Thursday, August 6, 2020

Humdrum cases of double effect reasoning

While the Principle of Double Effect is mostly discussed in the literature in connection with very bad effects, typically death, that trigger deontic concerns, lately philosophers (e.g., Masek) have been noting that double effect reasoning can be important in much more humdrum situations.

For instance, I cause suffering to my students in many ways: stress over assignments, awkwardness over small group discussions, boredom, etc. I hope that this suffering is normally of a sort that doesn’t trigger deontic concerns. If an evildoer told me that I must bore my students or else he’d kill someone, intentionally boring my students would be the right thing to do. However, under normal circumstances, it would be wicked of me to intend my students to be bored or stressed, but it is not wicked for me to adopt pedagogical techniques that, unfortunately, foreseeably result in unintended boredom or stress (reviewing material that some students know is apt to be boring to them; tests are unavoidably stressful to most).

Another interesting and fairly humdrum case is this. You are speaking to a large group, and you realize that some people in the audience will misunderstand a sentence you are about to say as asserting something false. However, the issue is not important, time is limited, and the misunderstanding is not egregious as the falsehood is not far from the truth. So you reasonably choose not to waste time over the sentence. But if you intended the misunderstanding, you would be lying or at least deceiving.


Michael Staron said...

Ending a relationship is the example I use with my students as one where Double Effect can apply. You foresee the emotional pain of the significant other without intending it. Teenage boys seem to understand this example.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's a nice one, too.

This makes me think that a particularly clear case of Double Effect is where you are doing your best to eliminate the bad effect (one is trying to be as sensitive as one can in breaking up, say), but you foresee your failure. For it would make no sense to say that you're doing your best to eliminate the bad effect, but are intending it anyway.

I wonder if some of the resistance to some of the examples of double effect doesn't come from cynicism about people's motives. Perhaps another helpful family of cases would be cases where the bad effect happens to the agent, because there is little room for cynicism then. You go for a run foreseeing that your knee will hurt afterwards. It seems clear that you aren't intending the knee pain (if you were interested in pain to yourself, you wouldn't need to bother with a run; you could hit your knee with a hammer, say).