Friday, January 23, 2009

A physicocausal account of double effect

In response to Zippy Catholic's invitation to come up with a new term for the account he describes in his post, I would submit "physicocausal account of double effects" as an alternative term. The reason for the first change that "physicalist" seems blatantly inappropriate for an analysis that views the physicocausal aspects in terms of the intent (meaning proximate end in this case) for one's behavior. The reason for the second change is that my physicocausal test is only intended to classify effects as directly or indirectly intended, irrespective of whether that causes them to be classified as intrinsically evil.

Zippy's description appears to be correct in the main:

The approach we must reject goes something like the following: We take the decision a person makes to act, figure out the intended end for which he makes it, and construct a physical account from what he does to the achievement of that end. Everything which is a physical cause leading up to his desired result, then, is considered to be intended; anything which is not causally prerequisite to achieving his end, on a physicalist account, is considered to be unintended[* Other language is sometimes used to label what I have labeled intended and unintended. One traditional way is to refer to the intended and the indirect voluntary; another is to say directly intended and indirectly intended. But these are merely semantic choices about how to label things, and do not as far as I can tell change the substance of what we are discussing.].

In order to resolve ambiguity, I would replace "intended end" with "proximate end." In other words, it is the immediate physicocausal result of one's behavior that one desires to achieve and nothing more remote than that. I would also add "permitted" as a synonym for "unintended," "indirect voluntary," or "indirectly intended." Most Catholics (and indeed, most non-Calvinist Protestants) can intuitively grasp that God, even though he sustains in existence the actions of evildoers, merely permits evil rather than intending it. The mundane concept being used for the theological analogous term in this case is identical to the one I have in mind.

So far, so good. Then the picture starts getting murkier:

His act is intrinsically evil if and only if any of the things he intends (on this account of intention) is evil.

First, this account is wrong. On the physicocausal account of double effect, if there is a moral species of act in which the act is intrinsically evil merely by indirectly intending some effect, then the physicocausal account of double effect would simply say that it was indirectly intended, being entirely agnostic about whether indirectly intending that effect is evil or not. It makes no judgments about whether the action is evil or not; perhaps there are species of conduct in which indirectly intended effects make the action intrinsically evil. All the physicocausal account of double effect says is that if the evil effect is intended as proximate end or means, then the action is definitely evil and therefore cannot be weighed proportionally against any good. Note that it doesn't matter whether the action is intrinsically or extrinsically evil, and really, all of this discussion connecting the concept of intrinsic evil to double effect is simply irrelevant.

Second (and this is the reason I say this is murkier), I am not aware of a single species of intrinsically evil conduct that is evil solely on account of its effect. About the only pathological case I could conceive offhand was one with a masseuse who knows a married man is attracted to her, who is repulsed by the idea, but who is in desperate need of payment and so agrees to perform a therapeutic massage in exactly the same professional manner as she would for any client. I would argue that this could be intrinsically evil as adulterous conduct even though the effect could arguably be considered a side effect of what would otherwise be a therapeutic massage, a neutral or good act in itself, because she knows that this ordinary action has a side effect of inflaming the married man's passions. So it could be that knowingly inflaming someone's passions is evil no matter what the direct intent of one's actions are. That would seem consistent with immodesty more generally, since there are probably numerous people who mean nothing by wearing light clothing in warm weather but ought to know with certainty that their potentially innocuous choice will be an occasion of sin for others.

The reason I bring this up is as follows:

Basically, this account of intrinsic evil takes the principle of double-effect to apply to all acts, and elevates the double-effect requirement "the bad effect must not cause the good effect" to the status of a rule which determines whether or not an act is intrinsically immoral.

Even without doing further work we can see that this approach is fundamentally question-begging. Rather than applying the principle of double-effect to an act which is not intrinsically immoral, this approach applies the "bad effect must not cause the good effect" rule - which in reality only applies to acts which are not intrinsically immoral - in order to conclude that the act is not intrinsically immoral.

