Monday, October 30, 2017

Counseling the lesser evil

A controversial principle in Catholic moral theology is the principle of “counseling the lesser evil”, sometimes confusingly (or confusedly) presented as the “principle of the lesser evil”. The principle is one that the Church has not pronounced on. (For a survey of major historical points, see this piece by Fr. Flannery.)

First, a clarification. Nobody in the debate thinks it is ever permissible to do the lesser evil. The lesser evil is still an evil, and it is never permissible to do evil, no matter what might result from it. The debate is very specifically the following. Suppose someone is determined to do an evil, and cannot be dissuaded from doing some evil or other. Is it permissible to counsel a lesser evil in order to redirect the person from a greater evil? For instance, if someone is about to murder you, and cannot be dissuaded from an evil course of action, are you permitted to counsel theft instead, as on some interpretations the ten men in Jeremiah 41:8 do? (But see quotations in Flannery for other interpretations.)

There is no question that if the potential murderer is redirected to theft, the theft will still be wrong, indeed quite possibly a mortal sin (depending on the amount stolen). The moral question about “the lesser evil” is not about the primary evildoer but about the counselor. On the one hand, it appears that if the counselor’s counsel is sincere, the counselor is wrongfully endorsing an evil—albeit less evil—course of action. Indeed, it seems that the counselor is even intending the evil, albeit as an alternative to a greater evil.

On the other hand, a number of people will have very strong intuitions that it is not wrong to say to a potential murderer “Don’t kill me: here, take my laptop!” (Note: I assume the coerced circumstances do not render this a valid gift, so the potential murderer will indeed be a thief by taking the laptop.)

Let me add that the argument I will give leaves open the question of the advisability of counseling the lesser evil. Often it may be better to inspire the evildoer to do the good thing rather than the lesser of the evils. Moreover, one needs to be extremely wary of any public counseling of the lesser evil, because it is apt to encourage people who are not determined on evil to do the lesser evil. I think it is unlikely that such counseling is often advisable.

So, here’s the argument. Start with this thought. Agents deliberate about options. As they do so, they come to favor some options over others. Eventually, as they narrow in on the decision, they favor one option over all the others. Moreover:

  1. If a deliberating agent in the end favors B over C, typically the agent will not choose C as a result of this deliberation.

There are at least two reasons for the “typically”. First, maybe the agent is irrational. Second, maybe there can be cases of circular favoring structures, so that the agent favors B over C, favors A over B, and favors C over A, so that she ends up choosing C anyway.

Next observe this:

  1. If option B is better than option C, then it is good for a deliberating agent to favor B over C.

This is true regardless of whether B and C are both good options, or B is good and C is bad, or both B and C are bad. It is simply a good thing to favor the better over the worse.

With (1) and (2) in mind, consider a case where the agent has three options: a good A (e.g., going away), a lesser evil B (e.g., theft) and a greater evil C (e.g., murder). By (2) it is good if the agent to favors B over C. Suppose the counselor strives to lead the agent who is determined on evil to favor B over C (e.g., by emphasizing the resale value of the laptop, or the likelihood that the police will investigate a murder more thoroughly than a theft, or the greater sinfulness of murder, depending on what is more likely to impress the particular agent). Then the conditions for the Principle of Double Effect can be satisfied on the side of the counselor.

  1. The counselor is pursuing a good end, the agent’s not choosing C.

  2. The counselor’s chosen means to the good end is the agent’s favoring B over C. By (1), such favoring is likely to be effective in fulfilling the counselor’s good end (namely, the agent’s not choosing C) and by (2), such favoring is good.

  3. There is a foreseen but not intended evil of the agent opting for B. It is not intended, because the counselor’s plan of action will be successful whether or not the agent opts for B (as foreseen) or for A (an unexpected bonus).

  4. The good of the agent’s not choosing C is proportionate to the foreseen evil of the agent’s choosing B, and there is, we may suppose, no better way of achieving the good.

