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.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Principle of Double Effect: Introduction

ONE OF MAN'S UNIQUE FACULTIES IS FREEDOM. Relative to the brute animals, he seems to have degrees of freedom unheard of in the world of beings below him. Considering that the good of things relates to its activities, it seems that the good of man must comprehend or include the activities of his freedom, that is, the good must include his free choice and the use of his will.

Traditional ethics emphasizes, then, the act of will, without however excluding the nature of the exterior acts, in its analysis of whether an act is morally good. The will aims at some object, and it is this object toward which the will is directed, the will's intention, that "determines the quality of any other act that the will commands for the purpose of realizing that object." Oderberg, 86. Therefore, a traditional moralist is both concerned with what is done, and the intention behind it. It is the intention which makes something moral, morally good or morally evil. Without intention moral good and moral evil do not enter into the picture; without intention we only have pre-moral or physical goods and evils: acts of man instead of human acts.

It ought not to be thought that this emphasis on intention or the internal act of the will by traditional moralists makes morality an entirely subjective affair. Indeed, understanding what is good and evil in the objective moral order and what is good and evil in the non-moral (physical or material) order are absolute prerequisites to assessing the will, that is the actor's intention, and thus the moral act itself:

[W]hat a person does, externally, the effects he has on the world through his agency, are not matters of indifference because they will be characterized as good or evil, in the primary, non-moral sense, which is the object of all human action. . . . [I]t is impossible even to comprehend what makes and intention morally good or bad if the reality of objective non-moral good or evil is not apprehended in the first place. It is the inherent goodness of certain ends that makes them proper objects of human striving, so that the person who strives after them does good, or acts morally; and conversely for ends that are bad.

Oderberg, 87.

For example, avalanches are, from a physical perspective and like any natural catastrophe, a great physical evil. Avalanches, however, cannot in any sense be said to be moral evils. If a person however intends to cause an avalanche, say by making a loud noise when the snow is clearly unstable and he has been warned of such instability, that intention toward a physical, objective though non-moral evil colors the intent and makes it clearly an immoral, evil act. Intending this physical evil turns colors the physical evil into a moral one.

Both the act of the will, which adds the qualitative element to the entire assessment of any particular act, and the external act itself, which adds a quantitative assessment, are significant. Though distinguishable, the external act and the internal intention feed on each other. Thus, though someone may be guilty of a moral wrong by willing or intending another's death, though he be frustrated by some factor from going through with it, to actually go through with it makes the intention even worse.* "[T]he execution of intention often adds something quantitative to the intention itself, since it usually required greater and more prolonged effort to externalize the will, and hence more concentrated dwelling on the good or evil one has in one's sights." Oderberg, 88.

When intent and external act are equivalent, that is, when one intends an evil act, and with that intent, follows through with it, the moral analysis is relatively easy. Oderberg calls such a case the "paradigm of moral responsibility." When good intent and the good act accord, the act is morally good. A man gives alms to the poor to relieve their plight; such an act is morally good. When evil intent and evil act accord, the act is morally bad. A man intends to murder another for his money, and goes through with it; such an act is morally evil. Simple enough.

But there is a whole world where the intent of the human actor and the external act of the human actor do not quite fit together as nicely. We are responsible for more than what we intend. We may have no intention of bringing about a particular result, we may in fact desire its opposite, and yet we may be the agency by which the unintended effect comes about. Frequently, but not necessarily, this may be the result of negligent or reckless behavior. For example, suppose we are texting while driving, and so are reckless, and we run over a pedestrian. Though we had no intent of running over the pedestrian, we are held morally accountable for it. Suppose a physician prescribes some medicine effective for the treatment of a serious medical condition, but one of whose side effect he knows could be death. If I take the medicine and it results in my death, is the physician guilty of murder? A construction company is hired to build a canal in a tropical zone where it is likely that some of its employees will be exposed to Yellow Fever and die, and the President of the company knows this. During the course of the construction of the canal, some of its employees in fact die of Yellow Fever. Is the construction company morally guilty of their death? Should he have turned down the contract knowing that some of his employees would die of Yellow Fever despite all precaution?

Assessing moral guilt in instances that do not fit with the paradigm of moral responsibility, where intent and act do not perfectly overlap, requires some tools and the grasp of some basic concepts.

One of the notable things about the analysis in areas where intent and result do not perfectly match is what Oderberg calls "an asymmetry between good and evil results." "Unintended good results can never morally affect the intention which one otherwise acts. . . . Good side effects do not turn a bad act into a good one. But neither do they make a good act a better one." Oderberg, 89. This is not true with respect to unintended evil results. Unintended evil results can turn a good act into a bad one, and they can make a bad act even a worse one. This is reflected in our day-to-day language. We talk about someone being negligent, careless, reckless, and so hold them accountable for the evil that may be unintentionally done by them. There is no similar word that is used to describe a mental state less than intentional that results in unintended good. One negligently causes harm. One does not negligently cause good. The asymmetry in the moral analysis is reflected in the asymmetry in our language.

But given this asymmetry, how are we do determine the assessment of moral responsibility for those evil consequences one does not intend?

Traditional morality has devised a way to determine when someone is held accountable for unintended consequences of his act. This principle is called the principle of double effect, or the doctrine of unintended consequences. This principle is often misunderstood and misapplied, sometimes just abused. It is "a principle that is almost universally derided in modern applied ethics, dominated as the discipline is by consequentialist ways of thinking." Oderberg, 90.

Because of its importance in traditional ethics, we will devote the next several blog postings to this principle.

*Our criminal law is largely based on traditional concepts of morality. Intent or mens rea or scienter is an important assessment of the crime and its degree. Additionally, intent alone can be punishable or can intensify the crime. Thus simple assault and assault with the intent to commit murder are regarded as distinct offenses, the latter considered more egregious. Attempted murder, though murder itself has not occurred, is a punishable criminal offense.

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