The Principle of Double Effect

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2015. The Principle of Double Effect, URL = <>.

The Miraculous Mass - Fresco by Simone Martini in the Lower Basilica in Assisi

In ethical reasoning, the Principle of Double Effect is sometimes invoked when an action has two effects (hence 'Double Effect'); one good and the other harmful. The principle allows the action as morally permissible in those circumstances in which the harmful effect is not intended, but is a side-effect of the action. Acts of self-defence, for example, are often justified using this principle. This principle is sometimes referred to as the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE). In this essay, I will use the term 'Principle of Double Effect' or 'PDE' throughout.

Proponents of PDE have claimed that this principle is a necessary requirement if one is to avoid the serious difficulties involved in holding to a set of absolute moral rules. In that sense, PDE is meant as supplement to an absolutist system of ethics. For the purposes of this essay, I will take a set of absolute moral rules to be a set of rules that must not be broken by a moral agent under any circumstances. Absolutist ethics have met with a number of objections. My aim here is to evaluate how well advocates of PDE have been able to meet the four most serious of these objections. These objections are that absolutist ethics lapses into self-contradiction or a consequentialist calculus, that in some circumstances it renders the moral agent blameworthy whatever they choose, that it misses the essence of morality and that some of the judgements made in its name are needlessly cruel.

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