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Yes honey, it’s okay to kill your mother if it saves someone else’s life. Just blame it on The Doctrine of Double Effect.

The Garden of Death painting exposed at Tampere Cathedral - Finland

Murder is okay if…

If you do not delve too deeply into the logistics of its execution, the idea of the Doctrine of Double Effect is quite simple and given its commonality in governments and other large institutions, many believe that new Presidents and high-level government officials are introduced to the doctrine shortly after they are inaugurated into office. It is a little-known tenet that lets leaders navigate actions that may or may not be morally justifiable or acceptable by society, a rule that says murder is okay.

Thou shalt not kill, except when…

The Doctrine of Double Effect is a philosophical principle. In serves to soften the blow to a government official’s guilt-ridden soul when say for instance, civilians are killed in wartime bombings. Briefly, the principle states that it is okay to harm someone if it saves the lives of others. The doctrine grants the government the power to hurt others if there is an overall positive result returned from their action.

“Thou shalt not kill” is a principle engrained in every American and of course, provides a well-meaning purpose – to keep the public from intentionally harming each other by making it morally wrong to murder a fellow man. But therein lies the quandary. The Doctrine of Double Effect provides the government with the moral justification to harm others even while laws directed at the public serve to enforce the opposite effect. The principle is not discussed with the public, nor will the government directly admit to following it. Acknowledging the Doctrine of Double Effect rule would imply that it is okay in some circumstances to kill others, a direct violation of our moral code of conduct – and judicial laws.

The Doctrine of Double Effect is also used in the business world, at both large and small corporations, when major decisions must be made that affect the lives of employees. In most cases, the article being evaluated is an employee and in practically all cases, those employees are valued on a different scale than their managers. A manager will typically be valued higher than a common worker. It is ironic that the person who often benefits from the result of the decision is the person applying the principle.

In some instances, the doctrine is used to write off the adverse effects of an action, whether the result of the action was recognized before or after the decision was made. In other instances, it may be used to justify an action.

Doctrine of Double Effect defined

It is a doctrine that has been formally defined with rules and conventions that govern execution of its basic principles. The Catholic Church defines the doctrine in the New Catholic Encyclopedia:

  • The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
  • The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect, he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
  • The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words, the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise, the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
  • The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.

Where the Doctrine of Double Effect originated

The doctrine originated, or at least it was first recorded, in 1250 A.D. by Thomas Aquinas in his work Summa Theologica. Thomas Aquinas was an Italian Catholic priest and an immensely influential philosopher. His works and beliefs continue to influence Western philosophy and beliefs. Aquinas defined the Doctrine of Double Effect to help others reason the treatment of homicidal self-defense. The doctrine has been in use throughout the world for thousands of years. And for thousands of years, it has been debated.

Is the Doctrine of Double Effect flawed?

Some argue that the doctrine itself is inherently flawed. It promotes decision making by Man to an almost God-like status. The means to make life and death decisions are granted to the nation’s leaders and the Doctrine of Double Effect can be used to mask any bad results that those decisions may produce. In addition, when the doctrine is used in critical decision-making processes, an attempt is made to define the worth of a human being. That single most important variable becomes one of the greatest arguments against the doctrine.

The biggest objection to the Doctrine of Double Effect is that the application of the doctrine in any particular event is solely dependent upon the perspective of the person making the decision. In our modern society, this means that the decision is certainly being made by the well to do person in power.

Examples of the Doctrine of Double Effect in practice

To disable a missile or launch?

Take for example, a situation whereby a missile is in the middle of an African village. The missile is on a timer mechanism and is set to launch in 10 minutes. If it launches successfully, it will hit a city where 100 people will die. The missile can be destroyed by bombing the African village. There are 99 people in the village. The Doctrine of Double Effect would dictate that the village should be bombed, even though it will kill 99 people, because in the end, it would save the lives of 100 people and hence, save the life of one extra person (i.e. 100 – 99 = 1). But if you were to place the decision of whether or not to launch the missile into the hands of the villagers, the outcome would almost certainly be different. In fact, various different criteria to justify the judgment would be thrown into the mix.

Dosing a patient with morphine

A doctor who intends to hasten the death of a terminally ill patient by injecting a large dose of morphine would act impermissibly because he intends to bring about the patient’s death. However, a doctor who intended to relieve the patient’s pain with that same dose and merely foresaw the hastening of the patient’s death would act permissibly.

Killing in self defense

To kill a person whom you know to be plotting to kill you would be impermissible because it would be a case of intentional killing; however, to strike in self-defense against an aggressor is permissible, even if one foresees that the blow by which one defends oneself will be fatal.

Suicide to help others

Sacrificing one’s own life in order to save the lives of others can be distinguished from suicide by characterizing the agent’s intention: a soldier who throws himself on a live grenade intends to shield others from its blast and merely foresees his own death; by contrast, a person who commits suicide intends to bring his or her own life to an end.

Aborting a baby fetus

A doctor who believed that abortion was wrong, even in order to save the mother’s life, might nevertheless consistently believe that it would be permissible to perform a hysterectomy on a pregnant woman with cancer. In carrying out the hysterectomy, the doctor would aim to save the woman’s life while merely foreseeing the death of the fetus. Performing an abortion, by contrast, would involve intending to kill the fetus as a means to saving the mother.

The use of tactical bombing

The terror bomber aims to bring about civilian deaths in order to weaken the resolve of the enemy: when his bombs kill civilians this is a consequence that he intends. The tactical bomber aims at military targets while foreseeing that bombing such targets will cause civilian deaths. When his bombs kill civilians, this is a foreseen but unintended consequence of his actions. Even if it is equally certain that the two bombers will cause the same number of civilian deaths, terror bombing is impermissible while tactical bombing is permissible.

Throwing someone in front of a train

It would be wrong to throw someone into the path of a runaway train in order to stop it and keep it from hitting five people on the track ahead; that would involve intending harm to the one as a means of saving the five. But it would be permissible to divert a runaway train onto a track holding one and away from a track holding five: in that case one foresees the death of the one as a side effect of saving the five, but one does not intend it.

Killing your mother

You are Superman with the ability to stop a speeding bullet. A bullet is aimed at your mother, who is standing next to a small child. If you move your mother, the bullet will strike the child instead. A mother has lived a fuller life, thus it is okay to let your mother take the bullet in order to save the life of the child. The guilt of course, will be overwhelming. Just blame it on the Doctrine of Double Effect.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

The Garden of Death painting exposed at Tampere Cathedral - Finland via Wikimedia Commons by Rafael Vargas with usage type - Public Domain. 1906

Featured Image Credit

The Garden of Death painting exposed at Tampere Cathedral - Finland via Wikimedia Commons by Rafael Vargas with usage type - Public Domain. 1906


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