Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Contra Consequentialismum: Answering Critics of PDE

CONSEQUENTIALISTS ARE CRITICAL OF TRADITIONAL ETHICS, especially its notion that there are absolute, exceptionless norms. Consequentialists also criticize traditional eudaemonistic (happiness) ethical theories and their reliance on the principle of double effect. Peter Singer, for example, accuses every traditionalist of being a consequentialist under another name precisely because of his or her reliance on this principle, in particular that aspect of the principle of double effect that requires a proportionate reason in accepting evil as a result of some good. "[A] consequentialist judgement lurks behind the doctrine of double effect." Oderberg, MT, 97 (quoting Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) (2nd ed.), 210). The way Singer describes it, the principle of double effect elicits something like an image of Satan tempting Christ.

Is There a Consquentialist Lurking Behind the Principle of Double Effect?

Is the accusation legitimate? Is the "proportionate reason" prong of the principle of double effect consequentialism through the back door?

Not at all. The accusation is false, and it is based upon the seemingly similar cost/benefit analysis that the "proportionate reason" prong requires of the moral decisionmaker. But the proportionate reason prong of the principle of double effect, though it attempts to weigh the proportion of unintended evil relative to the intended good in assessing the moral liceity of any moral act, it is always "a fractional part of moral theory," and not the entirety of the moral theory such as consquentialists take their cost/benefit calculative theories to be. The other prongs of the principle of double effect must be regarded as part of the mix of the moral decision, and so, contrary to the consequentialist theory, "[o]ne can never use balancing to justify an otherwise evil act." Oderberg, 99. Balancing cannot be used to overcome the prohibition on using evil as a means to obtain some good, nor can balancing be used in balancing intended evil effects with good effects. The similarities between consequentialism's calculation and the principle of double effects weighing are superficial.

Never Give an Atom Bomb to a Consequentialist!

There is thus a great divide between the consquentialist's ideas of right and wrong and traditional morality and its principle of double effect. A consequentialist can justify as right the dropping of the atom bomb on the civilian populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and all such efforts at justifying this act resort to speculative consequentialist calculations of Japanese lives lost versus American lives saved). A traditionalist would never even get to the question of proportionate reason and weigh the relative balance between evil and good because he would immediately see that dropping the atom bomb on innocent civilians, that is, non-combatants, would be intending evil, and one cannot do evil so that good may come, however great that good be. Even if arguendo Nagasaki or Hiroshima were military targets (which they were not), and the intention was to target the military installations and combatants and the civilian deaths considered an unintended evil effect (i.e., collateral damage), it would seem that there would not be a proportionately good reason to warrant the death and maiming of some many non-combatants, especially since there were other means to attack the supposed military targets that would not have resulted in such massive non-combatant casualties.*

There is thus a great divide between consequentialists, and their calculative ethos, and the traditional view, and the prudent weighing that is associated with the "proportionate reason" prong of the principle of double effect:

The weight of consequences, then, is doubly fractional in moral theory. First, it does not play a conceptual role in the vast majority of cases [for traditional moral theory], where far more complex and subtle issues than mere quantity are at issue. Second, even in those cases where it does play a role, it does so only after all other moral requirements have been satisfied: weighting goods might occasionally tip the balance in favour of this or that action, but it can never turn a bad action into a good one, and it can never be used as the sole criterion of right and wrong.

Oderberg, 101.

Another criticism frequently hurled at the principle of double effect is its distinction of intended from unintended consequences. "If [an] act is wrong with one intention, how can it be right with another?" they ask. Oderberg, 101-02 (quoting J. Rachels). Can we play games with our intention, "purifying the intention," or "directing our intention,"** as it were, making black white and white black? Is there really a difference between a doctor who prescribes a narcotic to his terminally-ill patient to relieve pain knowing that a consequence of it is to accelerate his patient's death and a doctor who prescribes a narcotic with the intention of terminating the life of his terminally-ill patient? Are moralists really required to be doctores subtilis, doctors of such subtleties? This seems a recipe for hypocrisy or casuistry, and perhaps in the hands of the dishonest, the dissembler, the hypocrite it is open to abuse. But that is true with most any theory. Intellectual dishonesty is intellectual dishonesty wherever it may be found. Intellectual dishonesty, or abuse of a theory, does not make the theory false.