Furthermore, this account of intrinsic evil renders the requirement "the act must not be evil in its object" nonsensical. If the rule "the bad effect must not cause the good effect" is the very thing which tells us whether the act is evil in its object, then the inclusion of the additional requirement that the act must not be evil in its object is superfluous nonsense.

In the first place, this is simply false, because the physicocausal account actually includes both intended ends and means, not merely means. But the bigger trouble is that it seems to presume "the act must not be evil in its object" is NOT superfluous. That is debatable for exactly the reason I stated above: namely, I can't think of any clear case in which a species of intrinsically evil conduct is defined so that merely indirectly intending an effect makes the conduct intrinsically evil.

To put the point more plainly, "double effect" analysis simply codifies what St. Paul says regarding not doing evil so that good may come of it, so that if evil is being done, then no good effect can offset it (and that applies with regard not only to intrinsic evils but actions that are evil by intention or circumstance as well). In other words, it specifies conditions in which proportionality cannot be applied, thus restricting what can legitimately be called a "double effect," and it then requires proportionality even in those cases. That's precisely why there is a well-known 3-point formulation of double effect analysis:

1. Intentionality. The good effect and not the bad effect must be intended.
2. Causality. The good effect must not be caused by the means of the bad effect.
3. Proportionality. If (1) and (2) are met, the bad effect must not outweigh the good effect.

There can be additional details to these analyses. In particular, the causal prong is often evaluated by the "if by a miracle" test, more aptly described as the "test of failure" to determine whether a particular effect in the causal chain, if removed, would terminate the chain of causality. But those three requirements are the basic conditions for "double effect."

Sometimes, an alternative formulation is given with another step:

0. The act must not be good or morally neutral, nor intrinsically evil, in its object.

Now, it isn't clear to me that there is even one case where an act is classified as intrinsically evil for intending the evil effect as neither ends nor means but only as indirectly intended effect. But as a strict matter of logic, it could be the case that such a class exists, meaning that (0) might not be entirely superfluous. Or perhaps it is simply intended as a clarification in cases (like the masseuse above) where an argument might be made that the evil effect is indirectly intended, in order to forestall rationalizations. In any case, (0) is certainly a step that is so rare in catching any scenario not already caught by (1) or (2) that one could argue that it is very close to superfluous, to the point that some moral theologians don't even consider it necessary and rely on the 3-point test instead.

What is important to realize is that the physicocausal account of double effect is directed only to steps (1) and (2), and all it says is that if (1) or (2) is met, then the action clearly cannot be evaluated under double effect. It is agnostic as to step (0), and generally, it is agnostic as to whether the act in intrinsically evil or not, because that doesn't matter for double effect purposes anyway. If it's an evil act, whether extrinsically or intrinsically, it can't be done for the sake of any other good. What is absolutely clear, however, is that (0) is not some sort of separate test for moral object or intrinsically evil conduct with (1) and (2) pertaining solely to ulterior intention or circumstances. If anything, that's exactly reversed. (0) is only directed at catching those few pathological cases that are not already caught under (1) or (2).

More or less, double effect, which applies to any action that is evil intrinsically or extrinsically, should not be confused with the determination of whether something is intrinsically evil. You might need to look at remote intentions to determine if something is intrinsically evil (as in the case of theft), and you might need to look at remote intentions to determine if an effect is proportional under double effect. But just looking at remote intentions in both cases does not make the analysis identical.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A simple misunderstanding?

Zippy Catholic has put a finer point on the parameters separating his view from my own, and I think it will clarify several misunderstandings to understand where it is right and where it is wrong. But there is a threshhold interpretational question that must be resolved first. It is stated in a previous post thusly:

This objection is problemmatic. Veritatis Splendour tells us: One must therefore reject the thesis ... which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its "object" — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made ... .

If we cannot determine the object of the act without considering the intention for which the choice was made, then Veritatis Splendour is self-contradictory, with all that that implies -- basically the encyclical is a meaningless jumble of words with enough apparent meaning that people can make it appear to say whatever they want it to say.

