Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008)
The doctrine (or principle) of double effect is often invoked to explain the permissibility of an action that causes a serious harm, such as the death of a human being, as a side effect of promoting some good end. According to the principle of double effect, sometimes it is permissible to cause a harm as a side effect (or “double effect”) of bringing about a good result even though it would not be permissible to cause such a harm as a means to bringing about the same good end. Does the principle of double effect play the important explanatory role that has been claimed for it? To consider this question, one must be careful to clarify just what the principle is supposed to explain. Three misinterpretations of the principle’s force or range of application are common. 1. To ensure that Double Effect is not misunderstood as principle issuing a blanket permission on causing any unintended harm that yields a benefit, applications must require that the agent seek to minimize the harm involved. 2. Since it is widely accepted that it is wrong to aim to produce harm to someone as an end, to rule this out is not part of double effect’s distinctive content. 3. Harms that were produced regretfully and only for the sake of producing a good end may be prohibited by double effect because they were brought about as part of the agent’s means to realizing the good end.