The principle of double effect

Updated Wednesday 27th February 2008

Is there a difference between deliberately killing someone and doing something that will lead to their death? Nigel Warburton explores the Doctrine of Double Effect.

Some people believe there is a significant moral difference between deliberately killing someone and performing an action that you know will result in another's death. These people subscribe to what is known as the Doctrine of Double Effect, a principle drawing a distinction between intentionally doing something undesirable and doing something where you foresee an undesirable consequence, but don’t wish this consequence. The name 'Double Effect' comes from the fact that the action in question is thought to have two effects: a good one (intended) and a bad one (merely foreseen).

It may sound esoteric, but this principle has many vitally important applications: for example in medical cases. A doctor may justify administering a lethal pain-killing drug that predictably hastens a patient's death on the grounds that she aims to lessen the patient's pain rather than kill him. 

Critics of this view, including strict utilitarians, will say that if the predictable consequences are the same, the moral worth of the actions must be the same. If you know your actions will result in a death, what difference can it make if you intend this death, rather than merely foresee it? Some of those who subscribe to the Doctrine of Double Effect do so because they are members of a religion that has an absolute prohibition on intentional killing; from outside these religions the double effect doctrine can look like a convenient kind of conscience-saving rationalization. 

Through a series of ingenious, if highly implausible, thought experiments involving out-of-control trolleys, innocent people tied to railway tracks (and, in one case, a fat man pushed over a bridge), Michael Otsuka defends the Doctrine. In this weeks’ Ethics Bites, he claims that our intuitions about these cases support the Doctrine. 

I'm not completely convinced he's right. Perhaps what we need to do is abandon our intuitions, rather than stick to the Doctrine.

Further Reading

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Sandel on justice Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University video icon

History & The Arts 

Sandel on justice

Michael Sandel explores why we should care about justice and being just

Video
5 mins
Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984)

Introducing French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault

Article
A Change In World View Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

A Change In World View

Derek Matravers explores the origins of Romanticism.

Article
Organ transplants Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC audio icon

History & The Arts 

Organ transplants

I need money. He needs a kidney. It should be win-win. Is there a case for allowing paid organ transplants?

Audio
15 mins
Buddhism's four Noble Truths Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The BBC video icon

History & The Arts 

Buddhism's four Noble Truths

This animation explores the Buddha's Four Noble Truths.

Video
5 mins
Religion and genetics Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Reverend Canon Dr Arthur Peacocke article icon

History & The Arts 

Religion and genetics

The Reverend Canon Dr Arthur Peacocke considers some of the challenges presented to religion by genetic selection

Article
Art, censorship and morality Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: By Unhindered by Talent via Flicker under Creative Commons license audio icon

History & The Arts 

Art, censorship and morality

Should artists have complete freedom? Or should we limit what they say and how they say it? Discover the dilemmas of art, censorship and morality.

Audio
15 mins
I love my mum (but not like that...) Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC video icon

History & The Arts 

I love my mum (but not like that...)

This short animation, narrated by Aidan Turner, looks at the Oedipus and Electra complexes and how Edvard Westermarck saw these differently. 

Video
5 mins
Science is based on fact. Cold, unchanging, unarguable facts. Or perhaps not. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC video icon

History & The Arts 

Science is based on fact. Cold, unchanging, unarguable facts. Or perhaps not.

Can scientific theories only really be called 'scientific' if they can be proven false? Karl Popper thought so...

Video
5 mins