This doctrine says that if doing something morally good has a morally bad side-effect, it's ethically OK to do it providing the bad side-effect wasn't intended. This is true even if you foresaw that the bad effect would probably happen.
This might seem counter-intuitive, but the principle is used in serious argument about some important issues in ethics
- This principle is commonly referred to in cases of euthanasia. It is used to justify the case where a doctor gives drugs to a patient to relieve distressing symptoms even though he knows doing this may shorten the patient's life.
- This is because the doctor is not aiming directly at killing the patient - the bad result of the patient's death is a side-effect of the good result of reducing the patient's pain.
- Many doctors use this doctrine to justify the use of high doses of drugs such as morphine for the purpose of relieving suffering in terminally-ill patients even though they know the drugs are likely to cause the patient to die sooner.
However this is not a blanket justification.
War and civilian deaths
- In modern warfare it's difficult to ensure that only soldiers get hurt. Despite the effectiveness of precision weapons, civilians are often hurt and killed.
- The doctrine of double effect is sometimes put forward as a defence, but it does not always apply.
- For example, if an army base in the middle of a city is bombed and a few civilians living nearby are killed as well, nothing unethical has been done, because the army base was a legitimate target and the death of civilians was not the intention of the bombing (even though their death could be predicted).
The doctrine of double effect can't be used to defend the use of weapons of mass destruction, such as non-precision nuclear weapons, area bombing, or chemical or biological weapons used against a population in general, since these are so indiscriminate in effect that civilian casualties can't be regarded as a secondary result.
Abortions when the mother's life is in danger
- In cases when saving the life of a pregnant woman causes the death of her unborn child - for example, performing an abortion when continuing the pregnancy would risk killing the mother - some people argue that this is a case of the doctrine of double effect.
- By this argument, the death of the foetus is merely the side-effect of medical treatment to save the mother's life.
Other people take the more traditional view that this is a case of self-defence against a threat (albeit a threat that is innocent and unaware that it is a threat).
Criticisms of the doctrine of double effect
We are responsible for all the anticipated consequences of our actions
· If we can foresee the two effects of our action we have to take the moral responsibility for both effects - we can't get out of trouble by deciding to intend only the effect that suits us.
Intention is irrelevant
· Some people take the view that it's sloppy morality to decide the rightness or wrongness of an act by looking at the intention of the person who carries it out. They think that some acts are objectively right or wrong, and that the intention of the person who does them is irrelevant.
· But most legal systems regard the intention of a person as a vital element in deciding whether they have committed a crime, and how serious a crime, especially in cases of causing death.