Sunday, September 23, 2007

Imperfect acting

Before a person performs an action, they must have something in mind--the objective--which they intend to perform. The purpose of acting is to realise the objective. When we perform an act, we set out to achieve what our will wanted us to do. Now this might sound like stating the obvious and in one way it is, the problem is that when we try to achieve our objective we may cause other effects to come into being incidental to the realisation of our immediate objective.

Example: A man is involved in a motor vehicle accident. He has been flung out of his car onto the road in the path of oncoming traffic. He has also broken quite a few bones in his body. We happen upon the accident scene and try to move the man out of the path of oncoming traffic. Now in moving the man we cause him suffering and distress as every movement jostles his broken bones.

Now our objective is to move the man out of the path of danger, however in trying to perform this act we manage to move him out of danger while at the same time causing him considerable amount of pain. In actuating our objective we have also actuated this man’s pain. Now if we are aware that the man has broken bones we clearly foresee that the action of moving the man is going to cause him pain. How do you evaluate the determine the morality of an act when clearly both good and evil is happening at the same time as a result of a specific action?

Now our capacity to actuate our objective is limited to our means and circumstances. A elderly man may want to help our injured motorist but not have the strength to do it. A young lady may drag our motorist across the road, causing more pain than if he was gently lifted by paramedics yet both people have tried to actuate a morally good objective with various degrees of evil resulting as a result of their circumstantial limitations.

The prevalent view amongst a group of quite a few Christians--who should know better--is that the act is evaluated on the consequences, if one of the consequences is a foreseen grave evil then the act’s nature must be intrinsically evil and hence prohibited. The act is judged by its effects. By their reasoning, if a man performs an action in which he foresees his own death he must have intended suicide. If a pilot of a plane bombs a building in which terrorists have used hostages as shields he must have intended to kill the hostages. It is the doctrine of immaculate actuation.

They will of course deny that this is their reasoning and this is because they cannot see their error. All of them can state the principles of double effect and list examples of how they support it; up to a certain point. Once a certain psychological threshold is crossed, double effect is negated. While it is never OK to deliberately actuate pain or maiming to an individual as in torture they will quite happily accept it as a side effect of medical treatment. However once the unintended evil effects of an otherwise morally permissible action include injury to children or death to innocents then the principle of double effect usually is switched off: Double effect is applicable up to a certain threshold of unintended evil after which it is not on.

Now this is basically a repudiation of Veritatis Splendor. The document states that the morality of an act is determined by a moral analysis of the actors corporeal objective, not the effects of the realisation of the objective. The question to be asked is what was the actor trying to achieve by the action which resulted in both good and evil effects? The fact that a good action may have a bad effect does not automatically disqualify the action. St Thomas will back me up on that one.

Veritatis Splendor did not deal with the doctrine of double effect explicitly but its principles are easily applicable to the doctrine. In order for an action to be licit under the principle of double effect:

The actor must have a good moral objective and
A proportional analysis of the effects of actualisation of the action must on balance be good in order for the action to be permitted: The doctrine of double effect is the doctrine of conditional proportionalism.

The doctrine of double effect does not permit an actions which have a morally good objective but which on balance has bad consequences. Likewise double effect does not justify a morally bad objective if the consequences are good. Double effect also implicitly demands that we chose actions which minimise the bad consequences where that choice is available.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

This sounds right to me. Personally, I believe that at least some of the confusion in this discussion comes from the fact that, in Thomistic philosophical exegesis, some common sounding words have unusual (for moderns) meanings, such as "object", "direct", "voluntary", "evil" (malum), "homicide", and "sin" (culpa). Having reviewed the meaning of these terms, I'd ask that everyone who is tempted to disagree with you find out what these words mean to those within the Thomistic tradition before putting in their two cents. Also, a quick check of the web indicates that almost no moral theologians believe that "Veritatis Splendor" revolutionized our understanding of what constitutes an intrinsic evil, or of double effect. Your understanding would seem to be consistant with traditional Christian doctrine, which "VT" was specifically and explicitly written to uphold. Of course, you may be wrong, but the burden of proof is most certainly on those who disagree...

The Social Pathologist said...

Wow, thanks for your comments.

Rodak said...

"Conditional proportionalism?" Cute. Double-effect is nothing more than a sophistry by which a costumed moral relativism is snuck into one's dwelling place through the service entrance.

Banzai and Bombs away! It's all (arguably) good.

The Social Pathologist said...

Double effect also permits other sophistries such as surgery, vaccines and self sacrifice. Many people who invoke double effect to justify their actions/or condemn others have a poor understanding it of it.

Rodak said...

SP--
Surgery, vaccines, and self-sacrifice (although we'd have to know the conditions in each instance of the latter) do not involve *moral* evils. Homicide, for instance, always does.
In your hypothetical, there is no possibility of any person, wanting to remove the injured man from the roadway so that he is out of further harm's way, committing an act that is in cooperation with an objective evil.
Any discussion of double-effect always comes down to a battle of duelling hypotheticals. My position is that, by the very fact that one is necessarily involved with positing hypotheticals in such as discussion, one is manifestly not looking at objective good and/or objective evil. Double-effect is a utilitarian tool by which "good" people may justify morally ambiguous (to put the best possible face on it) acts.

Rodak said...

I should add, so that my argument may not appear to be completely subjective, that it is based on Matthew 5:48 "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."
I read that the Greek word translated here as "perfect" has the broader meaning of something like "mature, or complete, in your righteousness."
While it is clearly impossible for any of us, sinners as we are, to succeed in attaining moral perfection, it is clearly NOT impossible for us to set perfection as our goal when undertaking deliberate actions.

Anonymous said...

Homicide does NOT always involve a moral evil. Homicide simply means the killing of a human being, and this most certainly does not always involve a moral evil, at least not according to traditional Christian doctrine. Hence the phrase "justifiable homicide". If one wants to argue that double-effect is often misused, fine, but an understanding of it is actually necessary to strive for perfection. Otherwise, we will find ourselves trapped between quietism and moral relativism.

Anonymous said...

Mr (Ms?). Rodak seems to be arguing that the principle of the double effect is not valid, and that it is simply a way of smuggling moral relativism into a deontological system of morals. This is an arguable position, but it should be noted that if one wishes to take it, one's argument is with St. Thomas, De Lugo, Soto, De Vitoria, Gury, Hardon, and other Doctors of the Church, not with the Social Pathologist.

Rodak said...

"Ones argument is with St. Thomas...Hardon..."

Ms/(Mr.?) Anon.--

What I was saying was that instances of homicide necessarily bring up the possibility of moral evil being entailed, not that every instance of homicide will be judged to have been evil.
As for the arguing the validity of double-effect, I can only say that I'm quite experienced at arguing with hardons.

Nietzsche said...

Why not apply the cost/benefit equation? That's what businesses do to see if the risk is worth the calculated or expected return.

An injured man should be moved, if the environment would have further inflicted harm. If he was left there, he could have been hit by other cars or could have died from internal bleeding. The temporary pain from moving him is the sunk cost, but the return of medical aid and comfort would have surpassed the initial cost of pain.

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