What is meant by “double-effect”?

07 Mar 2014

Interview with Craig Iffland, who has actively organized the Double Effect meeting alongside Academic Leader John O’Callaghan.

Craig Iffland, a PhD student in Moral Theology at the University of Notre Dame who has worked with STI for several years as a research assistant, actively organized the Double Effect meeting alongside Academic Leader John O’Callaghan. Iffland will also present a paper at the meeting. He explains the issue’s relevance in the following brief interview:

For those of us who don’t know, what is meant by “double-effect”?

Briefly stated, the principle of double-effect (as it is sometimes described) holds that one is not necessarily responsible for the foreseen, but unintended, effects of their actions. For example, anytime we construct a new highway we can foresee that there will be number of lethal accidents. Yet, we would not hold those building the highway responsible for such deaths, and even if we did, we would not say they were guilty of intending such accidents to occur. Other cases of “double-effect” are less intuitive and more contested. In bioethics, for example, the principle of double-effect has been used to morally distinguish medical procedures that result in the death of an embryo or fetus from abortion. Although death is certain in both cases, it is argued that in abortion this death is intended whereas in those other procedures the death is only foreseen. Critics of double-effect have often argued that the principle does not give sufficient respect to the value of human life, which should be protected against both intentional and foreseen destruction. This is an especially salient criticism because many of the defenders of the principle of double-effect hold that respect for the value of human life requires there be an absolute prohibition on the intentional killing of innocent persons.

From your perspective, what is one of the major challenges posed by “intention” and “double-effect?”

As I alluded to earlier, one major challenge is to articulate an account of intention and double-effect that gives sufficient weight to our basic convictions about the value of human life. Assuming some kinds of intentional killing are always wrong, we need to ask what counts as intentional killing? In other words, how is intention related to moral or legal responsibility? In both law and morality, responsibility is not always linked with “intention.” Sometimes we are responsible for what was “foreseen” (but not intended) and other times we are responsible for things that were neither foreseen nor intended but which we nevertheless ought to have known. In this Experts Meeting, we asked practitioners of international law to analyze how current international and domestic legal norms treat the relationship between intention and responsibility in the context of war as well as other uses of lethal force (e.g., private self-defense). By bringing these legal scholars into conversation with moral philosophers and theologians, and eventually publishing their contributions, we hope to offer some initial suggestions about what notion of “intent,” and what level of responsibility (intent, foresight, neither), should govern our assessments of the legality or morality of the use of lethal force. These questions are particularly important given the increasing relevance and legitimacy of international criminal courts. In this respect, we hope this Experts Meeting can be part of a larger reflection on the role international criminal law, and the moral norms underlying it, should play in adjudicating purported violations of human rights in the course of war or national self-defense.

How do you think this Experts Meeting will help prompt and advance further scholarship in the academy?

To begin with, it provides scholars with a badly needed historical contextualization of the origins of the principle of double-effect. Many theories of intention and double-effect take Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274) treatment of killing in self-defense as a starting point for reflection. This is because Aquinas is the first thinker to make a moral distinction based on an action’s “double effect,” one intended and the other outside the intention. One of the chief contributions of this Experts Meeting has been the work of two medieval historians who have tracked down the history of legal decisions vis-à-vis self-defense as well as the specific canons Aquinas cites as an authoritative justification of his analysis. What emerges from their contributions is that contemporary theories of intent and double-effect bare no real continuity with the legal analysis cited by Aquinas. Second, many of our contributions focused on the complex inter-dependence of the legality and morality of intentional killing. They aimed to show how the moral analysis of intentional killing—even across diverse philosophical and religious perspectives—is often inextricably bound up with a dual appreciation for the moral value of human life and the rule of law. We hope future scholarship in ethics and law can build upon this insight. Finally, a number of our contributors provided critical analysis of many contemporary perspectives on intention in contemporary jurisprudence and moral philosophy. By pointing out common conceptual mistakes in contemporary theories of intention, these scholars have offered clear roadmaps for future research on the relationship between intention and legal or moral responsibility.