Chapter 7

The situation

We have so far discussed the choice in relation to what is not relevant to it (the emotions), and what it bases itself on (the factual information). There remains only the moral implications in what it is one chooses to do: the act in the situation one finds it in. A choice is always a choice to do some concrete act in a concrete situation; you can't choose "in general" any more than you can get on a horse and ride off in all directions.

The moral relevance of this is the following:

Conclusion 25: The actual act chosen is always in itself morally neutral; it is always either some aspect of it in the situation or some other aspect of the situation itself that makes it either consistent or inconsistent with the reality of the agent.

What! After all this time, and after all these "conservative" pronouncements so far, I am hopping on Joseph Fletcher's bandwagon and following "situation ethics"?

No, though I am using his term rather than the traditional "act, motive, and circumstances." Fletcher just took what was a perfectly good and valid idea and ran it into the ground. He's one of those "compassionate" ethicians who says that what you should do is "the loving thing" in the situation, meaning that if the situation shows you that fornication would be the "loving thing to do" here, it's okay. Unfortunately, if you have your head on straight, fornication (sex without marriage) is not the "loving thing to do," because you are either (a) violating the reality of the sexual faculty of yourself and your partner--which is hardly "loving" of you toward her, or (b) leaving her with the possibility of a child which you have not tied yourself to also--which is hardly "loving" toward either her or the child if he comes. But note that the act of sexual intercourse is not in itself wrong, if it's with your spouse and you can take care of any children which may result from it.

But let me explore a bit why I say that no act you choose is in itself either right or wrong, and it's always the situation which relates it to your humanity in such a way that it's one or the other. For thousands of years people have held that there are certain acts like murder, abortion, rape, and so on, that are always wrong, no matter what the situation.

But note that these "acts" are defined in a moral way, and aren't simply physical acts. That is, murder is not just killing someone, still less the act of pulling the trigger on the gun; it is defined as killing someone unjustly, leaving out the circumstance of killing someone, for instance, in self-defense. Abortion is not removing a fetus, or Caesarean sections would be abortions, not childbirth; it is removing a fetus in such a way that the fetus dies. Rape is not sexual intercourse, but sexual intercourse with someone who does not want to have it--and so on. The way the "act" is defined, some aspect of the situation which makes it inhuman is introduced; and so of course in that case it would always be wrong.

But in fact no act a human being can actually perform could ever be wrong in all possible situations, because that would mean that it contradicts itself as an act of a human being in all possible situations a human being could be in; but this in turn means that (since what is in fact a contradiction can't occur) the act couldn't in fact happen in any circumstance a human being could be in, and therefore, it would be physically impossible for him to do it. I suppose you could say that for a human being to turn into a rhinoceros would be wrong in all situations, because there's no situation in which (a) it could be done without contradicting his nature as human; but therefore (b) there's no situation in which it could be done at all. But then what does it mean to say that to do it would be wrong?

Well, but aren't there acts which contradict some aspect of our nature no matter what situation we are in? No. Take one which would seem the most likely candidate: In all situations, we are in fact creatures of God, as I showed in Chapter 7 of Section 4 of the first part 1.4.7, because we are finite and directly depend for every act we perform on the Infinite Act. Therefore, the act of blasphemy, or expressing contempt for God, would be wrong in all situations: I am referring to some such statement as "God, you are a shithead and I spit on you!" Obviously, that would be morally wrong no matter in what situation it was uttered or written.

Would it? I just wrote it as an example of a blasphemous statement. I had no intention of expressing, nor did I express, any contempt for God in writing it; I was clearly writing it to indicate that this is the kind of statement you can't make when you mean to express what it says. But I didn't mean to express what it said, any more than to say, "Hero is a four-letter word" means to express what is contained in the word "hero," or to refer to any heroes.

Hence, there is at least one situation in which a person can deliberately utter a blasphemous statement without being immoral: as an example of what a blasphemous statement would be. Such a statement would be morally wrong only when what the words express is what he had in mind to express.

Do I need to belabor this? I am perfectly willing to accept things like murder, blasphemy, rape, and so on as "always wrong" as long as it is recognized that it isn't the actual act in its nakedness that's being talked about, but the act plus some aspect of the situation that relates the act in an inconsistent way to the humanity of the person who is performing it.

But situation ethics differs from what I am saying in another way also. Usually, it is the result of an existentialist turn of mind, in which, à la Sartre, it is assumed that the agent has no reality until he makes the choice; that he is (in Sartre's words) "nothingness," in himself, with nothing "given." In this case, of course, he could turn himself into a rhinoceros if he chose to do so, because there would be nothing preventing this any more than there would be anything preventing him from turning himself into a philosopher. I even saw a man turn into a building once--but that's a different story (the ground floor, actually). Sorry.

