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Does the Doctrine of Double Effect provide us with a significant moral difference between killing and letting die?
In this essay, I will argue that the Doctrine of Double Effect does not, on its own, provide us with a significant moral difference between killing and letting die. However, I will conclude that the Doctrine of Double Effect is, at least, useful in establishing which actions are morally better/worse than others. There are two important distinctions within the topic of killing and letting die, one is that between acts and omission, and the other is between intension and foresight. I want first to focus on the latter. Throughout the essay I will refer to an action's being/failing to be morally permissible, without further elucidation on the intrinsic nature of those terms, as that is a much larger, and I think wholly separate, issue. Philipa Foot's Doctrine of Double Effect argues that there is a morally significant difference between what a person forsees, as the result of her voluntary action, and what she intends. By intention, it is meant both those ends that one aims at, and those aims one has as a means to those ends. It is called the Doctrine of Double Effect because of the two possibilities of an action's being intended, and an actions being foresoon but not itself desired. Foot uses this to argue that it is sometimes morally permissible to cause bad effects that one did not directly intend to bring about. She goes on to outline four major considerations by which such an act might be considered permissible. Firstly, and I think most obviously, it must be that the intended aim of one's action is itself morally permissible. Secondly, the good consequences of the action must follow from it at least as immediately as the bad consequences. The 'immediately' here is not a temporal term, but rather refers to causal immediacy. In other words, the bad action cannot be the actual direct cause of the good consequence. Thirdly, the bad consequences cannot themselves be intended; rather they must be permitted in the pursuit of some broader goal. Finally, and most problematically, there is Foot's claim that there must be a 'proportionate and sufficiently serious' reason for performing the act which has bad consequences. I say that this last point is the most problematic, because I think one might believe that 'proportionate and sufficiently serious' reason is in some sense pre-supposed by the Doctrine of Double Effect. However, I want now to turn to some of the more frequently recurring moral dilemmas people pose on this topic, armed with our new Doctrine of Double Effect. Consider the case of scapegoating. Suppose that a judge know that he can prevent a riot and hundreds of lost lives simply by committing one innocent man to death. Many believe that a judge's decision to do so would, quite simply, by a prima facie wrong. However, contrastingly one might consider the infamous 'Trolley Problem'. Suppose a train driver notices that up ahead him on the track there are five men who will not have time to move off the tracks. To his left there is a turning, the taking of which will result in the death of only one person, who is up ahead on that path. He cannot stop, and so the question is whether he should kill the five people or the one. Interestingly, most surveys show that about 80% of the people who would condemn
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