Friday, June 27, 2014

Intentions, tryings and Double Effect

Bob buys a lottery ticket, hoping to win but knowing that it's exceedingly unlikely.

Suppose Bob wins. We can't say that his winning is an unintended side-effect in the sense involved in the Principle of Double Effect. But it is also odd to say that he intended to win, given that he knows how exceedingly unlikely it is. The phrase "hoping to win"much more apt than "intending to win." Likewise, it doesn't seem right to say that winning was a part of Bob's plan. He'd have to be crazy to plan on winning. Nonetheless, winning is something he aimed at, and his action would have been a failure—an expected failure—if he didn't win.

I intend to post this post, and posting this post is a part of my action plan. Bob's relationship to winning only differs quantitatively from my relationship to posting this post. In both cases, there is probability of success somewhere between 0 and 1. In my case, it's close to 1. In Bob's case, it's close to 0. Neither of us can disclaim responsibility upon success. Both of us have our hearts set upon the goal, and our action is defective if it doesn't reach that goal. The difference is that Bob expects it to be defective while I expect mine to be successful (at least in respect of posting—whether it will be successful in respect of philosophical progress is a different question).

There is a yet third kind of case, that of "stretch goals". Suppose Sally buys a lottery ticket in order to support the government activities that the lottery funds, while at the same time still hoping to win (perhaps she plans to donate any winnings to the state, and thereby support the same government activities even more). If Sally wins, again that's not an unintended side-effect of the Double Effect sort. Winning is indeed something she aims at, something she has heart set on. But it's a stretch goal: if she doesn't accomplish it, her action need not be a failure in any way. It is even more awkward to say that Sally intends to win, or that winning is part of her action plan, than it is to say these things about Bob.

Both Bob and Sally are trying to win, but neither is intending to win. The difference between them is that if Bob doesn't win, his action fails, but if Sally doesn't win, his action doesn't need to fail in any way.

All this means that the traditional formulation of the Principle of Double Effect in terms of effects that are intended and effects that are not is incomplete.

I think we do a bit better, then, to formulate Double Effect not in terms of what one is intending, but in terms of what one is trying to do. The classical formulation tells us something like this:

  1. An action expected to have an evil effect can be permissible when and only when one is intending a proportionate good and one does not intend the evil effect (either as a means or as an end).
Of course, when the action is expected to have an effect, the distinction between what one intends and what one tries for disappears. But we should extend the principle:
  1. An action that has a chance of an evil effect can be permissible when and only when one is trying for a proportionate good and one is not trying for the evil effect (either as a means or as an end).

A bonus of (2) is that while some have claimed that merely instrumental goals are not intended, thereby destroying the distinction that Double Effect is about, it is obvious that an agent is trying to make these goals happen. Whatever we say about whether the terror bomber is intending to do, it's clear that he's trying to kill innocent people.

I also think that talking in terms of trying instead of intending has the benefit of further de-psychologizing the notion and avoiding the inner-speech objection to Double Effect (which says that one ends up justifying actions simply by thinking about them differently). It is even more obvious that the moral worth of an action depends on what one was trying to do than that it depends on what one was intending.

Now my own preferred reformulation of Double Effect is even more radical than (2): it replaces intention with accomplishment. I think (2) is a step along the path to that reformulation, since trying is more intimately linked to accomplishments than intending is (pace what I say about intention in that paper). If something is an accomplishment of mine, I tried to bring it about under some description. But I needn't have intended it under any description, as the cases of Bob and Sally show.

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