Elements of the Principle of Double Effect
According to the principle of double effect, it is ethically permissible to perform an act that has both a good effect and a bad effect if all the following conditions are met: 1. The act is good in itself or at least ethically neutral. 2. The good effect is not obtained by means of the bad effect. 3. The bad effect, although foreseen, is not intended for itself, but only permitted. 4. There is a proportionately grave reason for permitting the bad effect.5 An example of the principle’s application helps illustrate this. Suppose a passerby who is not a good swimmer jumps into a river to save a small child who has fallen in and cannot swim. The rescuer may, in fact, drown. Nonetheless, we recognize this as a heroic deed—one which is justified by the principle of double effect: 1. The act itself apart from its consequences is indifferent. It is the mere act of jumping into a river. 2. The act has two effects. One is good—saving the drowning child. The other is bad—the rescuer’s drowning. But the rescuer does not save the child by means of his drowning. If he makes it safely to shore, the child will be saved. The good effect is not accomplished by means of the bad effect. 3. The rescuer is not intending to die. His intent is to save the child. If, on the other hand, the rescuer used the opportunity to rescue the child as a subterfuge to mask his own suicide and intended his own death to occur, his intent would violate the third element of the principle. However, there is no reason to assume that such was his intention. 4. There is a proportionately grave reason for the rescuer’s actions, since the child’s life is at stake. But if the rescuer jumped into the rushing water to retrieve a trivial item, his action could not be ethically justified, because there would not be a proportionately grave reason for his act. Today, the second and third elements of the principle are under intense attack in the debate over...
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