In the linked post it is stated this way:
But beyond that, Veritatis Splendour tells us that we must reject any moral theory which makes it impossible to qualify as morally evil the choice of certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior apart from any consideration of the intention for which the behavior was chosen.

I titled this post a "simple" misunderstanding, not to say that the diagnosis of the problem has been "simple" but that if the disagreement is what I think it is, then it turns on single interpretive question upon which every single disagreement with my position has turned.

The question is simply this:

What proposition constitutes the negation the following equivalent propositions from VS?

Those equivalent propositions are:

"it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its
'object' — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts,
apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the
totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned"
or the equivalent formulation of the proposition

"it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the
deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking
into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the
foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned"

Let us begin with the glaring interpretive difference on the term "intention." My definition of the term, which I think is quite reasonable given the modifier "for which the choice is made," is that this is an ulterior intention, which could also be called a further intention or a remote intention or motive. Since John Paul II uses the term "proximate end" to describe the intent to perform the act according to the species, I would argue that this "intention" excludes the formation of the will required for the act to be what it is. In other words, I would maintain that the threshhold intent required for the choice to be some kind of species is simply part of the "choice," as contrasted with the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable circumstances.

There is, however, a countervailing interpretation that could be invoked to maintain that the choice of behavior is just the choice to do some particular concrete physical action irrespective of why one takes the action (the latter "why" being interpreted as intention). Thus, if the particular concrete physical action is done with some foreseeably certain effect immediately resulting from your physical action, then your chosen behavior necessarily includes the choice of that effect, irrespective of why one does it. Suffice it to say that I consider this interpretation wrong, but let's take is as being correct for the sake of argument.

Given the latter interpretation, one might take this proposition to mean that one can always classify intrinsically evil behaviors AS intrinsically evil apart from consideration of intention or circumstances. But I argue that this is a far stronger claim that is entailed by the denial of the propositions demanded by VS. Indeed, all one needs to be able to say to deny these propositions is that there is even one case in which is it possible to qualify an act as morally evil according to its species irrespective of the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act. I will refer to the former formulation as the "strong denial" and the latter as the "weak denial." I maintain not only that the "weak denial" is all that is required by VS but also that the "strong denial" is a false proposition that cannot be maintained.

As to the "weak denial" being an adequate negation of the principle, this follows simply from modal logic. "Impossible" simply means "not possible in any case," and the negation of "not possible in any case" is "possible in at least one case." So if we affirm that it is possible in at least one case to qualify a behavior as intrinsically evil (i.e., the weak denial), then we have denied the proposition.

I do, in fact, affirm that there are cases in which simply willing to do the behavior can be classified as intrinsically evil, completely irrespective of intention for which the behavior is done or the totality of foreseeable consequences. The clearest case is any sexual act of a type that is intrinsically sterile. There is no possible rationalization and no possible circumstance under which that act can be anything other than intrinsically evil. Likewise is the case of artificial contraception done for the purpose of regulating the number of births. Therefore, I affirm the weak denial.

As to the "strong denial" being false, we can take the case of theft, an intrinsically evil behavior which is the taking of property contrary to the reasonable will of the owner. Whether the owner's will is reasonable in opposing the taking of property must necessarily involve the use to which the property is planned to be put. This is because if the intended use of the property being taken is, for example, to avert starvation, to protect houses from being destroyed by flame, or other similar motives, then an owner's will to resist the taking would not be reasonable. Consequently, "theft" simply cannot be assessed according to its moral species, which includes evaluating the "reasonable will of the owner," without considering the remote intention for the use of the property.

Consequently, even on the variant interpretation of the term "intention" that I reject, it does not follow that anything more is required than the weak denial.