But the fact is that the reality of the agent and the reality of the objects around him is given; they are not constituted by the choice he makes. Certainly you would have quit reading this by this time if you believed that. Furthermore, the choice itself does not constitute the relation of the act chosen to the person's humanity; this is a fact to be known, not something to be created. For instance, if you feed that candy bar to that diabetic child, you'll kill him. You choose to do it and not kill him. He dies anyway. The very point of immorality is that you make a choice like that; you choose to take this wallet and make its contents belong to you. But the act of taking can't do that, and so after you take it, its contents still don't belong to you. Immorality is a refusal to accept what the facts are and a pretense that our choice makes them what we want them to be.

In this sense, situation ethics, insofar as it says that the choice creates the moral status of the act you choose, is actually a set of rules on how to be immoral. Of course, if the choice itself makes the moral status, then there is clearly no immorality in any choice, even in Sartre's "bad faith" choice not to choose. If I want to let someone else make the decision for me, who is Sartre to tell me that I must not? And of course why would not "doing the loving thing" be wrong if my choice created the moral rightness and wrongness of what I choose? Who is Fletcher to tell me that self-fulfillment is bad?

So the situation "constitutes" the moral status of the act in that situation only because the aspects of the situation objectively relate the act to the humanity you have in that situation, and this is something you have no control over (except to change either the act or the situation so that this objective relation is no longer there). So even admitting that the act as an act is morally neutral, this does not mean by any means that the morality of choosing the act in this objective situation is subjective.

Note, by the way, that the reason Sartre condemns "bad faith" and Fletcher says not to do the "loving thing" is wrong are based, not on anyone's choice, but on their definition of what it means to be human. In Sartre's case, "to be human" means to be in oneself nothing, and self-constituted by one's choices, and so it is objectively inconsistent to refuse to constitute yourself by choosing to let someone else choose for you. In Fletcher's case, human beings are the beings who can love, and therefore their objective reality is constituted by love, which, of course, lies in the choice. Hence, the choice not to love is (for him objectively) immoral, and any other choice is moral if in the situation it's consistent with love. So the morality or immorality of a choice is not determined by the choice in either of these cases, but by the relation of what you choose to your objective humanity.

With that out of the way, we can say the following:

Conclusion 26: Any aspect of the situation can make the act inconsistent with the agent's reality, and therefore make it immoral for him to choose the act in that situation. A choice is moral only if all aspects of the situation are morally right.

That is, there aren't some aspects of the situation that are privileged "moral" aspects of it, and some that are exempt from moral implications. Anything about the act can in some circumstances make what would otherwise be a legitimate act morally wrong, or vice versa. I mentioned how using a blasphemous statement as an example lifts what is generally a wrong act into something that is all right to choose to do.

It doesn't sound fair that only one aspect of the situation of an act can make the choice of the whole act immoral, if everything else about the act is morally good, even morally very noble. But think what this one aspect means: it means that the act as related to the agent is inconsistent with him. Thus, for instance, if you lie to save your country from nuclear destruction, what is this "tiny evil" in relation to the good you accomplish? It is the fact that you chose to do wrong: you chose the one thing that is forbidden by the moral command. Well, but aren't we commanded to do good also? No. We are free with respect to good; we can choose whatever goals we want for ourselves; what we are commanded to do is avoid choosing what is wrong.

This is no Blairian innovation; it is the old Scholastic rule Bonum ex integra causa, malum e quacunque defectu ("Good from an intact cause; bad from any defect whatever.") This is one of the reasons why I think that Scholastic ethics, for all its supposed basis in "the good," is actually the same as the "avoid wrongness" ethics that I have been proposing. Scholastics have always said that it simply doesn't matter how good the act is in every respect but one, and how tiny the evil is in this one respect; the act must be avoided because of this small evil.

Some modern moral Theologians have seized upon the "orientation toward the good" to advocate "proportionalism," and have overturned this rule. The idea is supposed to be that if the act, looked at as a whole, has more good about it than bad, then it's okay to choose it.

This really needs a bit of discussion, since it is so widespread. It is part of the cause of controversy nowadays between the official stance of the Catholic Church on such matters as contraception and "progressive" moralists like Charles Curran, who think their view is more "nuanced" and less "rigid" than Rome's.

This claim of being "nuanced" is, of course, propaganda. God knows that Scholastics (especially the Jesuit casuists) have up to now had the reputation of "splitting hairs"--and now apparently, they're too simplistic in their views. We will see shortly that there is one place where "proprtionalism" fits; but if you catch the correct nuances, it doesn't fit all over the place, or moral conduct is a shambles.

