Three Cheers for Double Effect

The doctrine of double effect, together with other moral principles that appeal to the intentions of moral agents, has come under attack from many directions in recent years, as have a variety of rationales that have been given in favor of it. In this paper, our aim is to develop, defend, and provide a new theoretical rationale for a secular version of the doctrine. Following Quinn (1989), we distinguish between Harmful Direct Agency and Harmful Indirect Agency. We propose the following version of the doctrine: that in cases in which harm must come to some in order to achieve a good (and is the least costly of possible harms necessary), the agent foresees the harm, and all other things are equal, a stronger case is needed to justify Harmful Direct Agency than to justify Harmful Indirect Agency. We distinguish between two Kantian rationales that might be given for the doctrine, a “dependent right” rationale, defended by Quinn, and an “independent right” rationale, which we defend. We argue that the doctrine and the “independent right” rationale for it are not vulnerable to counterexamples or counterproposals, and conclude by drawing implications for the larger debate over whether agents' intentions are in any way relevant to permissibility and obligation.
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DOI 10.1111/phpr.12002
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