Now I can take this argument one step further, and argue that the variant interpretation is the one that actually makes nonsense of the meaning that VS intends to convey. The reason that I say this is because theft is an example of intrinsically evil behavior cited as what cannot be done even for good motives. But theft hardly qualifies as behavior that can be classified as intrinsically evil irrespective of the reason it is done, since the use of the property is essential for knowing whether it can be classified as theft in the first place! Consequently, the interpretation of VS that says that intrinsically evil behavior must be subject to classification based on the concrete choice of bodily action with all of its certainly foreseeable consequences irrespective of why that choice is made would render the case of theft completely irrelevant, since it clearly cannot be classified as intrinsically evil without regard to remote intention. It requires us to think that VS refutes the universal proposition, then digresses on to some other class of error completely distinct from the one being condemned, and then proceeds to flip willy-nilly between the two for the rest of the encyclical.

This is why I have always followed the rather conventional belief that "intention for which the choice is made" refers to an intention extrinsic to the "intention" (more specifically, "proximate end") required to classify the choice according to moral species. If you need to know why someone does something to determine whether it is evil, then that doesn't count as "intention." Taking property, for example, is a physical action that could be intrinsically evil but that cannot be determined as such without accounting for the remote intention of what one intends to do with the property. You can't even classify the proximate end of the action absent some reference to remote intention, since the intended use of the property is an essential element of what one is doing in choosing to take it and thus what the chosen behavior is in itself.

That suffices for the present point. I could (and plan to) subsequently argue that foreseeably causing the death of an innocent is precisely the sort of act that cannot be classified as intrinsically evil without reference to the reason one is using the means that cause the death, much like the taking of property cannot be classified without reference to why one is taking it. But there remains an intervening concern about double effect, and I will argue that my interpretation makes sense of it.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Blessing from the Elliott family reunion

Handwritten among my grandmother's notes:

July 4, 1958
On The Henry Elliott Farm, seven miles southeast of Glenmora, La.
[NOTE: My grandmother's children and grandchildren still spend time at this century-old house to this day, including many a summer weekend of my youth. -- JP]

Nine of the ten surviving children and their families and grand children met for their annual barbecue of beef from the farm, including also roast beef, rice and gravy, corn bread, potatoe [sic] salads and cakes with cold drinks, also watermelons. Since the children's only surviving uncle Marvin Dyer who usually gives the invocation was not present[,] the following was given by Laurent J. Savoie, a brother-in-law [my grandfather -- JP]:

Bless us, Oh Lord! As we stand before Thee, in this gathering of good fellowship.

May we be granted the wisdom and foresight to maintain harmony and brotherly love among ourselves and our future generations as was the wish of our ancestors. And may the future years make it possible to continue to unite all the members of this large family; and may the ones who have departed rejoice this day in Paradise. These things we ask in the name of Jesus, Amen.


I'm happy to say that all of my grandmother's children (and most of their children and their children's children) got together at my parents' house over the holiday.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The last letter from my great-great-grandmother

I came across the following letter at my late grandmother's house. I wanted to preserve the text online, so it wouldn't be forgotten. It was written by my great-great-grandmother Hannah Amanda Nash Dyer to my great grandmother Mary Ella Dyer Elliott, the wife of Henry Machen Elliott. I have maintained the line spacing and the spelling and punctuation faithfully from the original.

Letter postmarked Cheneyville, LA, Apr. 16, 1918 at 3 P.M. The three-cent stamp bears the image of George Washington

"My last letter from Mother" is written above the address "Mrs. H.M. Elliott, Pawnee, Louisiana" ("Box 54" is in the lower corner).


Cheneyville, LA
April 16, 1918

Dear daughter,
I need to write
you a few lines this eav.
I am at Marvins cant go
home Jack taken sick
last Saturday eavning about
9 O'clock in the eavning
with a hard chill. his
feevor went to one hundred
an six by 12 or 1 O'clock
Sunday evening at 6 he died.
we are all under Quarien
tined I am so nervous I
cant write to think I am
in such a fix the Doctors will
not let me leave hear
[overleaf blank]

2 [second leaf] until till the
Danger is over I may
never get away. The Lord
knows & dont I hope and
trust he may pray for me and all the reast
that that we may miss
the terrible disease
minnigitis. it is an awful
thing. Marvin Willie
Machen & other men
is gone out through [Bee-
rier?] Creek hills to
burry him at the Paul
grave yard. Could not
carry him to Glenmora
Machen house is under
Quarintine I dont now
how many more

