July 30, 2005

Prostitution and Just Price

I'd like to suggest an alternative solution to J.S. Mill's explanation of why we should not have the right to sell ourselves into slavery, and explain how this relates to issues like prostitution and surrogacy. J.S. Mill's explanation of why we ought not to have the right to sell ourselves into slavery is that, by exercising our freedom in this way, we would be unable to perform any other free acts. One cannot use one's freedom to annihilate one's freedom. This means freedom from slavery is an inalienable right.

This seems a strong argument, but I'd like to suggest another one (there's nothing wrong with moral arguments being over-determined). Thomas Aquinas had a doctrine called "just price", which has largely been ignored since Adam Smith. This doctrine is that, though price is set largely by supply and demand, goods have a reasonable range for their value. This range is the range in which someone does not demand absurdly more or offer absurdly less relative to the effort and investment in the good in question. His concern was with the sale of food for exorbitant amounts during famine and similar cases. When people are charged substantially more or offered substantially less than the just price, it is only because there is a gross imbalance in power between buyer and seller. Such a sale or purchase would be exploitative and coersive, and should not even be legally binding.

Let us return then to slavery, prostitution and surrogacy. There are certain goods that are of infinite moral value. I will not depend this claim here. What I mean by infinite value is that it is incohent to compare these incommensurable goods against each other. Moreover, these goods of infinite value are of more valuable than any amount of any finite good. Among these goods are liberty, sexuality and procreation. Each of them is of infinite value, incommensurable with each other and of greater value than any amount of any finite good.

Therefore, when buys a slave or hires a prostitute or a surrogate, one is offering infinitely less in money for the value of the good being purchased. The difference is far worse than someone who offers a few loaves of bread for a house during a famine. Such a difference in price can only be exploitative and coercive. Usually, people who sell themselves as slaves, prostitutes or surrogates are in desperate need of money. When they are not, the buyer is still taking advantage of their ignorance of the value of their own liberty, sexuality or procreativity. Either way, the seller is being exploited by being given far less than just price.

This use of just price can be used to supplement J.S. Mill's argument against selling oneself into slavery. It has the possible disadvantage of requiring the idea of infinite value, but the advantage of being able to apply to obviously exploitative situations other than slavery.

July 29, 2005

Psychological Determinism

There are two forms of psychological determinism. The first is orectic psychological determinism. According to this theory, we must always act according to our strongest desire. The second is rational psychological determinism. According to this theory, we must always act according to our best reason. In either case, this means that our actions are determined. Both of these theories are flawed. They do not stand up to introspective analysis, and they end up begging the question when they need to fix the holes in introspective analysis.

Psychological determinism usually proceeds by making the claim that one can introspectively discover that he or she always acts according to his or her strongest desire/reason. For instance, whenever I act, I have a series of desires/reasons and whichever is strongest is the one I follow. This process of examining my desires/reasons is the process of decision-making. If I did not act on the basis of my strongest desire/reason, then surely I must be acting according to some other desire/reason that is stronger, no? Therefore, it is unthinkable that I would act for some desire/reason that is not my strongest. Therefore, my actions are determined.

Let us begin with orectic psychological determinism. In introspective analysis, it is not clear that I always act according to my strongest desire. I can't think of any meaningful definition of "strong" for a desire other than "intense". However, I often have quite intense desires that I do not follow in place of less intense, more rational desires. For example, I might forgo a quite intense desire for a cigarette to satisfy a more complex, less intense desire like being healthy. Also, desires tend to be more intense depending on the proximity of the object. For instance, I might forgo a drink for which I have a very strong desire, to avoid a hangover tomorrow that is not vivid in my mind. It is at this point that orectic psychological determinists usually beg the question. Well, then, you must really desire to avoid the hangover more, and that must be your strongest desire. This, however, is only true if one has already accepted orectic psychological determinism. In other words, psychological determinism is being used to prove psychological determinism. It does not follow from introspective analysis.

