Thomas Aquinas and the Doctrine of Double Effect

25 Oct

Following the post I just made about Objectivism, I feel that I need to post about two more on the subject:  One on Situational Ethics, and the other on this guy named Thomas Aquinas.

First, I would like to give some history on this guy, to better understand where in the world he is coming from with his ethical philosophy.

Good ole Tom was a born in the Kingdom of Sicily in present day Lazio (a district in the middle of Italy) on January 28 in the year of our Lord 1225.  When he was five, he, like every other five year old, started school.  At school Thomas was introduced to more classical philosophers like Aristotle, Averroes, and Maimonides, who would heavily influence his philosophy later on.  Also while at school, he came under the influence of a Dominican preacher who was looking for recruits for the Order.

At the age of thirteen, Thomas decided to join the Dominican order, this didn’t make his family happy, because they wanted him to become Benedictine.  His family would try to dissuade young Thomas against his decision.  They kidnapped  him on his way to Rome, hired prostitutes to seduce him, and locked him in his familiar castle for two years!  But after seeing her son’s firmness in his decision to join the Dominicans, his mother, Theodora arranged for him to escape through a window at night.

After Thomas had escaped, he was ushered to Paris and then Cologne and then on to Naples, Rome and back to Paris, where he taught while working on other degrees and writings.  It is during his second time in Paris that the spread of “Averroism”, and this philosophy disturbed Thomas.  He wrote against the spread of this philosophy because he said that it did not coincide with Christian revelation.

Some of his works specifically the Summa Theologica,dealt with Christian teachings for anyone wanting to study theology, and when referring to man, ethics, especially the “first principles of action” or that virtue denotes perfection, and this perfection deals with its regard to its end, and this is power, but power is action and perfect according to its own determination to act (horribly paraphrased I know).  Thomas then established four cardinal virtues which are revealed to man through nature.  He then distinguished four variations of law:  natural, eternal, human and divine.  Natural law is our humanly participatory response to eternal law, and this natural law is based on the first principles of action.

Natural law can be discovered through reason and logic by looking at nature and our societies.  Just as everything in nature has a function, so do we, and natural law is the tendency toward our own function as people.  Our function is mostly to act as rational beings, even if there is not a law that is visibly evident.  Aquinas and others who espoused this view of natural law do so from a reference point of the book of Romans, where Paul refers to Gentiles doing what the Law of Moses commands without ever being aware of it.  By doing so, the Gentiles are acting in accordance with the natural law, acting as rational beings by logic and reason.

Since Thomas Aquinas believed that every person has the ability to reason and find the natural law, he is, by definition, an objectionist.  But he is also an absolutist, in the sense that he believed that every person can discover the right action in any given situation by subscribing an exception-less principle.  As we all know, we will face moral quandaries in certain situations in which evil will possibly be done (as an unintended consequence of course) while seeking to do something good.  To this extent Thomas Aquinas developed the Doctrine of Double Effect.  This doctrine is for those instances in which there are two possible outcomes for a situation (one good, the other bad) and gives a certain sense of  the consequence being permissible depending on how the consequences equal out (if good outweighs bad, then it is ok, if bad outweighs good…probably not so much).  There are four conditions that must be met for any action to be considered permissible:  (1) the nature of the act must be either morally good or morally indifferent, so actions like killing or lying are never permissible, (2) the bad consequence must not be the means to a good end (such as killing an innocent to save millions of others, (3) the intention in which the act is done must be only to achieve the good effect, and the bad consequence is only allowed if it is unintended (even if it is foreseeable), (4) the good consequence either needs to outweigh or be the equivalent of the bad consequence.

This sounds like it is a nice, simple way to make moral decisions, but on closer look, it seems that it makes things difficult on the person using this formula.  For instance, if you were a German citizen during WWII (but not a Nazi) and had Jewish friends and you were questioned about their whereabouts, it would be immoral to lie to the officers based on condition 1.  If you knew someone was hurting quite a few people, but had sworn you to secrecy, would it be permissible to “interrogate” the information from you?  No, because condition 2 is violated, even though many innocent people will continue to be harmed.  Condition 3 is used by just-war theorists to advocate the necessity of “civilian casualties” during a war, and condition 4 is violated if something morally ok (like telling the truth when it will end up getting any number of people harmed) is not equal to the consequence of the action, and oddly enough, that seems to also advocate lying, but that violates condition 1 again.

So it would seem that while some of these instances may not be applicable to all of us, the point is that many good and moral actions (like lying to protect someone innocent) are considered immoral by the doctrine of double effect.  In some instances, the end result is simply counteractive to whatever the aim of the person may be.  There is also some ambiguity with regards to the nature of intent, who is to say that you did mean to tell the Nazi officer about where the Jewish family was hiding simply because the father wronged you in some way unknown to everyone else?

There seem to be quite a few problems with this doctrine of double effect, and once again, I was mostly seeing if what I was reading was being interpreted correctly…if I’m wrong in some way, please let me know!


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