Double effect
Double effect

Can it ever be right to do something bad in the interests of doing something good? For supporters of the principle of double effect, the answer is yes. They would argue that it can be right to do something that has a bad consequence, provided that:

  • You intend to achieve a good consequence by the action (and have a reasonable chance of achieving it).
  • You do not intend any of the bad consequences of the action.
  • You do everything you can to minimise the bad consequences of the action.

So the intention of your action is the most important thing, more important than the consequences.

Let's take a scenario to which we can apply the principle of double effect.

You are the president of a country under attack by another country. Every night, enemy planes are bombing your capital city. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and thousands of people have been killed. You want to stop the enemy planes. Your intelligence people tell you they have located the airfield from which they are taking off, and to which they return every night. You know that if you bomb this airfield during the day when all the planes are there, you can stop the raids on your city and save thousands of lives. But you also know that right next to the airfield is a school. If you bomb the airfield there is a very high probability that the school will also be hit and children will be killed. You can't tell the school to evacuate the children, as that would alert the enemy air force to move the planes.

You don't want to kill children. But nor do you want to see thousands of people killed in your capital every night. What should you do? Should you order the raid on the airfield, knowing that children will almost certainly die?

For a believer in double effect, ordering the raid is the right thing to do, provided that:

  • Your intention in ordering the raid is the good one of protecting the people who are being bombed in your city every night.
  • Your intention is not the bad one of killing schoolchildren, even though you recognise that this is a likely consequence of your action.
  • You instruct your commanders to take all possible steps to minimise the harm done to the schoolchildren during the raid.

That's one example. The principle of double effect is particularly relevant to debates about the ethics of warfare, as war nearly always involves doing bad things for a good end. However, it can also be used in other contexts.

Look at the list of motions below and, for each motion, think about these two questions.

  • How could you apply the principle of double effect when debating the motion?
  • How would you rebut an argument for or against the motion based on the principle of double effect?

1. This house would forbid any military action which might harm civilians.

2. This house would scrap Britain's nuclear weapons.

3. This house would never attack civilian areas in a war.

4. This house would permit potentially dangerous (but also potentially life-saving) drugs to be tested on patients without telling them of the dangers.

5. This house would allow politicians to lie if it was necessary to protect national security.

6. This house would allow the testing of drugs on animals even when the experiments cause suffering to the animals.

7. If a hijacked civilian plane was being flown towards a crowded football stadium with the intention of crashing into the stadium, this house would shoot the plane down.