The Secret to the Success of the Doctrine of Double Effect (and Related Principles): Biased Framing, Inadequate Methodology, and Clever Distractions

The Journal of Ethics 22 (3-4):235-263 (2018)
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There are different formulations of the doctrine of double effect (DDE), and sometimes philosophers propose “revisions” or alternatives, like the means principle, for instance. To demonstrate that such principles are needed in the first place, one would have to compare cases in which all else is equal and show that the difference in intuitions, if any, can only be explained by the one remaining difference and thus by the principle in question. This is not the methodology defenders of the DDE and of related principles use, however. I will discuss how they actually proceed, focusing on their preferred four pairs of examples. While these examples might have rhetorical force, they are nevertheless philosophically and methodologically useless (since they do not keep all else equal). As a corrective, I shall offer examples that do keep all else equal. These examples undermine the DDE and related principles. I then argue that while the Loop case and the “closeness” problem in the context of Jonathan Bennett’s Sophisticated Bomber example might once have been an embarrassment of sorts for defenders of the DDE, meanwhile their discussion serves as a convenient distraction from the many clear examples disproving the DDE and related principles. I conclude that there is simply no sufficient intuitive support for the DDE or related principles. Instead of looking for their “rationales,” they should be abandoned.



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Uwe Steinhoff
University of Hong Kong

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The act itself.Jonathan Bennett - 1995 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Rights, restitution, and risk: essays, in moral theory.Judith Jarvis Thomson - 1986 - Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Edited by William Parent.
Killing in self‐defense.Jonathan Quong - 2009 - Ethics 119 (3):507-537.

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