The moral theory of proportionalism actually has three things wrong with it: two theoretical and one practical. First, it supposes that "good" and "bad" are objective qualities that things have, so that you can actually calculate the "amount" of objective good connected with the act and weigh it against the "amount" of bad. If you can't do this objectively, then obviously anybody's assessment of what's "more good than bad" is as good as anybody else's--and so, for example, Hitler's notion that a world without Jews outweighed little things like Auschwitz has to be accepted.

But if you want to say that an objective calculation of how much good outweighs how much evil can be made, you run into the fact that philosophers ever since Bentham and his "utilitarian calculus" have been trying to to do this and failing miserably. And they were (and still are) good and intelligent people, trying to straighten out the mess the world is in.

The second theoretical error is that, even if goodness were objective, and badness too, it doesn't follow that these are on a continuous scale with each other, so that a certain amount of goodness "compensates" for an equal amount of badness, and vice versa. The denial of this is precisely what forms Dmitri Karamazov's argument in the "Grand Inquisitor" episode of The Brothers Karamazov. His argument is that not all the goodness in the world can balance the terror of a little girl locked in the closet and screaming to get out.(1)

It might very well be that good and evil, even if objective, are incommensurate, the way strength and beauty are incommensurate, in that a certain amount of strength does not offset a lack of a certain amount of beauty.

But it is possible that you can make a calculus by considering that good lost involves a damage, and therefore, the damage from the good lost is now compared with the damage done. We will see, in fact, that the last rule of the Double Effect has to be done in this way. But in that case, you have to weigh the whole damage, as I discussed in discussing immortality in Chapter 3 of Section 4 of the third part 3.4.3. If you do, you find that a slight eternal frustration always outweighs any temporal damage whatever, so that in the long run you and the sum of all beings will be worse off for your immorality.(2)

And the practical thing wrong with this view is that in the last analysis it means that no choice in practice would ever be immoral. Even if it is in principle possible for a person to choose something wrong for the sole reason that it is wrong (which I hold but practically every other philosopher denies), why would a person in practice choose to do anything if he didn't see more good in it than bad? Even a person who takes drugs (assuming he's not an addict, and is freely choosing) obviously does so because as far as he's concerned at the moment, the benefit of the high outweighs the risks of addiction and so on.

Of course, you could say that he's objectively mistaken in this (if you hold that goodness and badness are objective and commensurate); but obviously he thinks that the high is "worth it," or he'd choose not to take the drug. But all that this means is that he's mistaken, not that he's made an immoral choice. He is no more immoral than a surgeon is when he performs an operation to save a person's life, and it happens that the operation, for no discernible reason, was too much for the person's system to bear, and he dies.

Therefore, if "being moral" means "choosing what is proportionately more good than evil," it also means that a person is being moral when he chooses what he thinks is more good than evil. But in that case, he is always making a moral choice, even if he is "objectively" mistaken, as the Palestinians are when they blow up a busload of innocent people to draw attention to their plight, and to induce the world to save their people from homelessness and oppression.

No, let's face it; "proportionalism," like "situation ethics," is another attempt to absolve people from moral responsibility--in the name, of course, of responsible morality. Obviously, I don't buy it; and neither do these people, when they condemn others for not following their view and seeing their idea of what the "proportion" should be.

Having, then, disposed of whole schools of ethics, I will go briefly through the "topics of invention" and give an example of how the particular aspect of the situation can change the act's moral status:

First, who performs the act. It might not be immoral for an ordinary person to be seen driving around in a Mercedes; but I remember that a certain monsignor who taught in our College had one, and created a lot of gossip by it. Here was a man who was supposedly dedicated to the overriding love of God beyond material possessions, who was giving the impression that he was doing very well for himself, thank you, by counseling the virtue of poverty to others. (His argument was that he got it cheap on a trip to Germany, and it was more economical to run than an ordinary car. Sure, sure.)

Secondly, whom you act on. Giving candy to a baby is fine; giving candy to this diabetic baby is to harm his health, possibly kill him.

Thirdly, where you do the act. Playing rock music on your boom-box is all right in the privacy of your room. Playing it in church during the service is disrespectful to the congregation and probably sacrilegious.

Fourthly, when you do the act. Playing your stereo in your room at noon is fine. Playing it at three in the morning when your roommate is trying to sleep is not.

Fifthly, how (i.e. in what manner) you do the act. Playing your stereo at three in the morning is not fine, if you let the sound come out of the speakers. Playing it at three in the morning through the headphones is fine.