Rational psychological determinism suffers from the same problem as orectic psychological determinism. As a matter of introspective analysis, I don't always act according to what my reason has determined to be the best reason. For instance, sometimes I will have those extra drinks and take the hangover tomorrow. This is in spite of knowing that the hangover will give me more pain than the drinks will give me pleasure, and knowing that the apparent desirability of the drinks is an illusion brought on by proximity. Nonetheless, I will do what I know full well is the worse action, both pragmatically and morally. Here, like the orectic psychological determinist, the rational psychological determinist usually begs the question. Then you must not really believe your own reasons; you must secretly believe that the hangover isn't really harmful. This, again, is begging the question. The rational psychological determinist is assuming rational psychological determinism in order to prove rational psychological determinism. It does not follow from introspective analysis.

As such, both forms of psychological determinism suffer from the same flaw: they do not follow from introspective analysis. When this is pointed out, psychological determinists will resort to begging the question, assuming their theory in order to prove it.

July 28, 2005

Two Kinds of Selfishness

It is an unfortunate commonplace that morality must be selfless or it is not really morality at all. This has led to all sorts of confusion in ethics. The most common is the assertion that if someone wants to do something moral, it is not really moral. Somehow, morality and self-interest must be in conflict. If someone is acting from desire, he or she is not acting from duty.

One solution presented to this is the "counter-factual" definition of morality. In this case, the agent is considered to be acting morally if he or she would have acted morally even if he or she had not wished to act morally. The problem with counterfactuals is that they are incredibly difficult to establish. Moreover, it is a bizarre claim to say that someone is not somehow a morally better person who does not want to molest children versus someone who wants to molest children, but merely controls himself.

Aristotle addressed this problem by showing how the apparent conflict between selfishness and morality was a sham conflict. Selfishness is only morally bad in a small sphere of goods. These goods are material goods for which there is a limited supply and therefore competition. Selfishness with regard to these goods is bad because it interferes with the virtue of justice. Since the hoi polloi believe that these goods are the only real goods, they claim that selfishness is bad.

However, the virtuous agent is selfish for higher goods, especially virtue itself. Virtue is noble, and the noble soul seeks out virtue before any material good. In fact, the virtuous agent wishes to be just because it is greater than any material good. The virtuous agent will happily and selfishly sacrifice material goods for the good of justice. The hoi polloi believe he or she is acting unselfishly, but virtuous people will realise that this act is in fact selfish. This is not the vicious selfishness that leads to injustice, however, but a noble selfishness that desires virtue.

As such, Aristotle claims that the division between selfishness and morality only makes sense when one believes material goods are the only real goods. Once one realises there are other goods, selfishness will not be a threat to virtue. Instead, true selfishness will be the sign of virtue, as the truly virtuous agent will value virtue above all things.

July 27, 2005

Doctors and RCTs

One ethical question that is raised in randomised controlled trials (RCTs) is whether or not the duties of a doctor qua scientist conflict with those of a doctor qua doctor. This is especially true in single-blind, placebo trials.

To explain, an RCT is a trial in which certain subjects (the "test" group) are given a medication, and other subjects (the "control" group) are given a placebo or the standard treatment. In a single-blind trial, the subjects do not know which group they are in, and in the double-blind trial, no one knows which group they are in.

The problem arises about half-way through an experiment. The doctor doctor has a moral obligation to provide the best possible care for his or her patient. However, usually aboult half-way through a single-blind trial, the doctor knows which group is doing better. Even in a double-blind trial, the researcher can usually extrapolate results from control groups in similar experiments. At this point, the doctor has conflicting duties. Qua scientist, the doctor should keep the experiment going to achieve the results. Qua doctor, the doctor should switch all his or her subject to the medication (if it is working) or off of the medication (if it is not). Since individual duties to patients usually trump general duties to science, this is a threat to RCTs generally. In fact, because of this ethical problem, some people have suggested abolishing RCTs.

There is an ethical solution to when an RCT is showing positive results. Both the doctor qua scientist and the doctor qua doctor may behave the same way. In a Phase II or Phase III drug trial, the drug is still considered experimental. Therefore, a doctor qua doctor may not perscribe the drug, even if he or she wanted to do so, and a doctor qua scientist would not want to provide the drug to control subjects for fear of disrupting the experiment. As such, the doctor faces no dilemma, as a doctor is not under an obligation to provide unapproved drugs to control subjects.

