In my last post I offered an ethical analysis of Sophie's Choice from the perspective of virtue ethics (VE). The exercise was fruitfull indeed to my own thinking and I received many great comments (in the ComBox). I wanted to do these comments justice in the form of another blog post.
What is the Principle of Double Effect (PDE)? It has been formulate by Joseph Mangan as follows:
(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.
From PDE there arises a prima facie conflict between VE portrayed in my blog post and PDE. It seems that if PDE tracks moral obligation then there will be occasions where you can separate moral obligation from acts of virtue. That is, given that to act virtuously is to act for what is most ordered to your happiness (through participation in that which is ordered to the happiness of humanity as such) it seems that there will be occasions that arise where one is obliged not to do what is virtuous. On one hand, if Sophie ought to have applied the PDE, and in so doing she was obliged to choose one of her children over another, this would have prevented her from doing a virtuous action (i.e., not making a choice as to which child was to be murdered, as consistent with VE) for sake of what she was morally obliged to do. Of course, a requirement for PDE is that the act done must itself be morally good or at least indifferent. On one interpretation of the application of the PDE to Sophie’s situation, choosing to save the life of her son would be morally good, but with the bad effect of her daughter dying.
So, how should this issue be resolved? I think that the answer is to reflect on the notion of moral obligation in VE. In VE, one conducts moral reasoning based on an admixture of particular conditions given in the context and universal moral principles. The latter principles are universally and a priori obligatory precisely because they are inherently contrary to human perfection, nobility and happiness. However, the context that the moral agent finds herself in is contingent and unique. Because of this, oftentimes a moral agent has several options to pursue (virtuous actions to enact) and settling on one of them will be the result of a rational choice. For example, even when following those universally morally obligatory principles, in Sophie’s situation, she still could have: applied the PDE, chosen her son, chosen her daughter, chosen neither, tried to escape, tried to appeal to the Nazi’s sense of justice, attacked him, try to confuse or distract the Nazi, etc., or some combination. Because of (5) the fact that the context determines the possible goals that can be accomplished and rationally chosen; and, (6) since there are not always universally obliging principles that will restrict a moral agent's options to one only; it follows that (7) in many cases there is no moral obligation to do one action only, and there are a variety of options open for rational choice.
However, even though there may be no moral obligation, there is still a question of moral excellence and virtue. In these cases, a VE would say that there is a “right thing to do,” but that it does arise in the same way as a moral obligation. How the morally excellent thing is determined is famously put in the Aristotelian dictum, “The virtuous thing to be done is that which the virtuous person would to do!” Since the virtuous person is an excellent practical reasoner, and has a habit of making choices that are morally excellent, she is most capable in choosing that action that hits the golden mean requisite for virtuous action (which falls between two vices). Yet, two things must be kept in mind: First, that what a given virtuous person chooses to do may in principle be different than what a different virtuous person chooses to do. Second, that one is universally obliged to attempt virtuous activity.
Given this background, if PDE is not morally obligatory (a question I address below), Sophie still should do what a virtuous person would do. However, given the moral context, she may have some options regarding what it is that would be most excellent to do. Given that we are learning about Sophie’s situation through a limited and fictitious narrative, and so are not privy to all of the concrete elements of her situation (as well as the various things that she is capable of), we must settle for a ceteris paribus consideration of it. Even the addition of one more concrete factor could change what the most morally excellent or virtuous thing would be. However, given the foreseeable options that she was faced with, in doing the morally excellent thing, I argued that she would give up both children (of course, I am not claiming for myself the prestigious designation as "the virtuous person"). For example, it would have been rash (the vice which is excess of confidence; the virtue which is courage) for her to attack the Nazi, or to try to escape, etc. Although this would have been the most morally excellent thing to do, it was not obligatory, because of the contingency and indeterminacy of her epistemic moral situation. Therefore, assuming that (7) applying the PDE is not morally obligatory (it ought to be applied and followed in every occasion in which it can be applied and followed), and (8) that applying and following the PDE is not the most morally excellent or virtuous thing to do in her situation, it is reasonable that the morally excellent thing for Sophie to do would be not to choose even though she is not morally obliged to do so.
But what about PDE? We have three options: either (9) PDE is a universal moral principle, such that in every moral situation in which can be used it should be used, or (10) PDE is not a universal moral principle but one that in specific contexts would be a principle that a virtuous person would utilize. Finally, there is the option that (11) PDE is false as a moral principle.
Whereas a VE need not hold ‘(11)’, she also need not hold ‘(9)’.
