Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Principle of Double Effect as an action-requiring principle

Normally the Principle of Double Effect (PDE) is taken to be a permissive principle: it gives permissibility conditions for actions that are foreseen to have an evil effect. Roughly, the conditions are: the action is not in itself wrong; the evil is not intended as an end or as a means; and the evil is proportionate to an intended good.

Suppose that we adopt the thesis that refraining from an action is itself a kind of action, and that refraining can have effects just as any other action can. Call this the Refraining Parity Thesis (RPT).

Given RPT, it turns out that many of the actions that the PDE is used to justify are actually actions that the PDE actually requires. Suppose, for instance, that dropping a bomb on the enemy headquarters will cause a handful of civilian deaths but the deaths of the military leadership will lead to an early end to the war, saving thousands of civilian lives. Given RPT, consider the action of refraining from bombing. Refraining from bombing (considered maybe as an action of a military commander) has an intended good effect, the saving of the lives of the civilians near the headquarters, and an unintended evil effect, the deaths of thousands of civilians later. It is very plausible that the evil is disproportionate to the good, and hence PDE does not allow one to refrain from bombing.

There will, however, be cases where PDE allows but does not require an action. Suppose that I could save your life by jumping on a grenade. The PDE allows me to jump. The intended effect is saving your life by the absorption of kinetic energy, the foreseen evil is my death, and my death is not disproportionate to saving your life. But refraining from jumping is also permissible. The intended effect is saving my life, the foreseen evil is your death, and your death is not disproportionate to saving my life.

I don't know if RPT is true. I am inclined to think that refraining is not on par with positive action.

Heath White said...

and an unintended evil effect, the deaths of thousands of civilians later.

I would not normally say that the deaths of thousands of civilians later, due to the prolongation of the war because you did not bomb the enemy headquarters, were caused by your refraining from bombing. I would normally say those thousands of deaths were caused by later military action.

I don't know how productive that distinction is.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think we want principle like Double Effect to apply to remote causes, so the mere remoteness shouldn't be an issue.

But I don't know if one wants it to apply to remote causes by omission, like I suggest in this post.

Paul Symington said...
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Paul Symington said...

I take it that you are suggesting widening the scope of the PDE to include refrained-from-acts? That one should consider whether it is permissible to refrain from an action even though it has a bad effect?

Some thoughts:

1) In itself, it will always be permissible to refrain from doing something because to do nothing is in itself morally neutral. However, it seems that it will never be a good thing to do because in itself doing nothing is not a good.

2) Will this cause moral epistemic problems? It seems that at any given time there are an infinite number of things that we are not doing and so we are not in a position to know that we shouldn't be refraining from doing them.

Just some thoughts.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Refraining isn't quite the same as non-doing, I think. One only refrains from an action when one considers doing the action and then decides not to.

I wouldn't say that refraining is always permissible. If I promised to do something good for you, then it's impermissible for me to refrain from it.

Refraining involves an act of will, and acts of will are subject to moral evaluation.

I think this handles your epistemic worries. For I don't, in fact, consider the infinite numbers of options.

I should also emphasize that this post is entirely conditional, predicated on the assumption that refraining is a kind of action.

Paul Symington said...

"I wouldn't say that refraining is always permissible. If I promised to do something good for you, then it's impermissible for me to refrain from it."

Unless I misunderstand something, isn't this what PDE gives you is permissibility to do things like breaking a promise? That is, if one is primarily intending a good or neutral thing and it has as a negative effect that I should lie, then if the other conditions hold (such as proportionality), it would be morally permissible to break that promise? It seems that on RPT this is, ceteris paribus, always available.

Paul Symington said...
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Daniel Hill said...

Thanks for this, Alex. You say:
`Suppose that I could save your life by jumping on a grenade. The PDE allows me to jump. The intended effect is saving your life by the absorption of kinetic energy, the foreseen evil is my death, and my death is not disproportionate to saving your life.'
I agree, but there must be more to it than this (not that your not giving it is a fault in this context), since the reasoning above would, thus far forth, justify my throwing you onto the grenade to save my life.

But maybe a general can order the private to jump on the grenade? And maybe one could, in some circumstances, drop an innocent on a grenade to save enough lives?