When the RCT is showing negative results, the problem is more complex. The patient is faring worse than he or she would on either a placebo or under the standard treatment, both of which are available to the patient. Here, the critics of RCTs are correct. One cannot continue to keep an unaware patient on a treatment that is less effective than another readily available treatment or than no treatment at all. It is not a defence to say that the patient consented at the beginning of the trial; now, the researchers know more than the patient, and this information must be revealed. All of the patients (both test and blind) in the study must be told that there is reason to believe that the experimental medication is less effective than the standard treatment, and asked if they still wish to continue with the study. If sufficient numbers remain, the experiment can continue. If not, then another methodology must be developed.

As such, RCTs do not necessarily need to be banned. In the case where medications are working, the doctor qua doctor would have no access to that medication anyway, and faces no conflict. However, in cases where the medication is showing bad results, the subjects need to be informed.

July 26, 2005

The Half-Blood Prince

I haven't done a book review yet, so I thought I'd write a quick one.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince


I thought the best way to explain why this book was absolutely terrible was to compare it to the first novel and explain why that novel was very good, while this novel was truly one of the most dreadful novels I have ever read.

a) Punctuation. The novel's punctuation was terrible, and had clearly not even been edited like the first novel. There were comma splices everywhere. If you're going to publish thirty million copies of a book, you should at least run it through Word grammar checker. God invented semi-colons for a reason; please use them.

b) Lack of Narrative. The original novel was full of narrative description. Pages were spent on describing scenes in minute detail. This novel had almost no description at all; they were virtually Platonic dialogues. This made the novel flat and empty. What description they had was ridiculously bad, like Voldemort's grandfather's house. It had grimy walls, a dirty floor, dirty pots and pans, smeared windows and, I'm not joking, his mother was wearing a dress matching the color of the dirt. His house was so dirty even the dirt had dirt on it!

c) No New Ideas. J.K. Rowling is completely out of ideas. The original novel had so many ideas, I'm surprised she managed to fit in characters. Even the candy was fascinating. However, there are virtually no new magical inventions and nothing inspires awe in the whole novel. Even the funeral at the end was boring, and she mainly just lists who is there. The only new idea is the horcruxes, which as far as I can tell are just phylacteries from D&D's liches.

d) Bad Mystery Faux Pas. J.K. Rowling breaks two key rules of mystery novels. First, she lets the reader know more than her protagonist in a scene with Snape and Narcissa early on in the novel. This means scenes later are revelatory only to characters in the book and frankly boring to the readers. Second, at least one of the mysteries in the novel is completely insoluble, even by an "ideal reader". A key clue that is utterly necessary to determine the half-blood prince's identity is only revealed after the identity has been revealed.

e) Too Long. This novel is far, far too long. It is three times longer than the original. Moreover, nothing at all happens in all this length. The reader knows as much on page 450 as he or she did on page 50. The mystery isn't progressed. Voldemort doesn't seem to be up to anything. There are entire chapters devoted to characters telling other characters what happened in the last chapter, and then an entire next chapter devoted to characters complaining they weren't believed last chapter when they talked about what happened two chapters ago. Without exaggeration, one could start reading this book at page 450 and not miss anything important. It's that bad.

f) Jarring Contrasts. Harry Potter has painted itself into a corner by creating an "arc" that is far, far more important than Hogwarts 90210. Yet, coupled with this story of ultimate evil is a teenage snogfest that couldn't possibly appeal to the eleven-year-olds who liked volume one. Volume one was able to get away with it because Voldemort wasn't actually back, and the new world she is creating is so fascinating that the friendships at the centre have a place to flourish. However, the teen angst throughout this novel just seems like killing time for 400 pages next to the apocalyptic arc.

This is all a result of bad editing. What is means is that the Harry Potter series will never be a classic. Since volume four, the series the series has been cumbersome, slow and boring. It is a shame to see a series the started with so much promise descend into a muddled mess.

July 25, 2005

Surrogacy and Maternity

The question of surrogacy is one of the few that courts have gotten right in recent questions in reproductive technologies. Here, I will present an argument for why surrogacy contracts cannot be considered valid contracts, working from the premise that children cannot be sold. In all cases, surrogacy contracts should be voided, and those cases that continue to exist should be considered under adoption laws.

