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Logical Thinking in Ethics: Conflict Situations and Double Effect

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Contrary to some beliefs, conflict situations can be ethically and logically resolved by the application of the principle known as Double Effect.  Please note the following:

When an act to be performed will bring about two results, one good and the other evil (bad), under what conditions, if any, will such an act be morally permissible?

The proper use and application of the Rule of Double Effect (Precise Terminology and Understanding of the Terminology is Essential) provides the necessary guidance, so that…

…It is morally permissible to perform an action that will produce both a foreseen good effect and a foreseen evil effect if and only if the following four conditions are simultaneously verified (i.e., all 4 conditions must be met beyond a reasonable doubt):

1. The performed action (includes all means employed in its performance) is morally good or at the very least indifferent in itself.

2. The good effect is not produced through the evil effect.  In other words, the evil effect is not directly pursued, nor is it directly brought about in order to produce the good effect.

3. The good effect and not the evil effect is the sole purpose (intention) and design of the performed action.

4. There is a proportionately grave reason for accepting the foreseen evil effect as an unintended and regrettable consequence (or side effect) of the performed action.
_______________________________________________

Unfortunately, some people may have a difficult time understanding and/or accepting the difference between directly intending a result and foreseeing that same result.  In essence, the claimed distinction between directly intending and foreseeing is seen as merely an artifice employed to salve one’s conscience in conflict situations involving a good and bad result arising from one action.  Furthermore, how can anybody not intend something that is also foreseen to occur from a particular action that they perform?

To answer these objections, start with a re-examination of the formulation of the rule set forth above.  The problems surrounding “intention” and “foreseeability” are largely bypassed via clear and accurate terminology concerning the proposed action.  Too many would-be formulations of the rule lack proper terminology or clarity, which then leads to many misunderstandings of what the rule actually sets forth.

Secondly, the distinction between foreseeing and intention is actually quite clear if a disciplined approach is taken to the meaning and application of these terms, and the following example will help illustrate this.  Consider an owner of an “emergency critical care clinic.”  She foresees that a number of patients will die each year because of many factors involved in the operation of the clinic, including medical errors and so on.  Of course, she will do what’s possible to minimize the number of deaths, but she cannot prevent them all.  She does not intend the death of anyone by operating the clinic even though she foresees that some will occur.  Accordingly, what she intends and what she foresees are indeed distinct things arising from the same action of operating the clinic.

All-Important Conclusion Regarding the Proper Application of the Rule:

Keeping the foregoing in mind, then, so long as the proper distinction between intention and foreseeability is maintained, the rule of double effect can resolve any issue involving an action that brings about a good and bad effect.  However, if the proper distinction is not maintained, then the rule of double effect will not work.

DB


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2 responses »

  1. Nicholas Smith

    This is basic Natural Law theory and a staple of Church thought at least a thousand years. I have found very few rational Catholics who have a problem with the Principle of Double Effect. The Principle of Forfeiture on the other hand tends to be contentious.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Nicholas:

      Yes, the teaching of the Church on double effect has been around and accepted for many years as you point out. Unfortunately, some renditions are sloppy and not very helpful, but more importantly, the principle of double effect has been coming under greater criticism by many along the lines I set forth, and I have noticed quite a few such criticisms from the sphere of bioethics, especially by those in favor of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide that I suggest is also finding favor with too many Catholics in general.

      I will have more to write about this later, but methinks a good understanding and frequent review of the rule in general is always helpful, especially as a valuable weapon against the ongoing assault of moral relativism.

      Thanks again, and God Bless!

      DB

      Reply

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