Monday, January 8, 2018

The pastoral problem of double effect reasoning

As part of a just war, Alice drops a bomb on the enemy military headquarters. Next door to the enemy headquarters are the world headquarters of a corporation that Alice knows has been responsible for enormous environmental degradation, and the bomb will level the whole block. Alice finds it very difficult not to jump in glee at the death of the immoral CEO.

It would be murder, however, for Alice to drop the bomb in order to kill the CEO. It would still be murder even if she dropped the bomb in part in order to do so. But it’s hard for Alice not to be motivated by the death of the CEO, and hence Alice—who is deeply morally sensitive—finds it difficult not to feel guilty of murder.

There are two interrelated pastoral problems here. First, how can Alice avoid being a murderer—how can she avoid intending to kill the hated CEO? Second, if she succeeds in avoiding being a murderer, how can she avoid feeling like a murderer?

Reflecting on counterfactuals may help Alice.

  1. Would I still drop the bomb here if the military leaders were elsewhere and I could get away with it?

  2. Would I still drop the bomb here if the CEO were elsewhere but the military leaders were here?

If the answer to (1) is “yes” or the answer to (2) is “no”, she very likely is intending to kill the CEO. But even if the answer to (1) is “no” and that to (2) is “yes”, that does not prove that the CEO’s presence isn’t contributing to her intention. Perhaps the CEO’s presence isn’t enough to motivate her by itself, but it nonetheless contributes to her motivations. One could try to tease this apart through further counterfactuals.

  1. Is there a personal cost such that (a) if the CEO were elsewhere but the military leaders were here, I would not drop the bomb on account of the cost, but (b) if the CEO were here along with the military leaders, I would drop the bomb notwithstanding the cost?

A positive answer suggests that she is intending to kill the CEO. But the counterfactual (3) is hard to evaluate, and it is not clear that it is epistemically accessible to Alice.

Perhaps these counterfactuals would be more helpful:

  1. If I could aim the bomb in such a way that I would kill the military leaders but not the CEO, would I?

  2. If after dropping the bomb, I could call for an ambulance to save the CEO, would I?

Answers to these two questions seem imaginatively accessible. I think a positive answer to both questions is strong evidence that the CEO’s death is not intended. And it seems to me that (4) and (5), unlike (3), are pretty accessible to Alice, they could help with the problem of not feeling like a murderer.

Interestingly, positive answers to (4) and (5) are not logically necessary for Alice not to be a murderer. Suppose Alice were callous and did not care either way about the CEO’s death. Then she wouldn’t be intending the CEO’s death—any more than she would be intending to make cracks in the sidewalk—but she wouldn’t go to any trouble to prevent his death.

Positive answers to (4) and (5) would indicate that Alice has on balance a negative attitude to the CEO’s death, despite uncontrollable feelings of glee. And it seems that to deal with the pastoral problem of double effect, what one needs is to have not just a neutral but a negative attitude to the evil. Of course, guilt at the CEO’s death may survive reflection on (4) and (5). But (4) and (5) could be a helpful step.

One writer on double effect said that for a double effect justification to apply one needs to do something to prevent or lessen the unintended evil. That kind of action could indeed help with the pastoral problem. But sometimes no action is possible—in that case, reflection on counterfactual action may help.

Still, I think even positive answers to (4) and (5) can leave a residual worry, especially in a scrupulous person. Alice might worry that she really does want the CEO dead, and while she would aim differently or call for an ambulance if she could, that would be out of duty rather than out of desire, and hence she still is intending the CEO to be dead. I think this is a mistaken worry. If she is thus moved by duty, then it seems that duty is structuring Alice’s intentions in a way that makes her not intend to kill the CEO—even if she uncontrollably rejoices at the immoral CEO’s death.

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