There are two forms of surrogate motherhood. The first is traditional surrogacy. In traditional surrogacy, a woman is artificially inseminated with the sperm of the man wishing to adopt the child. In this case, the surrogate mother is also the genetic mother of the child. The second is gestational surrogacy. In gestational surrogacy, an embryo from the man and woman wishing to adopt is implanted in another woman. In this case, the surrogate mother is not the genetic mother of the child.

Let us say that a woman is paid $10,000 to be a traditional surrogate mother. This $10,000 cannot entitle the hopeful adopters to the child. Either the money is for the child or for the labour of the surrogate. It cannot be for the child, as that would be selling a baby. Therefore, it must be for the labour of the surrogate. However, the labour itself makes the surrogate into the mother of the child. All of these contracts make financial payment conditional on transfer of custody. When a mother takes money for her child, that is also selling a baby. Therefore, it is selling a baby either way.

Some argue that a surrogate mother is not really a mother of the child, but more of a caretaker for someone else's child or an in utero babysitter. This is false. In traditional surrogacy, the surrogate supplies the egg and gestates the infant. There is no coherent definition by which this is not motherhood. By the very act of providing the egg and gestating the infant, the child becomes her child. If she were to sign a contract gaining money for custody of this child, she would be selling her baby.

The question becomes more complicated with gestational surrogacy. Since the surrogate does not provide any genetic material, does the act of gestation make the woman a mother? Unfortunately, these have never been separated until recently, so our intuitions are less than clear. However, it is worth noting that for thousands of years, because of botany misapplied to human biology, millions of people believed that motherhood was entirely gestational. Nonetheless, despite this gestational premise, it never occurred to anyone to argue that a woman was not a mother because she merely carried a man's seed in her womb. We should not be so quick, then, to argue that a woman is not a mother because she merely carries a couple's embryo in her womb. Instead, the very act of gestation makes her the child's mother, and she cannot sign a contract gaining money for the custody of this child, since that would be selling the child.

As such, any surrogacy arrangement would be selling the child. A surrogate mother is a mother, and she cannot make a contract to sell custody over the child without selling the child.

July 21, 2005

Duty and Proximity

There is a thought experiment by Peter Singer that runs something like this. Imagine you encounter a child drowning in a pool. Surely you are morally obliged to save the child, if it is of no great inconvenience to you. However, distance is not a morally significant difference. Therefore, if you are obliged to save this child, you are morally obliged to save a child hundreds of miles away, if it is of no great inconvenience to you. He derives from this the principle that we ought to save other people's lives if it does not involve a morally comparable sacrifice, and we therefore ought to donate as much money as we can possibly afford to famine relief and Third World development.

There are several difficulties with this thought experiment that I may argue at a later time, but I will summarise them here. First, it suffers from drowning baby syndrome, evoking parental instincts rather than moral intuitions. Second, it fails to define "ought". He assumes that there is only one scale of what we ought to do, and fails to make a differentiation between what is morally impermissable and what is merely morally criticizable. Third, he does not appropriately address the objection that multiple people can rescue the child, as he includes others' failure to rescue the child in the agent's premises while others are still themselves deliberating.

However, in this post, I intend to address the question of whether or not distance is a morally significant difference. At first, it seems like an obvious point. Why should we care more about the life of someone simply because he or she is close to us? Is that life of more value?

This, however, misses the point. Decisions are not based simply on the value of the lives involved, but on our relationships with the people whose lives are involved. For instance, we have a duty to care for our own children that we do not have for the children of others. We have a duty to console our friends when their parents die, but not strangers. We are not merely sources of potential benefit for others. We are parents, children, lovers, spouses, friends, co-workers, priests, doctors and so on. Each of these relationships carry with it an extra set of duties, and shift certain sets of moral duties from the morally laudable (like consoling a weeping stranger at a funeral parlour) to the morally obligatory (like consoling a weeping friend at a funeral parlour).

The question then is whether or not proximity is a morally significant difference. It is, as it is a relationship that imposes on us an admittedly small set of duties. At any time, of all the billions of peole in the world, there are only a few people with whom we have the honour of sharing space. Urban people tend to forget this, since we're often crammed together like sardines. However, encountering strangers can involve a whole host of etiquette, from greetings, to sharing information, to trading. Often, on a long journey, it is nice just to have some company. Sharing space with a stranger is a real human relationship, and while urban people may take it for granted, it carries with it some real moral obligations, one of which is saving people from drowning.

