

In Case 1, however, the aim is less personal, and that does actually matter: the only death aimed at is the death of "the terrorist", under that definite description.  Certainly, we would expect Matilda to be much more traumatized by Case 2 than by Case 1 (and if she weren't, we would think there is something wrong with her), and we should take such trauma to be defeasible evidence for a morally relevant difference between the two cases.

[Typo fixed.]


Heath White said...

I think something along these lines makes sense. Consider that in case 1, Matilda the pilot can say about the inhabitants of the house: "If you're innocent, I don't intend to kill you....sorry!" But in case 2 she can hardly say that since she's shooting them both in the head.

Mr. Schnapps said...

Yes, we clearly have Case 1 stating that while _Smith_ knows that there is both a terrorist and an innocent in the house, Matilda does not.

Case 2 isn't quite like this.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's Matilda Smith. :-)

Mr. Schnapps said...

Well that's just brutal. Brutal.

Daniel Hill said...

Re Heath White's comment, why can Matilda in case 2 not say `If you're innocent, I don't intend to kill you....sorry!' while she shoots the inhabitants in the head? She might amplify her remark with `I tried to get magic terrorist-only bullets that would not kill non-terrorists, but they don't exist, so I have to make do with a rather blunt instrument', or with `listen, I am praying that God will save you if you're innocent, believe me'.

And why won't any answer to this question I have posed also tell against the pilot in case 1? Imagine that the innocent miraculously survives, and meets up with the pilot at one of those reunion things afterwards. She says `hey, you intended to kill me'. Matilda says `oh no, I intended only to kill the terrorist in the house'. `Well, why did you use such a big bomb, then?' `Well, you see, I tried to get a magic terrorist-only bomb that would not kill non-terrorists, but they don't exist, so I had to make do with a rather blunt instrument.' `Well, doesn't that mean that you just had to change your intentions to kill me too?' `Listen, I was praying that God would save you if you were innocent, believe me'.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The prayer case can certainly shift the intentions. I think we need some general principle that unless God has promised us a miracle in some circumstances, we are not permitted to have an action plan predicated on the occurrence of a miracle, or at least one where something really bad happens if there is no miracle. The Catholic tradition talks about "the sin of tempting God."

We may need something like this story to handle even the classic case of killing one innocent to save ten. For surely you can imagine that someone who shoots the one innocent is praying fervently: "God, please bring it about that this one does not die and the others are still saved." And so her intention is: "That that one be dead (so that others be saved) or God intervene."

Here's where I want to bring in my approach in terms of accomplishment. (I really need to finish and send off that paper, Daniel.) If God doesn't intervene, then the the shooter has accomplished the first disjunct, that that one be dead. And one shouldn't act so as to make oneself likely be the accomplisher of the death of an innocent.

Heath White said...


My own intuitions hinge on the claim that large bombs have many side effects while well-aimed bullets have very few. There are all sorts of effects of large explosions, which are not intended--dirt thrown in the air, birds knocked off course, etc. So it's not so implausible to say that a large bomb has the effect of killing someone that is not intended.

When someone is aiming a rifle at your head, however, it's no side effect if they kill you. That's precisely what they're trying to do.

DL said...

I too think that the two cases look parallel, and I also feel that the shooting example is somehow worse. But I remember that my reason, when applied carefully, is more reliable than my emotions. I don't think the side-effects of bombing are enough to make the situations different: yes, many of the effects of the bombing are unintended, but killing the non-terrorist isn't one of them. The whole point of dropping the bomb is because we are quite confident that it will kill all the people in the house. Perhaps a relevant distinction can be drawn between one action (the bomb) and two separate and distinct actions (two shots) — but we can always alter the example so that Matilda is taking a single shot that will kill both people at once. Actually, my "feelings" suggest that that scenario is indeed less objectionable than the two-shot version; and yet it still feels worse than the bombing. Rationally, I have a hard time seeing a relevant difference, though.

