Monday, November 16, 2020

Closeness and Double Effect

The Principle of Double Effect (PDE) is traditionally a defense against a charge of bringing about an effect that is absolutely wrong to intentionally bring about, a defense that holds that although one foresaw the effect, one did not intend it.

One of the main difficulties for PDE is the closeness problem. Typical examples of the closeness problem are things like dropping bombs on an enemy city in order to make the civilians look dead (Bennett), blowing up the fat man in the mouth of the cave when there is no other way out (Anscombe), etc.

If we think of intentions as arrows and the wrong-to-intend act as a target, one strategy for handling closeness problems is to “broaden intentions”, so that they hit the target more easily. Thus, if you intend something “close enough” to an effect you count as intending (or something similar to intending, say accomplishing) that effect. There are interesting general theories of this (e.g., O’Brien and Koons), but I do not think any of them cover all the cases well.

Another strategy, however, is to broaden the target. This strategy keeps intention very sharp and hyperintensional, but insists that what is forbidden to intend is broader. A number of people have done that (e.g., Quinn). What I want to do in this post is to offer a way of looking at a version of this strategy.

The PDE is correlative to absolute wrongs. There aren’t that many absolute wrongs. For instance, Judaism lists only three kinds of acts as absolute wrongs, things that may not be done no matter the benefits:

  • idolatry

  • murder

  • certain sexual sins (e.g., adultery and incest).

Now, intention enters differently into the definitions of these acts. Arguably, idolatry is very much defined by intentions. The very same physical bending of one’s midriff in the very same physical circumstances (e.g., standing facing an idol) can very easily be an act of idolatry or a back exercise, precisely depending on what one is intending by this bow. Such pairs of cases can be manufactured in the case of murder, but they will involve very odd assumptions. We can imagine a surgeon or an assassin cutting someone’s chest with the same movement, but it is in fact very unlikely that the movement will be the same. In the case of idolatry, we might say that more work is being done by intention and in the case of murder more work is being done by the physical act. And sexual wrongdoing is a very complex topic, but it is likely that intention enters in yet different ways, and differently in the case of different sexual wrongs.

We can think of an absolute prohibition as having the following structure:

  1. For all x1, ..., xn, when U(x1, ..., xn), it is absolutely wrong to intentionally bring it about that I(x1, ..., xn).

Here, U(x1, ..., xn) is a contextual description which needs to obtain but need not be intended to have a wrong of the given type, and I(x1, ..., xn) is a contextual description which needs to be intended. For instance, for murder, prima facie U(x1, x2) might specify that x1 is an act whose patient is known to be a juridically innocent person x2, while I(x1, x2) will specify that, say, x1 is the killing of x2. It’s enough that the murderer should know that the victim is an innocent person—the murderer does not need to intend to kill them qua innocent. But the murderer does need to intend something like the killing.

Note that in ordinary speech, when we give absolute prohibitions we speak with scope ambiguity. Thus, we are apt to say things like “It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent person”, without making clear whether “intentionally” applies just to “kill” or also to “innocent person”, i.e., without making it clear what is in the U part of the prohibition and what is in the I part.

Observe also that in the case of idolatry, more work is being done by I than by U, while in the case of murder, the work done by the two parts of the structure is the same.

So, now, here is a general strategy for handling closeness. We keep intention sharp, but we broaden (i.e., logically weaken) I by shifting some things that we might have thought are in I into U, perhaps introducing “known” or “believed” operators. For instance, in the case of murder, we might say something like this:

  1. When x1 is known to be the imposition of an arrangement x2 on the parts or aspects of an innocent person that normally and in this particular case precludes life, it is absolutely wrong to bring about x1 with the intention that it be an imposition of arrangement x2 on parts or aspects of reality.

And in the case of idolatry, perhaps we keep more in I, only moving the difference between God and the false god to the nonintentional portion of the prohibition:

  1. When x is known to be a god other than God, it is absolutely wrong to intentionally bring it about that one worships x.

And here is an important point. How we do this—how we shuffle requirements between I and U—will differ from absolute prohibition to absolute prohibition. What we are doing is not a refinement of Double Effect, but a refinement of the (hopefully small) number of absolute prohibitions in our deontological theory. We do not need to have any general things to say across absolute prohibitions how we do this broadening of the intentional target.

There might even be further complexities. It could, for instance, be that we have role-specific absolute prohibitions, coming with other ways for aspects of the action to be apportioned between U and I.

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