The Principle of Double Effect

3. Four Key Objections

3.2 Problem 2: Horns of Dilemma

By not distinguishing between voluntary acts or refusals and their foreseen consequences, in some cases, absolutism would morally condemn whatever the agent does.

Book cover: Introduction to Ethics by Fred Feldman

The second problem, it is claimed, associated with absolutist ethics is that they find persons faced with such moral dilemmas morally blameworthy whatever they do, even though they are not responsible for the existence of the dilemma. For example, the person in our previous scenario who is under the threat that unless he kills person Z, person Y will be killed, will be morally condemned for committing a 'murder' whatever he chooses to do. The same is true of the doctor faced with a pregnant woman who will die unless he performs a craniotomy, an operation that will necessarily kill the foetus.

Application of the Principle of Double Effect to these cases absolves the person under threat of harm from blame if he refuses to comply and the doctor, likewise, if he refuses to perform the craniotomy. This is achieved by advocates of PDE correctly pointing out that these moral agents do not commit murder under these circumstances. However, PDE fails to give a logical guarantee that such harshness of judgement can be avoided in all cases.

Consider, for instance, the previous scenario in which I promised to attend my best friend's wedding and in which the time of the wedding was later rescheduled to clash with my arrangement to take my partner to the movies. Whichever way I choose, I end up intentionally breaking a promise. Applying PDE to my case, I am to blame whether I intentionally break my promise to attend my best friend's wedding or intentionally break my promise to take my partner to the movies.

Consider also the previous examples of the son that must choose between dishonouring his father and intentionally killing innocent Jews in one case, and dishonouring his father and breaking the Sabbath in the other. Application of PDE would similarly condemn these persons, whatever they did, even though they were not to blame for the existence of the dilemma.

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