Sixthly, with what intention you do the act. It is fine to volunteer to work overtime on your company's computer. It is not fine if you volunteer in order to break into their payroll program and embezzle money.

A couple of words should be said on this point. Scholastics sometimes call the "intention" the whole choice, including all aspects of it; so that, for instance, if you choose to get money by means of stealing it, they would say that the theft entered "the intention" of the choice as a means to the end you chose.

Nowadays, "the intention" of a choice means the goal you want to accomplish by the act you choose, and doesn't necessarily include every other aspect of the act. It is in this sense that we can say, "Good intentions are not enough." A person can have the best intentions in the world in choosing, say, to free the Palestinians from their oppression by the Jews; but if he achieves this goal by capturing, torturing, and killing hostages, he has also chosen the deaths of the hostages--and this is immoral.

Note that the words intention, purpose, goal, end, and reason all mean the same thing in reference to a choice of an act: they are all the effect for which the act was chosen.

We can state the morality of goals as the following conclusion:

Conclusion 27: a morally wrong goal will make the choice immoral, but a morally good goal is not sufficient for a good choice.

Good intentions are necessary, but not sufficient.

Seventhly, by what means you do the act. Taking money from another by working for him and being paid is fine. Taking money from him by stealing it is not.

Again, a bit more should be said here, obvious as this is. What it says, of course is the proverb "The end doesn't justify the means." If you choose to achieve the purpose, you also choose the means to get there, as is obvious if there are several possible ways of getting at your goal. For instance, you can be handed money by another person not only by working for him, but by begging it and persuading him to give it to you, by stealing it without his knowing you are taking it, by threatening him with harm if he doesn't give it to you, by cheating him out of it, by doing him a favor which he then rewards with the money, and so on and so on. If you want the money from him, you have to pick out some way of getting it; and so the means will necessarily enter the choice; and, of course, if the means are morally wrong, you have chosen what is wrong, and so your choice is immoral.

Actually, if the intention or goal made it moral to choose morally wrong means, then this is another route like proportionalism which would imply that no one would ever make an immoral choice in practice; because in practice, as I said, we never do anything morally wrong for its own sake, but always because some benefit to ourselves or others is going to come out of it--and in general, until we have become steeped in vice, the worse the act we choose to do, the greater the good we expect from it. One can only sympathize, in one sense, with the Palestinian terrorists, who think that terrorism is the only way the world will wake up to their plight and do something to correct it. They want to end the misery of their people which has gone on for so many, many years; their purpose is extremely noble. But they have still chosen to kill and torture people, irrespective of the reason why they did it; and if this theory is correct, then (unless they are so blinded by their situation that they have no idea of what they are doing), they are bringing on themselves and their assistants, as I showed in Chapter 5 of Section 4 of the third part 3.4.5, a suffering far worse than anything they are trying to save others from. This deserves to be made another conclusion:

Conclusion 28: even if the goal is to avoid terrible wrong, it is immoral to choose a means toward this goal that involves the smallest moral wrongness. You may never choose anything wrong.

Actually, this is just another way of stating Conclusion 27. But it is significant enough that it can stand being stated in these two forms.

The eighth and final "topic" is very "nuanced," and needs all of the previous discussion to make it clear. It is what effect the act has--other, of course, than the effect intended, which is the goal. All the effects of the act that are not parts of the goal are called, of course, "side-effects."

The rule here is the following, though it needs some qualification.

Conclusion 29: In general, if you choose an act, you are also choosing all of the effects you foresee will (or might reasonably be expected to) come from it. Hence, if any one of these is wrong, the choice to cause it is wrong.

That is, as I said earlier, if you know that an act will result in some effect, then to choose the act is to choose a cause of this effect, and the "cause" is meaningless except in relation to its effect, and so you have also chosen the effect. Thus, if you choose to drink and drive, knowing that it impairs your control of a car and will therefore put you in danger of killing someone, you have, in making this choice, also been willing to kill someone if it should happen. You have reason to believe it might happen; and therefore, you have to be willing to have it happen if you choose what will produce it. You can't get away with saying, "But I didn't want to kill anyone," any more than that is an excuse if the death is a means to some good purpose. So in general, all known side-effects enter the choice along with the act, the means to the end, and the goal itself.

This, by this time, should be clear. But I said in general, because with respect to this aspect of the situation, there is a way sometimes to keep wrong side-effects out of the choice. The way to do this is called the "Principle of the Double Effect," and it is one of the most important principles in moral philosophy.

