Thursday, February 2, 2017

Rollerblading three and eight miles

Suppose I intend to rollerblade eight miles. And I succeed. Then I also rollerbladed three miles. But I need not have intended to rollerblade three miles, though of course my arithmetic is good enough that if asked “Will you also go three miles?” I would have answered affirmatively. Suppose that rollerblading three miles were intrinsically wrong. Then I couldn’t excuse myself by invoking the Principle of Double Effect, saying “I intended eight miles, not three.” Rollerblading three miles wasn’t intended. But it also wasn’t a side-effect like Double Effect talks about.

But isn’t rollerblading three miles a means to rollerblading eight miles? If it is, it isn’t a causal means (unless I have to rollerblade three miles before I’m allowed to do eight). Maybe it’s a constitutive means: rollerblading three miles is partly constitutive of rollerblading eight miles. But even that’s not quite right. There are many instances of rollerblading three miles within rollerblading eight miles: the first three miles, the last three miles, the middle three miles, and so on, perhaps even ad infinitum. One could make a case that rollerblading the first (or last or middle) three miles is a constitutive means to rollerblading eight. But rollerblading three miles is a disjunctive event: it is rollerblading the first three or the middle three or the last three or …. And while this disjunctive event has to happen for me to rollerblade eight miles, it isn’t a constitutive means to rollerblading eight miles.

So it looks like rollerblading three miles is neither a causal nor a constitutive means to rollerblading eight miles. This is another consideration in favor of my thesis that the Principle of Double Effect must go beyond the concept of means to that of accomplishment. For I definitely accomplish rollerblading three miles (in fact, multiple times) in rollerblading eight miles. Here's a quick test for this: Suppose that after three miles I have to stop. Then I would say: "I aimed for eight miles but all I managed to accomplish was three." But if I didn't stop after three, I would surely still have accomplished three.


Anonymous said...

It is plausible that "doing serious physical harm to an innocent person" is intrinsically wrong for the same reason that "killing an innocent person" is intrinsically wrong.

But cutting open an innocent person's skull is doing serious physical harm to the person. Now that is likely a part of doing brain surgery. So if a doctor intends to perform brain surgery on an innocent person, then if he succeeds, he will also do serious physical harm to an innocent person.

This will obviously be justifiable, and in my opinion while unnecessary to invoke the principle of double effect, essentially the same thing is happening: the action if justified in exactly the same way that typical examples of the principle are justified.

The real issue is this: when you say that something is intrinsically wrong, you are looking at an action under a certain description, e.g. "killing an innocent person," or "doing serious physical harm to an innocent person," and saying, "given that this description captures what is important about what you are doing, what you are doing is bad." It is evident that we have to follow this procedure, because no physical action is intrinsically wrong: it is only after it is given a certain moral description that it can be wrong, and the description will only be accurate to the degree that it actually captures what is important about what is being done.

Now in the brain surgery case, obviously it does not capture what is important about what the doctor is doing. That is why it is not wrong. That is also why the principle of double effect works in general: the point is that the "wrong" thing is not what is important about the action in those cases.

And all of this implies that even if rollerblading three miles were intrinsically wrong, that would not necessarily mean that rollerblading eight miles would be intrinsically wrong, because the fact that three miles would be a part of it, might not be relevant, just as the serious physical harm of brain surgery is not relevant.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Doing *on balance* serious *lasting* physical harm to an innocent person is wrong (I don't know if intrinsically). But without the qualifiers, this is not a plausible thesis. Amputating a gangrenous limb isn't wrong because it doesn't cause serious harm *on balance*. And if we regenerated limbs very quickly, then amputating healthy limbs would not cause lasting harm, and hence might not be wrong--we could, for instance, donate an arm to someone whose regeneration ability wasn't as good as our own, in much the way that people now donate hair.