The Principle of Double Effect

3. Four Key Objections

3.4 Problem 4: Morally Repugnant Judgements

By not recognising that some consequences of voluntary actions are foreseen but unintended, absolutism is unnecessarily harsh in some of its judgements.

Book cover: Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Blackburn

Even where a system of absolutist ethics distinguishes acts from consequences, there remains a further problem resulting from its lack of distinction between unintended and intended foreseen consequences. Advocates of the Principle of Double Effect claim that such an absolutist ethic delivers repugnant moral judgements in some circumstances.

We have already seen (§3.3 above) that an absolutist ethic of this kind would condemn the man that had made a breach in a dike in order to save a town, the group that had thrown a time-bomb out of a window to save their own lives and the doctor that had administered an overdose to relieve the pain of his patient. These adverse moral evaluations are made on the grounds that each of the agents knew that their action would lead to, or was likely to lead to, the loss of innocent life. Contrarily, PDE absolves these agents from such unnecessarily harsh judgements.

It is certainly true that such an absolutist ethic would result in more unpalatable conclusions than the same absolutist ethic supplemented by PDE. However, at the same time, PDE would be more demanding on the individual moral agent because the moral criteria apply to acts as well as omissions. So, in the examples cited above, the man cannot refuse to make a breach in the dike, the group cannot abstain from throwing the time-bomb out of the window and the doctor cannot avoid administering the fatal dose of morphine. To make these omissions would be to act in breach of condition 4 of the principle. I mention this not as a criticism, but as an observation. Although, I can understand the complaint made against PDE by an absolutist critic that condition 4 is too utilitarian in its flavour.

It seems that the application of PDE will allow for more moral judgements consonant with a consequentialist calculus than what many of its proponents will admit. For example, it appears to allow the following actions:

  1. a craniotomy to save the life of the mother, and other types of abortions performed for the sole purpose of relieving a life-threatening strain on the mother;
  2. detonating an explosive to clear a fat man that had become lodged in the mouth of a cave, threatening the lives of his explorer friends trapped inside; and
  3. killing civilians in war time for reasons other than lowering civilian morale.

In each of these cases, the death of the victim, or victims, is not the means to securing the desired end; it is foreseen but not desired. This is not the place to argue for this thesis, my point being rather that granted these extra cases of acceptable judgements, there remain many cases in which the conclusions are most unpalatable.

To illustrate my point, consider an absolutist ethic that prohibits the intentional killing of innocent persons. Here, the application of the Principle of Double Effect will morally condemn at least some first trimester abortions performed on rape victims and women in destitute circumstances (if 'person' is taken to mean 'member of the species homo sapiens' or 'genetically unique individual' or similar) and suicides committed with the purpose of avoiding torture that would result in the release of secret information, placing the lives of many innocent people under threat. The application of PDE will also condemn a bystander's shooting of a man, at his request, trapped in a burning lorry, in order to prevent him from burning to death,[10] and the shooting of an innocent civilian, in order to save the lives of ten others, while on a botanical expedition.[11] There appear strong compassionate grounds for allowing early-term abortions performed for the above-mentioned reasons. It also seems that the agents in the remaining cases deserve moral commendation instead of disapprobation; the suicide because he had committed the supreme sacrifice for the good of others and the remaining two because of the enormous psychological difficulties faced in performing their acts of compassion.

As another case in point, consider absolutist ethics that prohibit lying and the sexual 'offences' of adultery, prostitution and sterilisation. Advocates of PDE will find morally culpable the man harbouring a Jew in wartime Germany who lies to an enquiring German soldier about the location of the Jew that he has hidden. Proponents of PDE will also find culpable the mother who commits adultery under the threat that if she did not her three children will be killed, the mother who prostitutes herself to feed her starving children and the diseased women who consents to her sterilisation in order to prevent a pregnancy that would directly endanger her life. In each of these cases, the agent wills the bad effect, in contravention of condition 2 of the principle.

One does not need to be a thoroughgoing consequentialist to appreciate that at least some of these conclusions are most unpalatable. They severely offend against the moral sentiments of compassion and benevolence. As these examples demonstrate, PDE does not adequately soften the demands of a rigid and insensitive moralism that ignores appeals to human sympathy.


  1. [10] For this example, see Glover [1980: 88].
  2. [11] For this example, see Smart and Williams [1973: 98f].

Copyright © 2015

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