Of course, it's possible for one's sense and one's sensibility to agree: if shooting twice is wrong, and the situations are effectively equivalent, then the bombing must also be wrong. I think it feels better because you can plan and execute the bombing without ever having to actually envisage the innocent party getting ripped apart in the explosion. However, if you shoot someone through the head, you have to look at him — maybe even directly into his face — to line up the shot. The bombing is functionally more remote, so it's easier to ignore the disturbing aspect. Out of sight, out of mind. So perhaps the moral of the story is that warfare that is safer and easier for the attackers is actually less human(e).

Alexander R Pruss said...

"The whole point of dropping the bomb is because we are quite confident that it will kill all the people in the house."

To see that this need not be so, imagine this story. First you learn that there is a terrorist in the house, and you presume that there is no one else there. Your plan is to drop the bomb on the house to kill her. But then you get a new piece of information: there is someone else in the house, too. Why should that additional piece of information automatically change your intentions?

Intention is a matter of will while information is a matter of the intellect. Getting additional information, unless it undercuts the effectiveness of one's action plan, will not by itself change one's intentions.

Suppose I also learn that the house contains dirty dishes. I don't thereby automatically gain an intention to destroy the dirty dishes. Or to disarrange the laundry.

The order in which you learn things shouldn't affect what intentions are rationally available.

Notice that a similar story cannot be told about the two shot case. Suppose you first think there is just the terrorist in the house. You form the intention to shoot the terrorist and leave. Now you gain the information that there is also an innocent and that you can't tell them apart. You can no longer go through with your original plan. You can't just go and shoot the terrorist and leave, since you no longer believe that the person you will see is a terrorist. You have to modify your plan, either by giving up on the plan, or by changing your intention from shoot the terrorist to shoot a person who has a 50% chance of being a terrorist.

Heath White said...

DL's comment suggests a test case. If there is a distinction between Case 1 and Case 2, there should also be a distinction between Case 2 and

Case 3. There is one terrorist and one innocent in a house; Matilda doesn't know who is who. She has a rifle and can shoot through the window. Unfortunately the two individuals are sitting so that Matilda's angle only allows her to shoot one (high-powered) bullet that will pierce two heads. This shot is her only means of preventing the terrorist from detonating a bomb to kill hundreds.

Is it permissible to shoot in Case 3? I think (half) the answer is, it is permissible in Case 3 iff it is permissible in Case 1.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I want to separate out the permissibility question from the question of what the intention is. I am fairly confident that in Case 3 the intention need only be to kill the terrorist. Whether that's enough (given proportionality) for permissibility is a further question.

Here's my argument. Again, use what to me is a touchstone for attribution of intention: any intention for an action is partly explanatory of the action. Now, imagine that you know that the terrorist is somewhere along the line the gun is pointing, and that the bullet will reach the terrorist. You don't know about the innocent, so plainly you have no intentions regarding her. Suppose then you learn that the innocent is also on this line. This new belief doesn't help explain why you shoot. Nor would positing an intention to kill the innocent do anything to help explain why you shoot--on the contrary, it makes it harder to explain why you shoot.

Here's another way to think about it. Suppose you're completely callous. Your orders are to kill the terrorist, and you no more care that the bullet will also kill an innocent than that the bullet will make a hole in the wall or heat up the air. In that case, while you're plainly a vicious person, you also plainly don't have an intention to kill the innocent. (Note that this shows that a lack of intention to kill the innocent isn't sufficient for the action to be a good one.) Suppose, however, that just before you shoot you have a moral conversion, and you now do care very much about the innocent's death, but you still judge (rightly or not) that you should go through with the plan. Surely your coming to be grieved at the death of the innocent doesn't make that death be a part of your intentions!

By the way, I feel that it might make a difference to the moral assessment--but maybe not to the question of intention--whether it is the terrorist or the innocent who is standing in front. However, I don't greatly trust this feeling.

Helen Watt said...

Couldn’t we say, innocent people have a right to their bodily ‘space’ such that we shouldn’t deliberately invade the space their bodies are known to fill (or not in foreseeably, seriously and exclusively harmful ways). If I shoot through body A (whom I presume to be an innocent person) to get to body B (whom I presume to be a guilty person) this unjustly infringes on A’s ‘space’. Of course, I could arbitrarily decide I will presume A is the guilty person instead of B – which would then make the bullet’s later passage through body B collateral damage as it doesn’t help achieve my aims. But then there are problems of recklessness etc.