As such, saving the life of a stranger in close proximity is a moral obligation in the same way that changing the diaper of a child who is our own child is a moral obligation. Singer's thought experiment assumes that proximity is not a morally significant difference, and he can move from the moral obligation to save a nearby drowning child to the moral obligation to save any child. However, the obligation comes precisely from the morally significant relationship of proximity or company. As such, this thought experiment does not show that saving other children, while certainly morally laudable, is a moral obligation.

July 20, 2005

Killing and Letting Die

I have several criticisms of James Rachels thought experiment on the moral identity of killing and letting die in his article "Active and Passive Euthanasia". To summarise the thought experiement, two men desire the death of their respective six-year-old nephews in order to gain an inheritence. They know their nephews are bathing, so they intend to go into the bathroom and drown them. The first man enters the bathroom and drowns his nephew. The second man enters the bathroom and notices that his nephew is drowning already from hitting his head, so he stands and watches. The intuition this is intended to evoke is that these acts are morally equivalent, and that there is therefore no difference between killing and letting die.

There are several criticisms:

1) Cute kid - May we please have a moratorium on cute, little drowning kids in thought experiments? In order for a thought experiment, it needs to evoke our moral intuitions, not an emotional reaction. The problem with cute kids in thought experiments is that they evoke our parental instincts, not necessarily our moral ones, and it is difficult to tell them apart.

2) False Generalization - At best, this experiment shows that in this instance, we have the intuition that killing and letting die are morally equivalent. However, one cannot move from a single case to a general principle, especially one as broad as "there is no moral difference between killing and letting die". For instance, many people have the intuition that active and passive euthanasia are morally different. Why should the bathtub case trump that intuition, rather than vice versa? In fact, thought experiments that help create distinctions are better than those that blur them. They help clarify things that might be murky in other thought experiments.

3) Introspective Difficulty - When simply mining for moral intuitions, it is difficult enough to say something is wrong, and if it is wrong, whether it is impermissible or merely criticisable. No one would deny that either drowning or watching a child drown are morally bad, but the degree of moral badness is trickier. More spefically, that our intuition would be that these two actions are precisely identically bad is beyond intuitive reach. Moral intuitions are not that precise; they are the clay out of which moral arguments are made, but on their own, they are unmoulded.

4) Judging the Action or Agent? - It is unclear whether the action or the agent are being judged in these two cases. Certainly, we react in horror at the thought of people intending to drown their nephews and then either doing so or standing back and watching them drown. However, the thought experiment is constructed in such a way that it is unclear whether we are being asked to judge the agents or their actions. Yes, both these men are equally despicable characters (which doesn't contradict my last point, since Rachels goes out of his way to say that they are utterly alike except for this one action). However, their actions may not be equally despicable.

5) Killing Snuck into Intention - Finally, and fatally, Rachels sneaks the intention to actively drown his nephew into the mind of the uncle who watches his nephew die. This destroys Rachels' thought experiment utterly. If Rachels wants to claim that there is no difference between killing and letting die, then he should include this in the character's intentions, too. However, in order to make their actions appear equal, Rachels sneaks the intention of actively drowning into the mind of both uncles, which makes us think of both of them as active murders. In order for the thought experiment to be fair, one of the uncles would need to intend to drown the nephew, and succeed, and the other would need to intend not to help his dying nephew, and then get lucky. Once this is the comparison, the equality of their actions is not so clear.

July 19, 2005

Sound and Fury

I recently watched the film "Sound and Fury" in which the question was raised as to whether or not deafness was a disability. I was especially struck by it, because it seemed like such a silly question. Of course deafness is a disability. There is something very strange going on, but I think this debate shows something about how modern ethical arguments are not working. There is an attempt to associate anything one wishes to refute with a very vaguely defined term "nature", argue that nature has been refuted by Darwin, and then, by reductio ad absurdum, complete the refutation or at least show that the position is socially constructed.

I am going to define a disability the old-fashioned way. It is something that either one cannot do or can only do extremely badly that a large majority human beings can do. I add the "that most human beings can do" to exclude inability to fly or destroy stars with my fists from definitions of "disability".