Actually, though this Principle is usually given here under the effect of an act, it is very similar in many ways to the indirect method of clearing an unclear conscience I spoke of above, where you clear your conscience by knowing the orientation of your will rather than the facts about the moral status of the act. This Principle is somewhat more sophisticated, but it amounts to the same thing: making sure that the wrong effect of the act is kept out of the choice; and in fact, the fifth rule, as we will see, is for practical purposes the rule for removing a doubt from conscience.

For instance, a woman who is attacked by a rapist who is holding a knife at her throat is told, "Lie still and let me do this, or I'll slit your throat." If she struggles, she dies; if she doesn't struggle, she has sex with this man. Since there are alternatives, and she knows there are, she cannot avoid choosing; but no matter what she chooses, something bad is going to happen to her.

We saw this choosing away from what is worse earlier, as I said. But this isn't exactly a case of an unclear conscience. With an unclear conscience, you don't know whether the act is wrong or not; but the woman in this situation would know that it is wrong to have sex with this man, and also that it is wrong to kill herself by proxy, by doing something that will induce someone to kill her. So there isn't any doubt as to the wrongness. But still, everyone, including the woman herself, would immediately say that if she chooses not to struggle, she is still being raped against her will, which means that she didn't choose it, but simply couldn't avoid the actual act. She no more chose the act of sex, really, we would intuitively say, than if she were tied up and gagged so that she couldn't struggle.

That's fine, and our intuitive view is correct. But why? Because, first of all, the act she chooses is to lie still; this is not in itself the act of sex, and so the sex is not contained in the act she chose, and therefore presumably can be divorced from it in her mind and her choice. She can be willing to lie still and simultaneously be positively unwilling to suffer the consequences of this, but simply can't avoid them without choosing something worse. The example makes clear that the rape victim, even though she actually chose something that resulted in sex, is not simply "not willing" to have sex (in the sense that she doesn't positively want it, which would include indifference to whether it happens or not) but actively does not want to have sex, and would prevent it if she could. In other words, as in the case of the unclear conscience, the orientation of her will is away from the wrong act. And this, of course, makes the choice moral and keeps it from containing a self-frustrating goal.

Note that it is only in this sort of situation that this can be done; because if the rapist were not threatening her with something worse if she didn't lie still, then her choice to let him rape her would be an acquiescence in his act, using the fact that he was forcing her as an excuse to have sex with him, because she could prevent it by struggling, for instance. Hence, if she lies still knowing that she could prevent the whole thing by struggling (supposing that this is real knowledge and she is not frightened into immobility and so on), then she has chosen the consequences of her act, just as the rapist has also chosen the possible pregnancy by choosing to perform an act which can make someone pregnant. I am not saying a woman ever does such a thing, and the last thing I want to do by this example is "blame the victim." What I am saying is that in order to be unwilling to have sex, you have to have reason to believe that something at least equally bad is going to happen if you try to avoid it. It would be the very rare woman, I would think, who would not have a reason like that in the situation of a rape.

The example of rape is really being used because it is intuitively obvious to almost everyone that it makes sense to say that a person can sometimes choose something and actively reject in that very choice some side-effect of the act; and this means that, as far as the morality and the eternal consequences of the choice are concerned, the side-effect is not there.

But there is another difference from the indirect method of clearing your conscience. Since the wrongs are known, the Double Effect must be somewhat more sophisticated than just choosing away from the greater wrong. What if the lesser wrong is a means toward avoiding the greater one? The end doesn't justify the means. To give an example of this, suppose Darth Vader told you to shoot Luke Skywalker or he would kill your wife and children. Can you actually kill someone as a means of saving someone else's life? In that case, the end justifies the means; and if the end ever justifies the means, then morality, as I said, goes right out the window.(3)

And this is what the Principle of the Double Effect is about. It is five rules by which a person can assure himself that the choice he is about to make will in fact exclude the wrong that he knows is indirectly involved in the action he is choosing; and so if these rules are fulfilled, the choice to perform the action will be moral.

I hasten to say that a person in an emergency situation need not say, "Wait a minute, Mr. Rapist, I have to check. Let's see, Rule One..." Obviously, if you are being attacked, you choose what you think is right, and that will suffice. Furthermore, in emergency situations, you are very apt to be under the grip of an emotion which wouldn't let you think straight anyhow. All of what I said above about emotions and conscience apply here.

So we are assuming that you are in a situation where you have time to figure out what the moral thing to do is; and all the rules are is a spelling out of when the choice is in fact away from the moral wrongness involved, and doesn't necessarily imply that you have to apply them explicitly every time you make a choice.

