Chapter 21 – The Doctrine of Double Effect

In Chapter 21, Janet is in a relationship with Derek – the boyfriend she created to aid in getting over Jason.  To prevent Vicky from finding out, Michael wants to kill Derek.  When Chidi informs him that it is wrong, Michael suggests that they break Jason and Tahani up.  If that were to occur, then Janet would no longer be sad.  Janet would then get rid of Derek.  Chidi says that this is also wrong.  Eventually, Chidi agrees but says that they have to keep in mind the Doctrine of Double Effect.  Chidi says, “In order to remain ethical, you can’t go into this with the intention of killing Derek.  Your only goal has to be to spare Jason and Tahani from future pain by filling them in on Jason’s past.”  The problem is, that is not the Doctrine of Double Effect.

Sometimes when an action is done, there are multiple effects.  One or more is positive and one or more is negative.  Now, can you do an action when you know that the results will produce positive and negative effects?  According to the Doctrine of Double Effect, you can if two conditions are met.

The first condition is what Chidi is hinting at – that when doing the action your only intention must be to produce the good result.  The second condition is that the positive must outweigh the negative.  This is often appealed to in Just War Theory.  For example, can you bomb a factory knowing that you will kill civilians?  It is permissible provided that the benefits of destroying the factory outweigh the costs, you bomb when the factory has the fewest number of workers, and  you are not intending to kill the workers.  Your intention is to destroy the factory.  It just happened to be that it is a foreseeable side effect that workers will be killed.

To recast the Doctrine of Double Effect in terms of the episode, Chidi says that the intention must “be to spare Jason and Tahani from future pain.”  Next, we must assume that informing them yields a net positive, i.e. the benefits to them outweigh any costs to them.  However, such an approach is the wrong focus for applying to Doctrine of Double Effect.

How the Doctrine of Double Effect would work in this situation is the goal must be to save everyone’s life.  The means of saving everyone’s life is to break Jason and Tahini up.  The intention is not to harm Jason and Tahini.  That is just a foreseen side effect.  Given that saving everyone’s life outweighs hurt feelings, then the benefits of the action outweigh the cost of the side effects.  Thus, the action is permissible.

If the goal is simply to spare feelings and the result is Derek’s death, then it seems hard to claim that the side effects do not outweigh the benefits of the intended action.  Further, the actual motivation for breaking Jason and Tahani up is to save everyone.  You cannot count that as a side effect.  It would seem bizarre to think that the biggest benefit of the action is the side effect instead of the intended result.