Monday, September 23, 2019

Three versions of proportionality in Double Effect

Bob sees a trolley speeding towards five strangers on a track and can redirect the trolley towards another track which has one stranger on it. Alice, who is herself unable to redirect the trolley, offers Bob a dollar to redirect it. Suppose Bob redirects the trolley solely for the sake of dollar. Bob is clearly a callous individual. But has Bob violated the strictures of the Principle of Double Effect?

Well, Bob has done an action that’s intrinsically good or neutral (redirecting a trolley). The bad effect—the death of the one stranger—was not intended either as an end or as a means, and indeed does not in any way (we assume) contribute to the intended good effect, which is getting a dollar. What remains to check is the proportionality condition.

Here it depends on exactly how the proportionality condition is formulated. There are at least three formulations:

  1. The bad effects are not disproportionate to the intended good effects.

  2. The bad effects are not disproportionate to the good effects.

  3. The bad effects are not disproportionate to those good effects that are not themselves the outcomes of bad effects.

On formulation (1), Bob has violated Double Effect: the death of the one stranger is disproportionate to the sole intended good, namely Bob getting a dollar. On formulations (2) and (3), Bob has not violated Double Effect, since the good effect—the saving of the five—is proportionate (and is not the outcome of a bad effect).

My intuition is that the case supports (1). But I worry that this rides on our desire to get the obviously vicious Bob on some charge or other, and violating Double Effect is the obvious one. But there may be another charge. Bob had a moral duty to the do the following: to redirect the trolley in order to save five lives. He failed to do that. His failure to do that is a morally wrong abstension. So even if (2) or (3) are the right story, we can still get Bob on some moral charge or other.

So I am not sure how far the case helps adjudicate between (1)–(3).

Note one nice thing about (1), though. If we go for (1), we automatically filter out any good effects that are the outcomes of bad effects, since if we intended such good effects, we would be intending a bad means and violating the means condition of Double Effected. So (1) implicitly contains the same restriction as is found in (3).

1 comment:

Helen Watt said...

1. does sound tempting - though where does it leave us with unintended defeaters which are still central to the action? Let's say Bob, bad as he is, wouldn't redirect the trolley UNLESS it would save lives. Redirecting will foreseeably kill someone and even Bob doesn't do that just for a dollar (though as you say, he's morally obliged to intend to save the lives - making that outcome a condition of his acting is not enough).

But if we want to keep Bob's wrongful omission to intend to save lives out of double effect reasoning, and criticise him otherwise, how about:

The bad effects are not disproportionate to the intended good effects, or to the good effects which are a condition of the person's act.

Also, isn't it OK generally to factor in goods coming from unintended harms providing they're only defeaters and neither they nor the harms are intended as such? The person on the line dies but good foreseeably comes from that to offset it, as well as the good of saving the 5, or perhaps only the 1, on the other line? One person on the clear track bravely volunteers to have the trolley diverted to his track, to save just one other person on the other track, say. You don't have to intend his death to see its heroic nature as offsetting the harm to him, his family etc.