The suggestion, however, by the critics of the principle of double effect that intention does not make a difference in assessing moral acts is an even greater enormity than the risk of an occasional scoundrel or casuist who plays jesuitical games with his conscience, as if the moral life were a game, a "matter of private mental gymnastics." Oderberg, 105. Isn't there a huge difference between the man who pulls the trigger of his gun to kill an unjust aggressor who comes at him with a knife, versus one who pulls the trigger of his gun to gain the victim's loot? "[E]ven a dog," Justice Holmes wryly observed, "distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked."*** Our intent is obviously moral materia prima, moral prime matter. The fact is, whether we like it or not, "[t]he only way of carving up responsibility, then, is by attention to what the agent has in mind by his actions--what the object of his will can properly be said to be." Oderberg, 103.

There is, without doubt, difficulty in the matter of intention. But the difficulty is not one of theory, it is one of evidence. It is difficult for us to know our own intentions, much less those of others. However that may be, the difficulty of knowing intention does not change the reality of it.
For the opponent of PDE [principle of double effect], then, to treat intention as fleeting mental events easily changeable irrespective of circumstance, and hence too elusive for moral theory, is to raise wholly general questions of skepticism about a person's mental life, questions that are relevant to every moral theory but persuasive against none.
Oderberg, 104-05. In other words, the opponent of the principle of double effect who focuses on the matter of intention in his criticism is implicitly criticizing the entire moral enterprise, including his own.

*This is not to suggest that all use of atomic weaponry is morally prohibited, and the use of atomic weaponry is per se evil (which is another topic). But its indiscriminate use against civilian population (as would also be the case with conventional weaponry), is absolutely proscribed. This has been a constant in Church teaching since Pius XII mentioned it in a Speech to the Eighth General Assembly of the World Medical Association in 1954. (The text is available in Spanish translation from the Italian original on the Vatican website see: Discurso de su Santidad Pío XII a los Participantes en la VIII Asamblea de la Asociación Médica Mundial):
Is modern "total war," in particular ABC [atomic, biological, or chemical] warfare, permissible in principle? One can entertain no doubt--especially because of the horrors and the immense suffering that results from modern warfare--that to initiate such warfare without just cause (that is to say, without it being imposed by an evident and extremely grave injustice which cannot be avoided by other means) is a "crime" worthy of most severe national and international sanctions. In principle, one cannot even propose the question of the liceity of atomic, chemical and bacteriological war, except in the case when it is indispensable for one's defense, and within the aforementioned conditions. Even then, however, one must strive by all means to avoid it through international agreements or by creating limits for its use that are so clear and precise that its effects remain circumscribed to the strict exigencies of defense. When, however, the use of such means of warfare would result in an extension of harm that completely escapes the control of mankind, its use should be rejected as immoral. Here one is no longer dealing with "defense" against injustice and the necessary "protection" of legitimate possessions, but with the annihilation pure and simple of all human life within the radius of its action. This is never permitted for any reason.
Pope Pius XII, “Sintesi di verità e di morale espressa alla VII Assemblea Medica Mondiale,” Sept. 30, 1954, in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, Vol. XVI, 2 Marzo 1954 – 1 Marzo 1955, p. 169. On the matter of morality, between the lights of Truman and the lights of Pius XII, I'll side with the Pastor Angelicus over Give 'em Hell Harry every time.

**The phrase is Pascal's. It comes from his criticism of the Jesuits in his Provincial Letters (Letter VII, , where he criticizes the effort of "directing the intention" (diriger l'intention) or "purifying the intention" (purifiant l'intention) as a facile way to change the character of an act from evil to good. Pascal properly identifies an activity that could quickly become morality by trick, by legerdemain, casuistry in its worst form.
***Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Common Law (Boston: Little & Brown, 1881), 3.

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