Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Quinn, Double Effect and closeness

In a famous paper, Warren Quinn suggests replacing the distinction between intending evil and foreseeing evil in the Principle of Double Effect (PDE) with a distinction between directly and indirectly harmful action. For concreteness, let’s talk about the death of innocents. Classical PDE reasoning says that it’s wrong to intend the death of an innocent, but it is permissible to accept it as a side-effect for a proportionate reason. Quinn thinks that this has the implausible consequence that craniotomy is permissible: that it is permissible to crush the skull of a fetus to get it through birth canal, because one is not intending the fetus’s death, but only the reduction in head size. This is a special case of the closeness problem: intending to crush the skull is too close to death for a moral distinction, but yet technically one can intend the crushing without intending the death, and so Double Effect makes a moral distinction where there is none.

Quinn suggests that what is instead wrong is to intentionally cause an effect on an innocent that has the following two properties:

  1. the effect is a harm, and

  2. this harm is foreseen to result in death.

The doctor is intending to crush the fetus’s skull: that is an intended effect on the fetus. This effect is a harm, and it is foreseen to result in death. So craniotomy is ruled out. Similarly, blowing up the fat man blocking the entrance of the cave in which other spelunkers are trapped is ruled out, because even though it is possible to blow someone up without intending that they die, being blow up is a clear case of harm, and it is foreseen to lead to death.

This is clever, but I think it fails. For we can imagine that a callous doctor does not intend any effect to the fetus. All he intends is the change in arrangement of a certain set of molecules in order to facilitate their removal from the uterus. These molecules happen to be the ones that the fetus is made of. But that they make up the body of the fetus need not be relevant to the doctor’s intention. If instead there were something other than a fetus present that for health reasons needed to be removed (not at all a remote possibility: consider the body of an already deceased fetus), and the molecules there were similarly arranged, our callous doctor would take exactly the same course of action. Similarly, the spelunkers need not be intending to break up the fat man’s body, but simply to disperse a cloud of molecules.

Now, we could say that the molecules constitute or even are the body of the fetus or of the fat man, and we could say that if you intend A and you know that A is or constitutes B, then you intend B. But if you say that, then you don’t need the Quinn view to get out of craniotomy. For you can then take Fitzpatrick’s solution to the problem of closeness that crushing the skull constitutes death, and hence that the doctor intends death. In fact, though, the constitution principle is false: intention is hyperintensional, and not only doesn’t transfer along constitution lines but we can intend the identical object under one description but not under another. Anyway, the point here is that the molecule problem shows that we need some other solution to the problem of closeness to make Quinn’s story work: the Quinn solution might help with some cases, but it cannot be taken to be the solution.


Helen Watt said...


No it can't, you're right. It does seem a mistake to ask intention to do too much of the work in making some acts immoral. Not all side-effects are "mere" side-effects to weigh against intended goods - some side-effects or "unintended morally determinative aspects" of some intentions are themselves conclusive in making something e.g. wrongful homicide. (After all, innocence itself need not be intended as opposed to known about.)

Isn't it enough for wrongful homicide that an agent is taking it upon himself to change matter he knows constitutes an innocent person's body, or invade space he knows that body occupies, in a way he knows is lethally harmful to that person? People's bodily integrity rights include but go beyond their right not to be intentionally killed or maimed.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The "knows is lethally harmful" is tricky. Suppose an innocent stranger is lethally attacking some innocent member of my family. (Perhaps the stranger has a justified false belief that my family member is an evil aggressor.) I also know that the stranger has such a fragile constitution that any punch will kill them. But they are drawing a gun, and the least violent way to stop them is to deflect their arm. In doing so, I am taking it upon myself to change matter that I know constitutes an innocent person's body in a way that I know is lethally harmful to that person.

There may be a way of tweaking your formulation to make it work better.

Helen Watt said...

Good points but easily incorporated I think. The stranger attacking your family is morally innocent but that's not the kind of innocence that is relevant here - this is about the stranger intending harm not justified by facts as opposed to perceptions. The stranger is trying to harm your relative, albeit under a justified false belief (if that weren't enough for lethal defence, it would be very difficult to fight a just war when so many enemies may wrongly but non-culpably believe their country is in the right). And as regards a fragile constitution, I think we need to tweak the 'lethally harmful' bit so as to exclude harm from actions which would not normally harm at all a healthy person of the relevant age. Otherwise gently opening the lips of a dying person would be wrong however important it was to do that (to get a whistle to attract rescuers' attention, or whatever).

Alexander R Pruss said...


We could suppose the stranger is hallucinating that he is playing a video game. In that case, he's not even intending harm.

I do think your modification of "lethally harmful" may be the most promising way to go.