Nov 19, 2010

Follow-up on Double Effect and Consequentialism

My last post argued that consequentialists can accommodate the principle of double effect in their moral theory: contrary to popular wisdom, double effect is not an anti-consequentialist principle. In this post, I want to touch on some important points that I left out of the first post.

1. It's generally true that my argument cuts against popular wisdom, though there are some exceptions. Amartya Sen agrees that consequentialists can't rule out, as a matter of principle, including actions from the way states of affairs are characterized.

2. I've suggested that consequentialists can accommodate double effect by thinking about the comparative disvalue of killing in order to save. What, precisely, gives rise to this disvalue? Broadly speaking, we can think of the disvalue as deriving from facts about the agent (an agent-centered view) or facts about the victim(s) (a victim-centered view), or both (a hybrid view). 

One victim-centered explanation would be that the five who are saved in the organ harvest case are comparatively worse off than they are in the trolley case in virtue of the fact that the agent killed in order to save in the first case but not the second. We might think, for example, that the dignity that each of the five possess is degraded because the one person’s life is ended as a means to saving their lives, and that dignity is in fact a relevant value in a consequentialist framework; it is worse to live having been saved impermissibly than to live having been saved permissibly, we might suppose.[1] Alternatively, or perhaps in addition, we might think that the value of justice is better preserved when the five are saved justly rather than unjustly. If any victim-centered or agent-centered account holds, we can explain why consequentialists ought to care about double effect. Further, since explanations for the value differential need not be rooted solely in the character of the agent, we can preempt the sort of objection to double effect that has been made by T.M. Scanlon, to the effect that it conflates certain kinds of agent evaluations with evaluations of actions.[2] I won't take a stand here on which explanation of the disvalue consequentialists should endorse.

3. While Sen doesn't think we can rule out the kind of consequentialism I'm considering here in principle, he does argue against what he calls "broad consequentialism," i.e. a consequentialist theory that takes into account the way outcomes are brought about, as I have been proposing, at least as a subject of discussion. Sen thinks it is implausible that there could be sufficient disvalue in someone’s killing one person in order to save twenty so that it would be better, in terms of broad consequentialism, not to kill the one in order to save the twenty. However, Sen’s consideration of broad consequentialism in this case is strictly limited to a theory on which there are agent-centered but not victim-centered sources of disvalue. Provided that there are some victim-centered sources of disvalue when some are killed in order for others to be saved, it is much more plausible to think that broad consequentialism should rule out killing a few to save many.

4. The kind of consequentialist theory I'm discussing here has an interesting feature. In many cases, as the number of those who would be saved unjustly if the agent killed in order to save increases, it becomes increasingly tempting (as some see it) to have one’s moral theory permit killing in order to save. One virtue of my proposed account is that, as the number of those who would be saved by the killing increases, it is plausible that the disvalue associated with the degradation of justice or dignity also increases or at least remains constant, so that the temptation to render killing in these cases permissible does not increase as the number to be saved grows. This means that killing a small number to save a large number can be ruled out, even on a consequentialist theory, without introducing explicit side constraints such as inviolable rights. This is a neat result. While I am not a consequentialist, I think the version of consequentialism I've discussed here is much stronger than some competitors and not prone to some of the more obvious objections. It becomes much more difficult to reject act-consequentialism, for example.

[1] Anscombe suggests something along these lines: “… In an attenuated sense it can be said that something that belongs to, or concerns, one is attacked if anybody is unjustly attacked or maltreated.” Elizabeth Anscombe, “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” in Ethics, Religion and Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1981): 69.

[2] Scanlon makes this argument in Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning and Blame. Judith Thomson also makes an argument along these lines.