In particular, there is no intention that the agent choose B, or even choose B over C. The intention is that the agent favor B over C, which is all that is typically needed, given (1), for the agent not to choose C.

Note 1: This provides a defense of pretty strong cases of counseling the lesser evil. The argument works even in cases where the agent being counseled wouldn’t have thought of evil B prior to the counseling (that is the case in Jeremiah 41:8). It might even work where B is impossible prior to the counseling. For instance you might unlock your safe in order to make it easier for the agent to steal your money in place of killing you. In so doing, your end is still that C not be done, and the means is that B is favored over C.

Note 2: This solves the problem of bribes.

Note 3: I am not very confident of any of the above.


Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Alex,

I agree with the principle that it's justified sometimes to council de lesser evil - I find it intuitively very clear, so I'm confident about that part.
But I don't know that the solution you propose also resolves the problem of bribes, for at least two reasons:

a. I don't think that the official who demands a bribe, accepts it and does what he should have done without a bribe, is behaving less immorally than the official who demands a bribe and refrains from doing his official duty given that the bribe isn't paid. They both seem similarly immoral to me. You could say that one of them after all does his duty. But I don't think that's so in the morally relevant sense: he has a moral obligation to, say, give a permit because he promised to do that under those circumstances, not because he's going to get paid a bribe. Moreover, when he accepts the bribe, he's also breaking the promise (implicit or explicit) not do accept bribes.

b. It may well be that the official isn't demanding a bribe. He's just tired and doesn't want to bother doing his duty. Accepting the bribe seems, in my view, more immoral at least - he's doing something but because of the bribe, not because of the promise he made to perform certain tasks. He was breaking his promise anyway.

This is "all other things equal", of course. There are hypothetical scenarios in taking the bribe is not wrong. But realistically, it nearly always is.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not as hard as you are on bribe-taking, particularly in social settings where the practice is wide-spread, even if illegal.

When one makes a promise, one doesn't have an obligation to do the promised thing *because* of the promise. For instance, suppose I promise to tell you some time about what happened last Saturday. Come another day, I forget about the promise and tell the story about last Saturday. Then I remember the promise. I don't have to tell again *because* of the promise! I would say that this is a case where I haven't fulfilled the promise, but I haven't broken it either--it became moot.

Alexander R Pruss said...

An interesting thing I thought of just now is that it should also be sometimes permissible to counsel an equal evil. For instance, Alice is murdering Bob, and Carl put himself up as a substitute for Bob.

On my account, Carl can intend that Alice favor killing Carl over killing Bob. Since killing Carl has roughly the same kind of wickedness as killing Bob, favoring killing Carl over killing Bob is not good, but it is at least neutral. So, the story would be:
Carl is trying to prevent the killing of Bob (good).
To that end, he induces Alice to favor killing Carl over killing Bob (a neutral means).
And proportionality is met.

One might also argue that it is slightly less wicked to kill someone who puts himself forth over someone who does not. But that's not quite sufficient, because Carl's attempt to induce Alice to kill him rather than Bob would be praiseworthy even if Bob were also attempting to induce Alice to kill him rather than Carl.

Angra Mainyu said...

I think I may have given the impression I'm harder on bribe-taking than I actually am. While I think it's nearly always morally wrong, I also think in cases such as the ones you describe, it's only a little wrong. But in that case, I think the wrongness is not diminished by accepting the bribe vs. not granting the permit (or whatever it is) while the person refuses to pay the bribe.

Regarding promises, I didn't mean to say that that is the case of all promises, but I thought that was the case if one is an official who has to give a permit (if not the only motivation, at least one of them). But I realize after further thought that there are other acceptable motivations, so point granted. That said, getting a bribe isn't among the available motivations (and as I mentioned, the person promised not to accept bribes when she signed up).

In re: equal evil, I agree that your rationale seems to support counseling an equally immoral behavior. However, I don't think it works in the case you present, or similar ones, since much of the immorality of a killing results from the motivation, and then it turns out that killing a person who is offering himself to be killed is morally worse than killing the original target.