Here is where things become complicated. Some of the things a deaf person cannot do cannot be done because the world has been designed for hearing people. For example, if everyone were deaf, then deaf people would have no trouble understanding lectures, since they would all be signed. Deaf people wouldn't be hit by cars that honk at them, since cars would use flashing lights instead (although they'd only work if the person in danger is facing the car). As such, deafness is not per se the inability to communicate or the inability to be warned. It is, quite simply, the inability to hear. Most of the difficulties that deaf people suffer from are socially constructed.

However, this argument does not show that the disability is socially constructed. There is a connection between the inability to communicate with hearing people and the inability to hear. Hearing people could use spoken language or use sign. However, hearing people use spoken language because it has certain advantages. Most importantly, it can be used without facing the speaker, which enables 360 degree communication. Also doesn't force the speaker to choose between speaking and using one's hands. It is true that there are some slight advantages to sign language, such as speaking without disturbing anyone or losing one's voice. However, the advantages of spoken communication outweigh sign to such a degree that no hearing culture has ever chosen sign as its primary mode of communication. Given the choice between sign and spoken communication, everyone has chosen spoken because it makes communicating easier. Therefore, deafness makes people communicate less efficiently. Hearing people always have the option of doing things the way deaf people do, but they choose not to. This socially constructs more problems for deaf people, but the constructions have the natural basis of improved ease or efficiency.

Further, not being able to hear bring about some socially constructed problems, but not all disadvantages are socially constructed. For instance, hearing falling furniture, or a thief or a baby crying are all beneficial, and none are socially constructed. This doesn't exclude the simple pleasure of hearing sounds itself. Not including music, there is the sound of rain falling or leaves rustling. The impossibly cute deaf girl in "Sound and Fury" wanted to hear cars crashing. In the film, a two-year-old baby with a cochlear implant hears sounds for the first time. At the first sound he is a little confused. At the second, his face lit up in a huge smile. When he hears his parents' voices, he is joyous. I never realised how pleasurable it is to simply hear until I saw that baby. On the other hand, deaf people have very few natural advantages. Those that they do have, like sleeping through a thunderstorm or studying in a busy cafeteria are easily simulated using earplugs (that hearing people rarely choose to wear).

The final question that is raised by this debate is whether or not somehow the ability to hear is analogous to the ability to fly. A deaf person is no more disabled than a non-flying person. In order to refute this, one must introduce the idea of a species or human nature, which people who badly misunderstand Darwin tend to think is impossible. However, evolutionary biology has not completely eliminated function, but has replaced function with selective capacity, that is, an ability that at some point in evolutionary development had proved advantageous. Further, it has not eliminated species, but redefined "species" as a degree of genetic similiarity coupled with the capacity to reproduce viably. A member of a species that lacks a selective capacity that the vast majority of members of the species has would be defective, in that respect. As such, a deaf person, who is a member of the human species and lacks a capacity that has proved advantageous, has a disability.

July 18, 2005

Republic X Redux

I was greatly disturbed while rereading some material from Republic Book X today. I have read the argument several times before, and followed it, but it never hit me just how powerful and overwhelming it is.

There are two parts to the argument that really hit me today.

First, our emotions have opinions that are separate from the opinions of our reason. When we encounter drama, our emotions are tricked into believing what we see is real. Our reason is not, which is why, if asked, I can say that I know I am only watching T.V. However, the emotions are tricked, believe what is happening is real. If they were not tricked, we would have no emotional reaction to the events on the screen. Therefore, Plato is correct. The emotions have their own sets of opinions manipulated through non-rational means. This implies, further, that he is correct in believing the soul is divided into at least two parts...

Second, it calls into question the value of all drama. Whenever drama moves us, it does so by lying to the emotive part of our souls. Further, in order for drama to move us, it must sever the connection between our rational and emotional parts, causing our emotions to treat as true things our reason knows to be untrue. As such, drama is an intrinsic threat to the harmony of the soul. If happiness is impossible without psychic harmony and drama functions by disrupting psychic harmony, drama is always a threat to happiness.