3 [overleaf] George Raborn
has got the Same
disease. Taken it first
The Doctors think maby he
will get well. They have
had 6 Doc with him.
Marvin had two. Jack
died so quick. no chance to
Save him. Marvin called
Machen to get the Doc
he went in had no Idier
what he was getting into
it taken the second Doc to
find out what was the
matter so to day the two
big Army Doctors from
the Hospittle came hear
and taken the marrow from
Jack's Back bone after he

4 [third leaf] had been dead 15 hours
and they came back and
said it was a genuine case
of spinal minnegitis. So
they went to work and
taken evry ones Culture
and we all have to use
a Spray 5 times a day in the
mouth and nose. if that
dont keep it off we will
all bee in an awful bad
fix soon Machen had 2
sick all last week Walter
and Irene Walter is in a
bade shape. poor Mach is
worn out. before Jack got sick if the Doc dont
kill out the germs before
we get sick it is good by

5 [overleaf] I am afraid to severel
of us. I am so nervous I
cant sleep or eat but wee
have got to stay hear live
or die I had no Idier of such
a thing when I left home I
am sorry I left home when
I did Loney[?] was out there
and I came home with him
and now I cant help my
self. Ella if I die there
is money in Lealony[?] Bank
Go after it. Some of it will
bee for you. Mollie and
Baby is hear. Sceard nearly
to death to think my whole
family ecept you are hear
exsposed to such a dreadful
disease & it is awful

6 [fourth leaf] I am sorry for Jennie
and Marvin to have to
give up ther last little Boy
They need him. they will need
his help Jennie said tell
Milton all the schools
near are stoped. There was
an areplane passed over
hear and come to the
ground at Loyd and the
whole Country run to see
rise again it was on the
ground all Knight George
Raborn was there and
taken sick the next day is
the trouble with a good many
it is so bade. if we can
all miss it with the treat-
ment I will thank the

7 [overleaf] Lord the reast of
my days. may the Lord
help us I pray. Ella
I want to see you but
I cant. hope I will
live to see you again
may the Lord be
with us all I pray.
[script changes]
[14 or 17?] well I sleep very well last
eat breakfast. I am going to get out
in the yard to day: get fresh air. if
wee havent got the germ from Jack
I think I think maby the spray
will keep it off hope so. Dr Smith
will let hear this week if any in
the family has got the germ. I will
let you hear soon as I can. Your
Mother Amanda Dyer

This was to be the last letter she wrote to her daughter Ella. Hannah Amanda Nash Dyer died four days later: April 20, 1918. But Machen Dyer, Virginia "Jennie" Kennedy Dyer, and John Marvin Dyer all survived and lived to old age, as did Mollie and Irene. In fact, Marvin was the protagonist in a much more amusing family story I also heard this week, which I would also like to preserve.

It turns out that Marvin Dyer went on to become a deputy sheriff [possibly U.S Marshall] in Glenmora, La. And it also turns out that Ella Dyer Elliott's husband Henry Machen Elliott had a sister Ella Eliza Elliott, who married one Calvin Grantham (pronounced "GRANT-HAM," not "GRAN-them"). "Uncle Calb," as my grandmother called him, was apparently quite a character. He was a short man with bright red hair and a matching red handlebar mustache, who also had a fondness for drink. To a woman, my mom and all of her sisters came up with the same image for the stories they heard of Uncle Calb: Yosemite Sam. Much like Yosemite Sam, Uncle Calb would get roaring drunk on Saturday nights and ride his horse down Main Street shooting a pair of pistols in the air, and Uncle Marvin would be responsible for rounding him up and dragging him to jail to "sleep it off."

For some reason, I find it comforting that the man who had to confront the loss of his child and mother within days of each other ended up being an honest-to-God "white hat" for a small town. I don't think it makes the narrative above any less chilling, but the fact that Marvin went on to be a good man ought to count for something. At least, I hope it does.