For example, let's say that Alice intends to murder Bob because Bob cheated on her. Now, Bob's actions were immoral, but surely they do not justify murder, so Alice's intent is (very) immoral. But Carl - Bob's father - pleads to Alice to kill him instead of his son. If she does so, I think her actions are considerably more immoral. Murdering a person in anger over cheating is very wrong, but murdering an innocent person who offers himself as a substitute looks even (much) more so to me.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think proportionality in Double Effect allows for minor differences in gravity. For instance, I think Double Effect allows you to redirect the trolley from yourself to a stranger (or vice versa) even if the stranger (or oneself) is such that it is a little worse to kill them.

I think you're right that in some cases the death of oneself will be much worse than the death of the substitute. But except in extreme cases, I don't think it would be disproportionate. Suppose that Karl is a Nazi who has a quota of one innocent person to kill. He is really angry at you, and is going to kill you. It is OK to run away from Karl, even if you know for sure that if he doesn't kill you in hot blood, he will later that day kill someone in cold blood. But on the other hand, I don't think it would be OK to run away from Karl if you knew for sure that if he doesn't kill you, he'd kill ten people.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add that the increment in wrongfulness in killing Carl rather than Bob because of the cold blood/anger issue is partly balanced by the fact that it is worse to kill someone unwilling to die (though it is also wrong to kill an innocent willing to die).

Alexander R Pruss said...

But thank you for some very interesting cases!

Angra Mainyu said...

You're welcome, and thanks for your interesting cases as well!

We don't seem to have the same intuitions on some of those. In my view, that a person is willing to die does not always make the killing better. Rather, depending on the motivation of the killer and the information available to him, it could be (at least) just as immoral, and I think this is one such case. But even granting that Carl's offering himself makes the killing slightly less immoral than it would otherwise be, it still seems to me it's still much more immoral than the revenge killing of Bob over his cheating.
Regarding the angry Nazi, I think it would be permissible to run away even if you know he'll kill ten. We don't have a moral obligation to sacrifice our lives for ten strangers (this isn't a case of counseling, anyway).

Kenny Pearce said...

Does it follow from this principle that Catholics ought to promote the use of birth control among people unlikely to follow Catholic sexual/reproductive ethics, since empirical evidence suggests that the use of birth control among such people will reduce the number of abortions? This seems to me to meet all of your criteria.

Also, would the same reasoning allow one to assist in the commission of the lesser evil? Handing over the laptop to the would-be murderer is not a matter of *merely* giving counsel; it actually assists in the theft. (That is, if one actively hands it over, rather than merely passively failing to resist as it is taken.) Applying this to the birth control case would seem to undermine the political positions recently taken by some prominent Catholic institutions...

Alexander R Pruss said...

It is crucial to the reasoning I gave that the lesser evil not be intended by the counselor, but that the counselor intend only that the agent favor the lesser over the greater evil. If the counselor's intention is to prevent conception in order to reduce abortions, that intention is not covered by the argument.

Moreover, typically any counseling of the lesser evil needs to be private, because one needs to determine first whether it is possible to dissuade the individual from the evil altogether. One doesn't want to take the risk of having people who wouldn't have committed the greater commit the lesser evil.

It is a difficult question whether contraceptive sex by an unmarried couple is worse, less bad, or approximately equal in badness to non-contraceptive sex by an unmarried couple.

As for assistance, nobody doubts that if someone points a gun at you and asks for your wallet, you are morally permitted (and perhaps obligated) to hand the wallet over. The Catholic tradition calls this "merely material cooperation", because you are not intending the theft, but only a morally neutral prerequisite for the theft (namely, that the wallet be easily available to the attacker).

Helen Watt said...

Coming in very late here but I'm not quite sure how favoring X over Y solves the problem? After all even good people can 'favor' theft over murder if all that means is that they concede as a matter of fact that murder is even worse than theft.