Here, then, are the rules:

First, the wrongness has to be separable in principle from the act itself, and not be some intrinsic aspect of it. That is, it must be in some effect of the act rather than in the act. For instance, a lie may deprive a person of the truth (and that's an effect); but a lie also is a use of one's act of conveying factual information in such a way that what is conveyed as a fact is not a fact, and so the act as chosen also directly contradicts its own reality.(4) Since that contradiction is within the act itself, if you choose the act of telling a lie, you cannot avoid choosing the violation of your nature as a factual communicator. Here's the first instance of its not being legitimate simply to avoid a greater wrong; you can't choose something as insignificant as telling a lie even to save your life, because the lie in itself contradicts itself.(5)

On the other hand, if the woman chooses to stay still, there is nothing in that act itself which is inconsistent with her; obviously, if the rapist weren't there, there'd be no moral problem. What's wrong with lying still is that the effect of it is going to be sex with someone not her husband.

Second, there must be more than one known effect of the act, and at least one of the other effects must be good. This "goodness" may simply be "the avoidance of the greater harm."

The idea here is that the act, innocent in itself by the first rule, is known to be the cause of at least one effect. If that's all you know about it, then in choosing it as cause, you would also be choosing its effect. Since, then, you know you are choosing the cause of an effect, you must choose it as the cause of some other effect it has (using "cause," of course, in the loose, ordinary sense, not the technical sense in Sectionn 2 of the first part, where a cause has one and only one effect).

For instance, the woman chooses the act of lying still as the cause of staying alive, and not as the cause of having sex. She has now chosen the act, which is innocent; and she has chosen it knowing that it is the cause of effects; but she recognizes that because it has many effects she need not choose it as the cause of the harmful one.

This, by the way, is why the Principle is called the Principle of the Double effect. All of the wrong effects are lumped together as "the (complex) wrong effect," and the good effects are lumped together as "the (complex) good effect."

Third, the wrong effect must not bring about the good effect. That is, it must not in practice be a means toward the good effect as its end.

The reason for this is that you are choosing the act for its good effect, which means that the good effect is the end you intend to accomplish. But if the wrong effect is necessary in order for this to happen, then you can't avoid intending it along with the good effect you want. For instance, you may want your inheritance, and this is perfectly good; but if you put arsenic in your father's soup to get it, then you want the inheritance by means of his murder, and you can't hide behind, "Well, but what I wanted was just the money."

So this Principle, as I said, does not allow the end to justify the means. The two effects (the good one and the wrong one) must be independent of each other, even though both of them, obviously, depend on the same act. At least they must be independent of each other in the sense that the wrong one isn't indispensable for the good one to occur; it might be that the good one results in the wrong one (as, for example, the surviving the rape might result in insanity, and you might even know that you were going to lose control once it was over. But this can still be kept out of the choice.).

How in practice would you know if the good effect didn't depend on the wrongness of the wrong effect? You make a mental supposition that the wrong effect doesn't happen. Will the good one still occur? If so, then obviously the wrong effect was not indispensable for it, and you're home free.

Note that this supposition doesn't have to be realistic. The woman has no reason to believe that the rapist won't carry out his threat (either of them); but, supposing that someone came by and frightened him before the actual sex act took place, would the woman still be alive? Obviously yes. So it wasn't by having sex that she saved her life, but by lying still.

Let me give another example. Someone drops a hand grenade into the room, and you leap on it, shielding the others with your body. Of course, you die. Can you do this? First, the act of lying on a hand grenade is perfectly all right in itself; if it is not set to explode, there is obviously no problem. So the damage lies in the effect. There is also a good effect; the others do not die. Now is it your death that produces the good effect? No, because if the grenade doesn't go off, the others still live, and even if it does and you survive, the others still live.

On the other hand, if Darth Vader tells you to shoot Luke Skywalker or he will kill your family, and you pull the trigger and the gun misfires and Luke is still alive, cruel Mr. Vader will say, "Try again, or they die." Here, it is obvious that unless Luke dies, the good effect of the saving of the other lives will not occur, and so it is precisely the death that brings about the good effect. Hence, in this case, you would have to choose Luke's death, which is immoral; which means that you could not morally prevent the deaths of your family. But you would not be morally responsible for their deaths, for that very reason; there was no moral way you could have prevented them.

Obviously, this is a hard saying; but no one said that being moral was easy. In any case, this is the third rule for assuring yourself that you have not chosen what is wrong.

Fourth, the wrong effect must not be a motive, even a secondary motive. You must actively be unwilling for the wrong effect to occur, and are not permitted to use the dilemma as an excuse for doing something that would in ordinary circumstances be wrong.