On the earlier posts: Could we say something like: any time we try to do anything we have necessary background assumptions - e.g. even if I KNOW it’s a terrorist, I am assuming the terrorist is still dangerous – or if I’m on a selection panel for a job and vote for Fred, my assumption is that Fred is the best candidate. My doubts whether Fred really is the best candidate don’t mean I’m not deliberately voting for Fred, even if I deliberately do something simultaneously to make his appointment less likely - such as putting my views in a surly manner, or praying that if Fred is NOT the best candidate, other panel members will vote me down…)

It does seem to make a difference whether you’re targeting an actual body of a person you know may well be innocent, as opposed to targeting an area known to contain a guilty person – which would still contain that guilty person even if no other people were there at all, as Alex says. The question: how many people did you mean to shoot at? seems relevant here. In the second case you could sincerely say, one person (in an unknown location), whereas in the first place, you would need to say, as many people as I deliberately shot (leaving aside the prayer case, which admittedly complicates things). The fact you wouldn’t have shot them had you known they were innocent may not affect the deliberateness of your shooting those individuals - any more than your deliberate voting for candidate A is affected by the fact you wouldn’t have voted for candidate A had you thought him the wrong person for the job.

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. I was trying to bracket the permissibility question in my comment and answer the intention question, in part because thoughts like yours.

2. It seems that quite a lot of space co-occupation is permissible with the consent on the person. Think of consensual surgery that isn't for the benefit of the person whose body is being cut. (E.g., organ donation or operation on a pregnant woman for the benefit of the child.) So to your list of conditions (harmful, serious, etc.) you should probably add: non-consensual.

3. Your co-occupation principle would let one keep the intuition that it matters in what order the people are. For if the innocent is behind the terrorist, it's merely accidental to the action that the bullet goes through the space that is in fact occupied by the innocent. But it is not accidental to the action when the innocent is in front.

4. Suppose the innocent is in the front, and let S be the space occupied by the innocent through which the bullet goes. Suppose my theory about how guns work is just this: I point the gun, and whoever is in the line of sight suddenly receives severe bodily damage. I don't even know about bullets. It is not a part of the theory that anything propagates through space from the gun. For aught I know, it's just direct action at a distance. In particular, it doesn't matter, on this theory, in which order the people are. (It's as if I were to point in a certain direction and utter a magic spell.)

If I held this theory, I wouldn't be intending that S be occupied. Now suppose I learn that the causal means by which the shot works is that a bullet travels from the gun causing severe damage to anybody it goes through. Does learning this physical fact by itself change my intentions? I don't see that it has to. Intentions are in the will. Mere belief shouldn't change intentions, unless it makes a previous action plan impossible. But the new facts don't make a previous action plan impossible. They just explain how that action plan works. Someone could just say: "How interesting!"

If so, that would be just like the CEO case in my accomplishment paper, and we need to bring in accomplishment here. You don't intend the bullet to occupy S, but you accomplish it (whether you know it or not). For those who didn't read the paper, the CEO orders: "Get the contract by any means necessary." The subordinate blows up the competitor's offices. The CEO didn't intend this particular means, but the blowing up was within the CEO's parameters (any means) if it was necessary, and hence was accomplished by the CEO.

5. That said, I am not so sure about the principle about co-occupation of space.

Helen Watt said...


I agree, serious damage may sometimes be caused with a person’s consent – but only if the person will recover, I think - we have to respect our own bodies as well as other people’s when it comes to serious permanent damage. Isn’t it wrong to donate your heart while you’re alive, or both your kidneys? Caesarians are OK but if some particular woman was too sick to survive a Caesarian, wouldn’t it be wrong, even with her consent, to invade her body lethally to save her child?

You’re right, beliefs don’t have to change intentions – but they can still be conclusive morally, don’t you think? If you think the gun works like magic and then find it works by shooting bullets through innocent people, shouldn’t you then ditch your plans? Aren’t causal means, even if not intended, sometimes included in the second ‘double effect’ condition?