That kind of factual concession or the factual concession that Y will leave the wrongdoer worse off than X (which again we can all make) won't divert the wrongdoer from Y unless he plans to do X or to make it possible for himself to do X or at very least entertains the temptation to do X. And isn't it wrong to choose any of those? (as opposed to thinking through the factual pros and cons which might be OK, as when a woman who is already considering an abortion thinks about what abortion would mean and also what having the baby would mean).

Of course, none of this affects advising people what not to do, without the intention they plan/plan to enable the possible choice/entertain the temptation to do some other evil. So a military commander could say to his out-of-control soldiers "Whatever you do, don't massacre the captives" but couldn't say "Why don't you rape or mutilate them instead?" (or indeed order them to rape or mutilate, which might be the best way of protecting the captives from massacre but seems particularly repulsive).

I'm still very confused by the case of offering oneself in the place of someone about to be murdered though. What thoughts in the murderer's mind are we trying to motivate? Even the murderer thinking "Person B will be in my power instead, which is just as good" is surely intending at very least to entertain a wrongful thought or enable a possible wrongful later choice - but is almost certainly forming on the spot a definite new plan to murder. Whether this new plan is morally better or worse than the plan to kill the original person, this is still a wrongful plan so how could it possibly intended by the hero/saint? And surely, the bare thought "Person B will be in my power instead" will not be enough to motivate unless we add some wrongful choices on the murderer's part.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's a toy model of how deliberation normally goes. As you think about the options, you start forming preferences between them. As soon as you've decided to favor B over C, you stop deliberating about C: there is no point to deliberating about C if you prefer B. So, normally, one way to get an agent to stop considering C as an option is to bring it about that the agent favors B over C for some B, as that makes C drop out of the deliberation. The agent may or may not end up doing B, but as C has been dropped out of deliberation, the agent won't do C.

Couldn't the commander say: "Murder is even worse than mutilation"?

Helen Watt said...

It depends what we mean by favour - in this context, doesn't favour have to involve an immoral willing on the wrongdoer's part that we should not be intending? Bearing in mind that it's the immoral plan at all its stages and reiterations that's morally wrong, not the success of the immoral plan that concerns external things such as whether the captives in fact escape...

Yes, murder is even worse than mutilation but when the commander says that, what is he intending? Just that they don't murder (in which case fine) - or that they plan, perhaps conditionally, to mutilate? Each such plan or conditional plan will be wrong as will each deliberate entertaining of the possibility. This is surely different from mentioning other possibilities they won't even entertain, though they're 'better' than Plan A in some respect - say by saying "You'd have to massacre everyone in the town to get away with it, and that's not going to happen, is it?"

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am thinking that when we deliberate over options, we come to favor some over others. When I come to ultimately favor B over *all* alternatives to B, then normally I will B. But simply coming to ultimately favor B over one alternative, say, C does not ensure I will B, though normally it ensures that I won't will C.

Helen Watt said...

It doesn't ensure you will ultimately, definitively will B, that's true - but what if your rejection of C is secured by your deliberate 'entertainment' of B as a live option -
itself a wrongful thing to will (and thus for me to will that you will).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think it's wrong to entertain B as a live option in contrast to C, but it would be wrong to entertain it as a live option in contrast to the right option, A.

(Imagine an agent who is brainwashed so that he is psychologically unable to do anything other than steal from you or murder you. I think that in some sense for this agent to choose to steal from you would be praiseworthy, because the alternative is murder.)

Helen Watt said...

Even without brainwashing, it happens quite often when there's a moral dilemma that we don't even think of the morally right option - we may only think of two options, both wrong to differing degrees although we may not know that. It may not even be our fault the clever right option never occurred to us - as when we have to make a split-second decision on something rather complicated.

So while we may be praised for our conscientiousness in trying to do our best/avoid the worse of the two wrong options, it's still a wrong choice so should not be intended by us, nor should others intend we intend it (they may not be culpable either - I'm just talking about what's the right thing to do here, did we but know it).