In fact, I think that there is good reason to deny ‘(9)’. This is because one should have a worry about PDE that it sometimes falls on the side of a consequentialist calculus to the exclusion of supporting the larger goal of morally virtue. We need to think about what the motivation is for utilizing the PDE. Rather than moral excellence in personal virtue as its target, it seems to be motivated by maximizing good and/or minimizing evils without falling afoul of other moral obligations. Now, of course, VE is interested in obtaining good results, even within the moral sphere, but in light of what is most noble and good in human nature. It needs to noted that in principle it is possible for one to become vicious (indirectly) even though one is applying PDE. One may even imagine a scenario where one is obliged to commit a vicious action as an ill effect of some good action. There is the further factor that since one is trying to obtain some particular effect among others, their choice is voluntary (more about this below). One can extrapolate even further and envision an unlucky chap who is morally obliged to commit, due to PDE, so many indirectly vicious actions of one kind that he habituates a vice. In the end, you become the things that you voluntarily do, even if you are responsible for them as a result of something else that you intend. Thus, it appears that ‘(9)’ is false.
(Of course, if ‘(9)’ is false, the use of PDE needs to be rethought if it is to serve a VE. It is to be noted that PDE is derived from a fairly minor point made by Aquinas in 126.96.36.199 of his Summa theologiae and is arguably not a central feature of his moral teaching.)
Now, regarding ‘(10)’, some may argue that in this case applying the PDE is the most virtuous thing to do in Sophie's case. Some may say that it is noble to make the difficult choice of sacrificing a child for the sake of preserving the life of another. However, if it can be indicated that in applying PDE Sophie would be utilizing consequentialist moral reasoning such that an evil action is willed for the sake of a good result, then it will be shown to be inconsistent with what is virtuous. On this ground, we can exclude an application of the PDE as being the most virtuous choice in her situation. I am assuming her that pace Mill VE is inconsistent with this central consequentialist tenet. Compare the two following propositions in relation to Sophie’s’ choice:
(12) Sophie sacrificed her daughter in order to save her son.
(13) Sophie saved her son from death with the unintended bad result that her daughter would be murdered.
It looks to me that Sophie’s choice is as much in line with ‘(12)’ as it is with ‘(13)’.
For one thing, ‘(12)’ expresses a consequentialist means-ends reasoning. The reason why Sophie would be using her daughter’s death as a means of saving her son is because in the concrete situation of her making her choice, she can be said to have intended the death of her daughter--insofar as she could have made it not occur--as a trade-off for the life of her son. When her daughter was being taken away to her death, one can imagine the little girl thinking, “My mother chose for me to die when I could have lived!” As Aristotle suggests, despite strong external forces influencing a person’s decision, there is no reason that an action cannot be voluntary if it follows internally and from rational choice. Although I am sympathetic to the notion of material cooperation as weaker than intentional cooperation, in Sophie’s case although she does not want the evil, through rational choice, it is not devoid of volition. In fact, once she commits to saving one child over another, immediately a utilitarian process of reasoning seems to take over, leaving us with the question of why Sophie chose her son over her daughter. Once this line of thought is engage, she can be said to cooperate with and take possession of the evil in more “formal-ish” and means-end way; i.e., more formal, then if she refused to make the choice. Perhaps this in part explains the extreme guilt that she felt that resulted in her suicide, after she was released from the prison camp. This being said, it seems to me that the application of the PDE in this case would be tantamount to consequentialist reasoning and far from being the most excellent or virtuous thing to do.
For another thing, as Aquinas suggests, sometimes the final cause is contained in the formal determination of an action and becomes included in the object of the moral act. The example that he gives in the beginning of ST 188.8.131.52 is that a person who steals in order to commit adultery is more formally an adulterer than a thief. If this is so, then, although from one perspective her primary purpose is saving her son when sacrificing her daughter, it is also true that she is choosing to sacrifice her daughter for the sake of saving her son. Although I recognize the difference between material and formal cooperation in evil, I still think that there is enough doubt regarding the application of PDE in this situation as the most excellent and noble and virtuous thing to do.
If the end of our action is sometimes included in the moral object that defines our action, given the fact that moral contexts are concrete, it may be the case that PDE doesn't apply in Sophie's situation at all. As mentioned above, PDE requires that the action done must itself must be either morally good or neutral. It may be too naive to suggest Sophie's choice to save her son does not also include the further notion that it is at the expense of saving her daughter. I think that applications of PDE can easily lapse into an abstractivism of convenience when identifying the act that is good or neutral that can serve as the primary intention for our actions while the more concrete and morally relevant factors fall into place as the secondary effect.
I maintain that PDE is an available tool for determining what is morally excellent in specific contexts, but that it does not engender moral obligation. However, I believe that PDE should not be used in Sophie’s situation and instead she should opt for non-cooperation. As well as not rejecting PDE out of hand, I also do not want to suggest that it is always vicious to act in cooperation with evil, when taken materially.
Ultimately, we need to look at this debate as a different conception of what the fundamental goal of ethical analysis and ethical behavior is. A virtue ethicist exclusively has as her goal the habitual perfecting of one self in the image of the good and nobility of humanity and not the more casuistic goal of avoiding doing wrong things as determined by obligation. This is the case even though the notion of moral obligation has its place in VE as principles that are universally contrary to human good and happiness (such as adultery, murder, etc.).