A further question I am thinking about (though I have by no means solved) is why we take pleasure in the emotional experiences brought on by drama. We spend vast amounts of money to feel and praise those artists who can produce various emotions like fear and grief that we would rarely pursue outside of that context. What is the point of lying to our emotional part in order to create the experience of grief, over and over? For some reason this is pleasurable, but it is unclear why. Perhaps the emotional part takes pleasure in its ursurpation of the soul...

July 17, 2005

Double Effect

This post is on the meaning of the term "intention". I will explain the intended/forseen distinction, explain some of the common misunderstandings, and provide some examples.

An event is intended when someone desires the event, either as an end or as a means.
An event is foreseen when someone believes that an event will occur, but desires it neither as an end nor as a means.

There are two misconceptions, usually by utilitarians, as to this distinction.

a) treating means as though they are not intended.
b) treating foreseen events as though they are intended.

The moral significance of this distinction is that certain, intrinsically evil actions, may never be done intentionally. These actions include raping, killing, etc. There is no moral justification for intentionally raping or killing someone.

However, the category of intrinsic evil does not apply to foreseen events. For instance, a politician may have limited funds to divide between health care and crime prevention. The politician may decide that more good can be done in health care, foreseeing that the crime rate, including murders, will increase. However, the politician intends the increased murder rate neither as an end nor a means, and is in no meaningful sense of the term a "murderer". It is an unintended side-effect of spending the money on health care.

The benefit of using the principle of double effect is that it allows us to keep two important moral intuitions. First, morality includes certain unbreakable rules, such as an absolute prohibition against rape and killing. Second, morality is about weighing the benefits and harms of actions. (As a side note, rule utilitarianism tries to keep the same two intuitions, but gets stuck in the logical problem of having no theoretical limit to rule-exceptions). The principle of double effect gives us a two-step process for making decisions.

a) Ensure that no inherently wicked actions are being performed intentionally
b) Then, weigh the benefits and harms associated with a given action.

The principle of double effect enables us to say things that might otherwise seem contradictory. For instance, one can say that one should never kill oneself, but it is heroic to jump on a grenade to save one's friends. When one jumps on a grenade, the end is to save one's friends and the means is stopping the shrapnel. One's death is an unintended side-effect of the stopping of the shrapnel, and is in no way intentional. It is neither an end nor a means to saving one's friends' lives.

The principle of double effect, then, is a useful tool for making distinctions in ethics, and enables us to reconcile the intuitive requirements of universal prohibitions with maximizing benefit.


Hello, everyone. I'm not sure if anyone actually reads these blogs, but if you're reading this, someone must, so welcome. I suppose I'll start off by explaining why this blog exists.

As an academic, I spend a lot of my time reading and thinking. Most of this, I do in the context of preparing for class or writing. However, since all this reading and thinking is aimed toward some specific task, I develop or simply hit on a number of ideas that don't fit the project on which I am working. I will think to myself, "That's an interesting idea. I'll have to return to it later". And then, I never do.

So, I created this blog to catalogue these ideas. Several of them may seem incomplete. Perhaps one day, I will return to them. Perhaps not. They are the ideas that are either too abstruse, too controversial, or simply too cumbersome to find their way into my normal philosophical work. What I can promise you is that each of them, at least for a single day, struck me as very interesting. I hope you enjoy them.

Other Posts

The Half-Blood Prince
Second-Order Properties
Slippery Slopes
Why German Sounds Funny
Time Travel, Part One
Time Travel, Part Two

Mediaeval Posts

Prostitution and Just Price
Heaven and Resurrection
Mortal and Venial Sin
Revealed Reasons

Ancient Posts

Republic X Redux
Two Kinds of Selfishness
Goods in the Euthydemus
Aristotle and Human Rights
Friendship and Philosophy
The Dangerous Mule
Doing Wrong Willingly
Tragic Flaws
Journalism and Rhetoric
Prayer and Magic
The Great Euthyphro

Ethics Posts

Double Effect
Sound and Fury
Killing and Letting Die
Duty and Proximity
Surrogacy and Maternity
Doctors and RCTs
Psychological Determinism
Introspection and Free Will
Autonomy and Nature
Respirators and Feeding Tubes
Pleasure and Aggregation
On Modesty
Different Natures
Please and Thank You
On Jaywalking
Remorse and Regret
On Coercion
Payment, Compensation and Honoraria