For instance, if the woman wanted to have sex with the rapist, even though her primary motive was to save her life, she would be morally guilty of fornication or adultery. Note that this is not the same thing as saying that if she (unwillingly) finds sexual pleasure in the act that she has "wanted" it. This could happen, for instance, in what is called "date rape," where the rapist is (or rather was) a friend. We don't have control of our emotions, still less of our physical feelings. Similarly, if you shoot an attacker, you may get satisfaction from seeing someone who wanted to kill you die. You can distinguish this from willing his death by asking, "If I escape and I find him later helpless, would I kill him in vengeance?" If the answer is yes, you are also willing his death during the attack; if no, then the satisfaction you get is merely an emotion with no will behind it.

Also, if the man who jumped on the hand grenade wanted to end it all, then even if he mainly wanted to save the others, he would be morally guilty of committing suicide, because he did intend his own death, even if it was not the main intention. You have to be actively unwilling to have the wrong occur.

Note, by the way, that if you shot Luke Skywalker, there is a sense that you didn't want to do it (it wasn't a goal of yours); but it can't be said, as here, that you were actively unwilling for it it to happen. One who wills the end, also wills the means necessary to the end.

And fifth and finally, the damage done by choosing the act must be no greater than the damage done by avoiding it. That is, you choose the act because not to do so is at least as bad. Here is where the "proportionalism" comes in.

I say, "at least as bad," because, as in the case of clearing an unclear conscience, if the two are equal, you can choose either alternative with the motive of avoiding what is bad in the other one. But if the damage to not choosing the act is greater, then morally speaking you must choose the act with its damaging effect.

For instance, if the woman believed it was worse to die than be raped, she would have to choose to lie still; if she believed the other way (as some have), she would have to choose to struggle. If both seemed equally horrible to her, she could choose either with the intention of avoiding the other.

Here is where subjectivity enters, because there is no objective "bad," and when the damage is to yourself, then what seems worse is worse, and no one may contradict you on that.

However, when the damage is to someone else, then that criterion of "community established damage" I spoke of under Conclusions 7 and 8 of Chapter 3 of Section 7 of the fourth part comes into play 4.3.7. For instance, if I were to think that having my wallet stolen was a fate worse than death, and I were to kill the robber because, according to my standards, I am inflicting the lesser evil on him, I could not impose my own personal standards of damage on someone else, but would have to go by the community's standards and let him rob me, if the only way I could avoid it involved his death.

The reason for this last rule, of course, is that if you choose the alternative with the greater damage, then you have chosen something which is more wrong than right, and you can't argue that the orientation of your choice is away from the wrong, since you could at least have lessened it by choosing the other alternative.

But what about jumping on the hand grenade to save the others? It would certainly seem worse that eight should die rather than one; and so the reasoning above would seem to indicate that you would have to jump on the grenade.

But that actually isn't the case. By staying where you are, you are not actively doing anything to cause the death of the other people, even though you could do something to prevent it if you jumped on the grenade. In the case where the effect of your action of preventing it would involve no damage to yourself, you would have to choose the act, because in that case, you would be willing to do harm to the other people. For instance, if you could have saved them by yelling "Everybody run!" and you refused to do so, you might just as well have thrown the grenade yourself.

But in the situation as I outlined it, the others have no right against you to be saved from the blast; you have no special duty toward them. Saving them, therefore, is not fulfilling a moral obligation you have, but merely doing something that is morally good (i.e. that is consistent with yourself). But you have an obligation not to do yourself damage. Hence, we can draw the following conclusion:

Conclusion 30: No one has a moral obligation to do damage to himself to avoid greater damage to others, even if the Double Effect would permit it.

That is, even if the damage is in the effect of the act, and even if the two effects are independent and the damage to oneself is not intended, it is not the case that the fifth rule means that saving others from worse harm means that one must choose the course of action involving harm to oneself. And the reason is, as I said, that one has a positive obligation not to harm oneself, but no positive obligation to prevent harm to others.

Now this is not to say either that it is forbidden to choose the action which involves harm to oneself when the Double Effect applies; because the point of the Double Effect is that the harm is kept out of the choice. So you may jump on the hand grenade and die and save the other people; and you would be considered a hero if you did--which you might enjoy in heaven, though obviously it's going to do you no good in this life. But the point here is that you need not, because you are, after all, the agent of your actions, and you need not sacrifice yourself by your own actions for the sake of others.

On the other hand, if an attacker is robbing me and the only way I can avert the harm is by shooting to kill, then even though I might justify the shooting (as we will see when discussing rights in the next Part) in defense of my life, the fifth rule about greater damage does apply in this case, since I would be actively doing something which caused damage to the other--and greater damage than he was doing to me.

