Doctrine of double effect & the Knobe effect

On Monday, Carl Ficarrotta gave a colloquium talk here on the Principle (or Doctrine) of double effect (PDE), focusing especially on applications of that principle in military targeting. The principle is (quoting from the Stanford Online Encyclopedia, which quotes from Joseph Mangan (1949)):
"A person may licitly perform an action that he foresees will produce a good effect and a bad effect provided that four conditions are verified at one and the same time:
(1) that the action in itself from its very object be good or at least indifferent;
(2) that the good effect and not the evil effect be intended;
(3) that the good effect be not produced by means of the evil effect;
(4) that there be a proportionately grave reason for permitting the evil effect” (1949, p. 43).
Ficarrotta suggested that the justification or grounds for (3) -- something in the neighborhood of Kantian respect for a might make the majority of cases of 'collateral damage' morally impermissible -- even though the PDE is often invoked to justify such military actions.

I'm interested in something else about the PDE; specifically, it seems like the Knobe effect shows that (2) is untenable. Roughly, the Knobe effect is: people judge bad side-effects to be intentionally caused, though people do not judge good side-effects to be intentional. The problem for (2) is obvious: if there's an evil side-effect of an action, then that side-effect will be judged to be intended. (Ficarrotta's own formulation of (2) perhaps makes the problem even more perspicuous: "Evil consequences are foreseen, but not intended." If the folk's attributions of intentionality are accepted, then there won't be any foreseen evil consequences that are not intentional.)

The New Catholic Encyclopedia version of (2) (again, this is in the Stanford Online Encyclopedia entry) actually reflects the Knobe idea: such actions are called 'indirectly voluntary', i.e., intentional, but somehow in a second-class sort of way.

And finally, a google search reveals that the PDE and the Knobe effect are briefly dealt with in a footnote to this paper by Jen Wright and John Bergson, which was recently posted to, and discussed on, the Experimental Philosophy blog. They make the good point that there is a further experimental question to ask the folk: do ascriptions of intentionality track blameworthiness or responsibility? Someone in a PDE situation appears to be responsible for the evil side-effect, even though she is not to be considered blameworthy on that account (at least, if the PDE is right).

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At 14/9/06, Anonymous Keith Bemer said...

Hey Greg,

The Knobe effect seems to be more of a sociological observation regarding how people *tend* to assign praise and blame to given actions, rather than a moral principle by which actions, intentions, etc. should be judged. That the Knobe effect is in conflict with PDE (2) seems less to render PDE untenable as to bring to light the perhaps unreasonable nature of folk moral reasoning.

Since PDE stipulates that the moral actor recognizes, prior to her action, that the bad side effect will result, some notion of responsibility and intentionality of the bad effect must be tracked back to the actor. However blameworthiness, at least in the moral sense, does not follow upon such responsibility. Rather, it must be the result of a judgment based on some set of moral principles. PDE attempts to provide a framework for such principles to operate. Whether one subscribes to a Kantian or utilitarian brand of moral philosophy, it seems that PDE provides (or at least attempts to provide) criteria by which one might adjudicate the tension between the good and bad effects, and thus offer mitigating evidence to challenge overtly Knobian judgments.

The complex web of cause and effect in which all actions are tangled seems to call for a “principle of multiple effects” rather than simply one of “double effect.” Indeed, it is probable that ALL our actions bring about some bad effects (in one way or another) that would implicate us on Knobian grounds. Resisting such unreasoned impulses marks a level of moral sophistication towards which we would be good to aspire.

(Hope all is well in the desert!)

At 14/9/06, Anonymous Keith Bemer said...

PS: Perhaps I am hard on the folk, but the asymmetry exhibited by the Knobe effect with regards to the assignment of praise and blame smacks of sour grapes to me…

At 15/9/06, Blogger GF-A said...

Hi Keith --

Thanks for stopping by. I hope all is well in the 'Burgh this semester. You are definitely right -- the Knobe effect is a empirical-psychological datum about the way people do in fact judge; it is not, by itself, an ethical principle. I tacitly jumped from 'the folk judge that p' to just plain p, an inference which is often unjustified.

However, in ethical cases (as well as certain others), I think such inferences are usually OK. We know that we should reject any ethical theory that condones the mass slaughter of infants because, well, everyone agrees that such activities are blameworthy. (I think grammars, e.g., work the same way: if virtually all English-speakers think X is a grammatical sentence, then X is grammatical.) There's not really a way to have some sort of external test or check of an ethical theory above and beyond people's ethical judgments.

(Though you might still ask whether ascriptions of intentionality should be classed as belonging to the cluster of things we call ethics. I'm not sure, mostly because I'm not an ethicist.)

At 15/9/06, Anonymous Keith Bemer said...

I also only play at being an ethicist at blog sites such as your own...

Your comment regarding the final-say in ethical judgments belonging to the people makes me think that all ethical theory is somehow apologetic -- an attempt to systematize a set of judgments that must be taken as given.

Are popular ethical judgments simply the "phenomena" ethicists are trying to "save"?

At 16/9/06, Blogger GF-A said...

Hi Keith --

Short answer: reflective equilibrium.

For those innocent of this bit of jargon, look at the entry on the Stanford online encyclopedia.

At 18/9/06, Anonymous John Bengson said...

Hi Greg,

Just two quick clarificatory notes about your claim that the Knobe effect is that "people judge bad side-effects to be intentionally caused, though people do not judge good side-effects to be intentional."

First, the results of the relevant studies don't appear to show anything quite this strong. Specifically, they do not show that "people do not judge good side-effects to be intentional." It seems consistent with these results that there are cases in which a good side-effect is judged (for whatever reason) to have been brought about intentionally.

Second, the Knobe effect is simply that there is an asymmetry in folk attributions of intentional action. Whether or not this asymmetry has anything to do with the perceived moral status of the side-effect is one proposed explanation of the asymmetry in intentionality attributions. (Actually, it was Knobe's original proposal.) But I hasten to add that a number of studies have demonstrated to basically everyone's satisfaction (including Knobe's own) that the asymmetry cannot be explained by a simple appeal to the (perceived, or even actual) evaluative status of the side-effect. The results of the relevant studies are reported in e.g., Wright & Bengson (linked above) and Phelan & Sarkissian (forthcoming: available at http://www.unc.edu/~knobe/phelan-sarkissian.pdf).


At 18/9/06, Blogger GF-A said...

Hi John --

Thanks for the clarifications! I am a mere dabbler in this area, and so I often have the feeling that I am running roughshod over material that the experts handle with precision. I'm glad you've given us an expert's refinements and detail here.

I'll continue to blog with impunity about subjects of which I am ignorant, though...

At 18/9/06, Blogger Kenny said...

Perhaps the way to think of this is just that the Knobe effect means that you really have to work hard to get into good position for the Doctrine of Double Effect? That is, you have to really mean the good action and really not mean the bad action, even though people are primed to read you in the other way.


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