Correcting Scanlon and the Doctrine of Double Effect

Harvard philosopher T.M. Scanlon rejects the Christian Doctrine of Double Effect. This teaching explains why it might be permissible to perform an action that would entail a bad consequence so long as the result was unintended.

For example, suppose a combat medic provides a soldier with morphine, knowing that doing so will hasten death, yet the intent is only palliative care. Another example would be giving lethal doses of, say, chemotherapy to a pregnant woman — lethal to the baby, life-saving for the mother. 

If Scanlon is correct, the church’s teaching on this (beginning officially with Aquinas) is a ‘mirage’. He writes, ‘to my knowledge no one has come up with a satisfying theoretical explanation of why intention…should make a moral difference.’1 Scanlon’s critique is a concern to the Reformed Conservative’s theory of moral responsibility since the internal intention of the will is precisely what makes the moral difference.

We will look at Scanlon’s attack briefly. Although a part of Scanlon’s attack on the Doctrine of Double Effect includes an explanation as to why it has been (wrongly) believed and a replacement theory, only his direct attack will concern us here.

He argues that ‘an agent’s intentions are not relevant to permissibility.’2 However, he does hold that a person’s intentions are relevant to forms of ‘moral assessment other than questions of permissibility.’3 Failure to differentiate the different forms of moral assessment, he feels, are the cause of the doctrine of double effect to have such seeming explanatory power.

‘The distinction between the critical and deliberative uses of a principle,’ is an easily overlooked distinction, Scanlon feels, and thus why many have falsely thought that the doctrine is valid.4 Permissibility, according to him, is only determined by ‘considering the relevant principles in their deliberative employment.’5 He explains that this distinction is similar to, though slightly more narrow than, assessing an action and assessing an agent.

This distinction he borrows from Judith Thomson, whom he references earlier in the chapter, explaining the deceptive appeal to the doctrine. Her position is a radical disjunction between the person and the action, which is helpful to more clearly see Scanlon’s position. The Doctrine of Double Effect is believed due to a ‘failure to take seriously enough the fact…that the question whether it is morally permissible for a person to do a thing is just not the same as the question whether the person who does it is thereby shown to be a bad person.’6

The example she gives, and Scanlon endorses, is a doctor who dislikes a patient, and thus administers a lethal dose of pain medication, but although motivated by a perverse reason, the ‘earlier death is in fact better for her patient’.7 Again, Scanlon uses this same line of reasoning, when later he says, ‘But this is criticism of the way I went about deciding, not an explanation of why my action would be wrong.’8

Setting the controversial issue of euthanasia aside, this is an interesting and misleading argument. It is intended to show that the action is permissible, irrespective of the reasoning of the agent, and thus, the intention. That is, they are trying to show that the act of euthanasia is correct, just not this particular motive and reasoning. If the motive and reasoning are wrong, they would have us say, this should be judged apart from the action. That is, Thompson and Scanlon wish to argue that the doctrine of double effect has nothing to do with the permissibility of an action, but only the permissibility of the reasoning. Indeed, they are correct that the motive cannot tell us about the validity of euthanasia in general. But there is an elision here between the permissibility of the act in general and the particular act. Even if euthanasia is, in fact, a real good, and permissible, the particular act would not have been euthanasia, but murder. They are talking about particular kinds of actions, not a particular action. Intent may or may not apply to a category of actions, but it always does with a particular action. Contra Scanlon, intent is morally relevant. 

First, Scanlon’s formulation of the doctrine misstates the matter. Ralph Wedgwood offers a better, albeit weaker, definition of the Doctrine of Double Effect:

There is normally a stronger reason against an act if that act has a bad state of affairs (like an innocent person’s death) as one of its intended effects than if that bad state of affairs is merely one of the act’s unintended effects (emphasis added).9

‘The greater strength’ noted by our intuitions is not some kind of moral value or moral reason, external to the intent which adheres to it, as Scanlon seems to assume. Instead, as Wedgewood explains, the moral value simply is ‘the intention itself’.10

We now need to look at Scanlon’s theory of blame. Consistent with the pagan rejection of responsibility, he denies that blame is connected to blamable actions.

He writes, ‘So blame, as I am describing it, can be independent of any particular blameworthy action.’11 This is likely due to the fact that Scanlon wishes to have a soft view of blame, where its punitive nature is essentially stripped away. 

Scanlon’s theory of blame is a transition from being in a state of good will to the removal of that good will. The example he gives is a friend at a party who discloses information about you that you would otherwise not have wanted shared. Such a breach of good faith means reevaluating the friend and adjusting one’s relationship accordingly. In the future, perhaps, one might be more cautious about sharing information with such an unreliable person. 

However, Scanlon’s theory of blame as a merely modified relationship — a removal of good will — is unable to account for every type of blame.12 His account is plausible ‘when it is applied to the morality of intimates.’13 But, suppose we discover that Pol Pot killed millions more than originally thought. It is not clear that our relationship with Pol Pot would meaningfully change. Yet, surely we are increasing blame. This counterexample to Scanlon’s theory corresponds with Kant’s idea of imputability. To blame is to charge, to attribute, to count, to impute, to reckon, or ascribe. An action is determined by its intention and is an expression of the will; it cannot be understood any other way. These intentions simply are the morally relevant facts, which are expressed through action, thus allowing us to attribute them to a person.

Citations & References
  1.  T.M. Scanlon, Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 18.
  2.  Scanlon, Moral Dimensions, p. 37.
  3. Ibid.  
  4. Scanlon, Moral Dimensions, p. 26.
  5. Ibid., p. 27.
  6. Ibid., p. 20.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p. 24.
  9.  Ralph Wedgwood, Defending Double Effect (n.d.) <http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~wedgwood/DDE.ltr.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2-2LyBLigPzOYV86x73dsvTytg3QIelBQr-L297oe19ksO9HhjFKw5NAM> [accessed 24 May 2019], p. 1.
  10.  Wedgwood, Defending Double Effect, p. 4.
  11. Scanlon, Moral Dimensions, p. 158.
  12.  Some hold (e.g. Roger Scruton discovered private correspondence), that you can also remove good will without assigning blame. This seems an untenable position.
  13.  Kevin Vallier, ‘Thomas Scanlon, Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame’, The Journal of Value Inquiry, 44.4, (December 2010), 561-565, (p. 565), <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10790-010-9240-2> [accessed 11 June 2019].

Robert J. McPherson II

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Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.

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