Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Double Effect and symbolic actions

There is an intrinsic value to standing against evil. One way to do that is to intentionally act to reduce the evil. But that’s not the only way. Another way of standing against evil is to protest it even when one reasonably expects one’s protest to have no effect. When we see standing against evil as something of significant intrinsic value, then sometimes it will even make sense to stand against evil even when we foresee that doing so will unintentionally increase the evil. It can be legitimate to protest an abuse of power even if one foresees that such protest will lead to further abuses of power, such as a crackdown on the protesters. Of course, prudence is needed, and one must keep proportionality in mind: if the abuses of power inspired by the protest are likely to be much worse than the ones being protested, it is better not to protest. Another way to stand against evil is to punish it. Again, this can make sense even when one does not expect the punishment to reduce the evil (e.g., perhaps the evil is a one-off and it is unlikely that there will be any further temptations to deter people from).

Similarly, there is an intrinsic value to standing for good. A central way to stand for good is to act to increase the good. But, again, it’s not the only way. Admiring, rewarding and praising also are ways of standing for good, even when they are not expected to increase the good.

The actions that constituting standing for good or against evil but that are not intentional acts to increase the good or reduce the evil may be called symbolic. “Symbolic” is often used as a way to downplay the importance of something. That is a mistake: the symbolic can be of great importance. Moreover, “symbolic” suggests a social dimension that need not be relevant. When an atheist hikes alone in order to contemplate the goodness of nature, that is a way of standing for the good of nature that is symbolic in the above sense but not social. Moreover, “symbolic” suggests a certain arbitrariness of choice of symbol. But there need not be such. There is nothing arbitrary in virtue of which admiring a beautiful view is a way of symbolically standing for the good. We thus need to understand “symbolic” in a broad way that is compatible with great intrinsic value, that need not be social in nature, and need not involve arbitrary socially instituted representations.

If we do this, then here is a promising way to make the kinds of deontological views that are tied to the Principle of Double Effect plausible. On these views, certain fundamental evils are wrong to intentionally produce but may be tolerated as side-effects. But now things look puzzling. Let’s say that we can end a war by dropping a bomb on the wicked leaders in the enemy headquarters in a busy city, and which bomb will also kill and maim thousands of innocents in the surrounding buildings, or one can end the war by kidnapping and maiming the enemy leader’s innocent child. The attack on the child is wrong while the attack on the headquarters is permissible on this deontological ethics, but that may just feel wrong. But if we see symbolic standing for good and against evil as really important, the difference becomes more plausible. In intending the maiming of the child, one is standing for evil: for it is unescapable that by intending an evil one stands for it. In refusing to maim the child, one is standing against evil. But in dropping the bomb, the mere foresight of the plight of thousands of innocents does not make one be standing for evil. One can still count as standing against evil by intending to kill the evildoers in the headquarters.

It is tempting to think that when standing against evil does not actually reduce evil, as in the case of the refusal to maim the child, the the action is merely symbolic, and moral weight of the obligation is low. But that is a mistake: “merely” is a poor choice of words when connected with “symbolic”. Symbolic actions can be of great import indeed.

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