Friday, June 2, 2023

Double Effect and trivially good ends

Suppose I am facing the classic trolley situation: a trolley is hurtling towards five persons on the left track, but I can redirect the trolley onto the right track where there is only one person.

A normal decent person will redirect the trolley in order to save the five persons, tolerating the unintended death of the one person as a side-effect. But now imagine that Alice redirects the trolley solely in order to enjoy the feeling of moving the railway switch. She realizes that this spells the death of the person on the right track. But she reasons as follows:

I am not intending the death of that person. I am intending the pleasant feeling of moving the railway switch. I foresee the death of one person on the right track. However, the overall foreseen consequences of the action are positive: five live, one dies and I have fun, instead of five dying and one living. Thus the Principle of Double Effect applies. I am aiming at a good (fun), with the bad effect (death of one) not intended as either an end or as a means, and the good effect is proportionate to the overall consequences, since the overall consequences are positive.

There is something with Alice’s failure to intend to save the lives of the five. What is wrong? Here is one suggestion:

  1. In the proportionality condition of the Principle of Double Effect, we do not simply compare the good and the bad effects, but we compare the intended good effects to all the foreseen bad effects.

In the case of a normal decent person, saving the five persons is intended, and proportionality holds. But Alice doesn’t intend to save the five and so there is no proportionality.

I am inclined to think the suggested proportionality condition asks for too much. Suppose Bob is an agent much like in the original trolley situation, except that he is tied down, near the switch, in such a way that his leg protrudes onto the left track after the switch. Bob is (rightly) terrified of getting his leg amputated, and decides to redirect the trolley. He then notices that on the right track there is a person, and so if he redirects the trolley, that person will die. He is about to resign himself to loss of the leg, when he looks at the left track and notices that there are five people there. He reasons that while a person will die, on balance the consequences of redirecting are good, and redirects the trolley solely in order to save his leg.

While we would prefer it if Bob intended to save the five people on the left track, I do not think Bob did anything wrong. What was wrong with Alice’s action was that her end, the pleasure of flipping the switch, was execrably trivial in comparison to the death of the person on the right track. Bob’s end is far from trivial. Thus, I suggest:

  1. In the proportionality condition of the Principle of Double Effect, we do two comparisons. First, we ensure that the intended good effects are not trivial in comparison to all the foreseen bad effects. Second, we ensure that the foreseen good effects are proportionate to the foreseen bad effects.

1 comment:

Harrison Lee said...

A few thoughts about this:

Another explanation of why Alice acts badly would be that she does not fulfill her obligation to save the five (I do think it's an obligation) for the reasons why she is bound by that obligation. She is obligated to save them because she must save them to (fulfill her more fundamental obligation to) show respect for their human dignity. If she is not motivated by this respect, she fails to fulfill this more fundamental obligation, and so she acts (or omits) badly.

Second, I'm now inclined to think that Bob diverts *partly* in order to save the five. What is his goal in acting? Apparently, it is not *just* to save his leg. If that was his only goal, he would not allow the trolley to run over his leg when he did not realize that there were five bystanders further down his stretch of track. His goal is to act well, and he achieves this by diverting the trolley, thereby saving his leg and the five bystanders. (This is why in general I'm now thinking that there is no Kamm-style because/in-order-to distinction.) In that case, his action satisfies proportionality on a consequentialist interpretation. Maybe that just means that this is not a counterexample to your formulation 1.