The Principle of Double Effect

Research proposal posted by Jessica Page.


The principle of double effect creates a set of guidelines to “determine when it is ethically permissible for a human being to engage in conduct in pursuit of a good end with full knowledge that the conduct will also bring about bad results” (The Principle of Double Effect). Generally, the principle states that when someone is deciding a certain conduct that has both good and bad effects, the course of conduct they choose is “ethically permissible only if it is not wrong in itself and if it does not require that one directly intend the bad result” (The Principle of Double Effect). The moral criteria for the principle of double effect generally states the action in itself must be good or indifferent, the good effect cannot be obtained through the bad effect, there must be a proportion between the good and bad effects brought about, the intention of the subject must be directed towards the good effect and merely tolerate the bad effect and there does not exist another possibility or avenue (What is the Principle of Double Effect?).

Pros and Cons

The issue with the principle of double effect is that each situation where the principle applies is different. If an act is bad, it cannot become good or indifferent by a good motive or good circumstances. If it is evil in nature, this will not change. That being said, the principle “the end justifies the means” must always be rejected. The idea that needs to be applied to each issue is the fact that a human must never do evil, but they are not bound to prevent the existence of evil. One example we can apply this to is the BP oil spill that was discussed in class. By not mandating a cut-off switch because of how expensive it was, even though the safety benefits were astronomical, when an explosion happened on one of the rigs, eleven workers were killed and seventeen were injured. Not to mention the five million barrels of oil that gushed into the ocean. Had the US mandated these switches like they wanted, even though BP lobbied against them, it could have avoided the deaths, injuries and pollution caused by the exploding rig. In this case, the deaths and havoc caused by the explosion did not justify the fact that BP was trying to save money for their own personal benefit. Another example where the principle of double effect is relevant today is the controversy 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” (BBC). The doctor’s intention is not to kill the patient, but the result of death is a side-effect of reducing patient’s pain. One problem that people argue against this doctrine is the fact that they believe we are responsible for all anticipated consequences of our actions. Another is the fact that intention is irrelevant. A third issue, specifically in the euthanasia issue, is the fact that death is not always seen as a bad thing making the double effect irrelevant. Lastly, the double effect can produce an unexpected moral result.

Ethics and Principles

When looking at the incorporation of Catholic, one of the main issues that concerns this principle and the Catholic religion is that case where a pregnancy may need to end in order to preserve the life of the mother. The example most often given is a woman with uterine cancer. By removing the uterus, it will bring death to the fetus but the death is not “directly” intended and in turn, the mother will live. It is an issue that still is debated today (Soloman). Another similar case having to do closely with Catholic ideals is when a woman has an ectopic pregnancy and must receive surgery to remove the embryo. At a Catholic hospital, it can be questioned whether that specific procedure is considered a direct abortion, going against the Catholic ideals and morals, no matter what the means of the surgery are. “The principle of double effect enables bioethicists and Catholic moralists to navigate various actions that may or may not be morally justifiable in some circumstances” (Kockler). The idea of proportionate reasoning has also been condemned by Pope John Paul II. He categorized proportionalism as a species of consequentialism. This is condemned by the Church because no Catholic moralist would agree that a desirable end justifies any means (Kockler). These are serious issues, especially when considering the principle of double effect from a Catholic standpoint.

Works Cited:

Kockler, Nicolas. The Principle of Double Effect and Proportionate Reason.

“The Doctrine of Double Effect”. BBC.

“The Principle of Double Effect”.

“The Principle of Double Effect”.

“What is the Principle of Double Effect?”