Hence, there is morally speaking a difference between refraining from doing something which, if done, would prevent damage and doing something which would inflict damage, even if the damage inflicted is an effect of the act. The reason is that the moral obligation is, as I said, negative; you must not choose to do what is wrong. I am only obliged to choose to do something when not doing it is the equivalent of actively doing something wrong.

Traditionally, this fifth rule is stated in such a way that there is supposed to be "a proportion between the good that is accomplished and the evil that is caused"; but you can't compare gains with damage, as we saw in Chapter 3 of Section 7 of the fourth part 4.3.7.

And, in fact, ethicians recognize this. Suppose you were offered a million dollars to play Russian Roulette just once. You put one bullet in the chamber of the six-shooter, spin the barrel, point the gun at your head and pull the trigger. If the gun doesn't go off, you win a million dollars; if it does, you die.

You could argue that you have five chances out of six of winning the million, and only one of dying; and those are very good odds. So, taking the likelihood of survival (83 per cent) and the million dollar reward for surviving, you could argue that the benefits would outweigh the slight chance of dying. After all, you don't take your umbrella when there's only a 17 per cent chance of rain.

But this is looking at it the wrong way. If you don't play the game at all, you will be no worse off from the way you are now (though if you do play, you will probably be a million dollars better off), while if you do play, there's a 17 per cent chance that you'll be a lot worse off. Hence, the damage from not playing is nil, and the damage from playing is considerable; and therefore, you may not morally run this risk for the sake of the benefit. You may not choose to harm yourself; and since the only way you can keep the harm out of the choice is to avoid greater (or at least equal) harm, this is not fulfilled by the fact that there will be a great benefit from risking the harm, and you would have to be willing to die if luck had it so--and this is the moral equivalent of choosing your death.

Conclusion 31: No one may morally choose an act whose effect is damage to himself if not choosing it simply means losing a benefit, however great the benefit might be.

Ethical theory is obviously a minefield; and so we must cross it very carefully. Things which at first sight seem perfectly reasonable turn out to involve inconsistencies.

But we finally have got through a sketch of the general principles of morality. The next task before us is to look at the individual human being (i.e. exclusive of his relations with others) and, based on what we said in the first, second, and third parts about his reality, what acts would be inconsistent with this and so morally wrong; and when the wrongness can be avoided using the Double Effect.



1. I mentioned this introducing the problem of evil in Chapter 12 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.12(and you might want to refresh your memory by going over again the chapters in that section dealing with ideals, goodness, and badness). The incommensurability of goodness and badness, of course, destroys Augustine's argument that "God allows evil so that greater good can come of it."

2. This is certainly true if goodness and badness are objective. If they are subjective, then of course, when you make an immoral choice, you are either ignoring the eternal suffering (even though you know the choice is wrong, and therefore "bad for you" in the abstract--or the choice would be mistaken, not immoral), or you have the idea that you can escape it, or you think that the eternal suffering is "worth it."

It seems to me that, no matter what your standards, you are, in this case, making an unrealistic assessment. In the first case, you simply choose not to consider one of the consequences which, if you thought about it, you would see as undesirable no matter what your goals are (frustration is precisely failure to be able to achieve a goal, no matter what it is). In the second case, you are acting as if the frustration were a consequence separable from the choice itself, and not exactly what the immoral choice is (to set up a goal that can't be achieved); and so to want the immoral choice without its consequences is a contradiction in terms.

But the reality of some condition that can be called "hell" is precisely because of the third case. It can be said that those who are in hell would rather be in that condition than give up what they would have to have given up not to be there. It isn't that they're happy being eternally frustrated; but that they consider that this frustration is more bearable than the frustration in giving up what put them there. For instance, alcoholics are apt to consider that it's worse not ever to be able to drink than to put up with the misery they are going through because of drinking; because to give up drinking is to give up their very reality and become a different person. True, there is the physical dependence and the psychological blindness that goes on together with this; but this does not mean that the assessment is not a very powerful motivator keeping alcoholics drinking. Something like that would be the condition of a person after death, if he made immoral choices in life.

3. Actually, "proportionalism" probably arose from thinking that there wasn't any real difference between the Double Effect and what is traditionally called "resolving a doubtful conscience by taking the morally safer course." The difference is subtle, but profound. And it is in this sense that I think that the traditional view is far more "nuanced" than proportionalism ever was.

4. That is, you can make the statement that is contrary to fact, but you can't do so intending to convey "information" that is contrary to fact. The statement in itself (as a string of words) is morally neutral; but a statement to somebody which would tend to mislead that person as to what the fact is is wrong. It is the misinformation, not the words that is significant here.

5. As we will see later, there are ways of not telling the truth (including, especially, keeping silent) that are not lies. You don't have to do what is good; you have to avoid what directly contradicts your humanity.