Another obstetric example: let’s say I’m a pregnant woman with cancer who reluctantly accepts chemotherapy, knowing but not intending that my unborn child will die. Wouldn’t my whole attitude change if I found that the baby’s death was literally part of the chemotherapy-triggering process (let’s say the death itself released some chemical without which the chemotherapy would not cure me)?

Or take another example: let’s say, I’m in charge of a unit of the army and find that the soldiers under me are motivated exclusively by sadistic intentions – they don’t know or care in the least about the justice of the war but simply enjoy causing pain (an example of Colin Harte’s). Once I find this out, surely I can’t just go on giving orders?

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. I worry about the vagueness of "will not recover". Presumably, many permissible actions decrease life-expectancy. And all of us will die (unless the Second Coming comes first, and according to Aquinas even then).

2. On my view, merely finding out that the drug works through the death of the child doesn't make you intend the death of the child. But in finding this out, you find out that by taking the drug you accomplish the death of the child. A sufficient condition for accomplishment of an effect is that you intended the effect under some description. In this case, you intended the death under the description "the means, whatever it may be" (assuming you don't care what the means is). And to accomplish the death of an innocent is wrong (bracketing cases like the `Aqedah). So by finding out that the method works like that, you find out something that is morally conclusive, yes.

Paul C. said...

In case 1 it is logically possible for Matilda to have the goal of killing the terrorist and not the innocent. (This allows Matilda to look for every possible opportunity, however slight, that makes it even the tiniest bit more likely that the terrorist dies, rather than the innocent -- while simultaneously being consistent with her goal of killing the terrorist.)

However, in case 2, once Matilda has fixed on the goal of killing both people, it then becomes logically impossible for her to act on the simultaneous goal that the innocent person lives.

It's this distinction in logic (not in practicality) that makes case 1 and case 2 quite different.

In such a way, case 3 is similar to case 1.

Helen Watt said...

Yes, it's hard to draw lines here -would be good to find some way of weighting temporal immediacy (for example, if giving one kidney would reduce my long future life by one week, this seems completely different - though the same amount of life is 'lost' - from giving my second kidney at a time when I already have a week to live, so that it kills me immediately. In the first case, would doctors call the kidney donation the cause of much later, only-slightly-accelerated death? I don't think so, but I don't know how they define causes of death.

Re 'accomplishment' - that's very interesting. I wonder if you'd want to be more permissive though when the 'means' involve both good and bad motives on the part of collaborators - the second not intended by us 'as such'? Otherwise it's going to be too strict a test. Let's say I have a business colleague who is both very vain and very lazy, and never does anything except with the 'clinching' motive of showing off, though he also has perfectly good motives for collaborating (selling our product, supporting his family etc).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not sure it's possible to not act at least in part on a motive one has in the context of the decision, when the motive favors one's action. But I suppose he might have the motives, though they don't come up in the context of the decision.

Can I say this: I intend him to sell our product for good reasons, and then when he doesn't, I derive benefits from that, but my plan has failed? It's not as if I didn't make sure he had the good reasons available. And unless he is an automaton, it was always possible for him to choose to act on them.

It gets tricky, though, when you need to count on him selling the product, for instance because some disproportionate evil will occur if you tell him to sell it and he doesn't. It is possible that such cases may be structurally like Kamm's triple effect cases (which I think of as defeater-defeater cases, and it is crucial that intention doesn't filter through to what is found in the defeater-defeater reasons; I think such cases are central to divine permission of evil).

Helen Watt said...

Sorry, I wasn't clear in my example - I meant a case where my colleague is genuinely motivated by some good motives but due to his chronic laziness these motives are supplementary and 'underdetermining' without his bad motive of showing off.

So I may well intend quite realistically that he sell our product partly for these 'underdetermining' good motives - but how realistic is it that he will scrap his motive of showing off without which (pending instant conversion) he will be insufficiently motivated? Can I sincerely intend such an instant miracle every time I ask him to bestir himself?

Barring miracles, I don't agree that it's always possible to scrap a bad motive immediately - many vain people will not even realise they're vain, for example, and the same is probably true of our other vices (John Merrihew Adams has some relevant things to say here in his paper on 'involuntary sins').

Yes, maybe triple effect can help somehow. We do seem to need it!