double effect

Turning Cardinal Newman on his Head: Just how bad is a bad intention?

Most of us think that intention has great significance in practical ethics. If you barge into me, my reaction will be very different if I believe you intended to do so from the case in which I think it was an accident. And if you believe the so-called ‘doctrine of double effect’, you will think that intentionally causing some harm is entirely different from merely knowingly bringing it about as a foreseen consequence of a permissible action. So, for example, it may be all right to bomb a munitions factory, if you intend to stop its production, even though you know that as a foreseen side-effect of your bombing enemy civilians will be killed and enemy morale therefore weakened. What you cannot do is bomb with the intention of killing so as to reduce morale.

Now consider two possible states of affairs or ‘worlds’. In the first, someone entirely accidentally and non-negligently causes non-trivial suffering to some innocent sentient being. In the second, many individuals act with the intention of causing much more serious suffering to many such innocent beings. But for some reason or other (their incompetence, perhaps, or the intervention of God, or the fact that they are deluded in some way, perhaps through being attached to an ‘experience machine’), they always fail.

Which world is worse? I don’t mean morally worse. It seems highly plausible to see the second world as much worse from the moral point of view. Indeed no moral wrong at all is done in the first world, while the actions of those in the second seem deeply morally objectionable and blameworthy. What I mean is worse, period or worse overall – just worse, rather than worse from some special point of view. If you had to bring one of these worlds into being, which would you choose?

Cardinal Newman  thought that one venial sin was worse than any amount of human pain. So he would certainly have chosen the first world. Indeed, he would choose a world in which there is a vast, perhaps infinite, amount of pain over a world in which one single sin is committed. This view seems to me entirely mistaken, and perhaps rests on a confusion between moral badness, and badness overall. The first world is much worse than the second. The suffering of the innocent being is clearly bad. And even though the presence of the bad intentions in the second world may perhaps be, to some extent, bad (so it would be better perhaps if these agents were also acting in such a way that the harm that might result from their actions, but in fact doesn’t, would be brought about accidentally), real suffering is much worse. Indeed I would incline towards a view entirely opposite to the Cardinal’s:  it doesn’t matter how many bad intentions there are in the second world, it can never be worse than the first. In other words, what really matters (period) in intentionally caused harm is the harm, not the bad intention.

The significance of intention, then, has perhaps been exaggerated by certain moral philosophers. Bad intention may indeed be bad; but it’s not very bad. What matters much more is the avoidance of suffering.