Reflection: Morality and the Double-Effect Principle

by Father Don Thomas

Throughout history, men and women have frequently found themselves in situations in which they have had to make very important decisions, and they have been mentally torn by questions like "Am I doing the right thing? Is this a sin? Would it be better if I did not do anything at all and just keep things as they are? If this is the wrong decision, will I be forever haunted by the thought of perhaps I should have done the opposite"? Indecisiveness and doubt can result in great misery and unhappiness.

Circumstances in the evolution of moral theology have resulted in the formulation of what is called "the double effect principle". It is used very often in counseling ministry, but is also a big help in enabling any one of us to make decisions with which we can live in good faith and conscience. And so, exactly what is the meaning of the double-effect principle? What is it all about?

To understand the principle, it is important to point out that all of us at times are called upon to make decisions that will have good results and bad results, good effects and bad effects at the same time. The value of the double effect principle lies in the fact that, after weighing the merits of what is good and what is bad, one is allowed to make and intend the decision for good, while allowing the bad effect or result of that decision or act of the will. As is usually the case, some examples go a long way in demonstrating the definition or explanation. In real life, let us say, a decision has to be made about the amputation of a child's leg because of cancer. After lengthy discussions between the doctors and parents, a decision has to be made. This is where the double effect principle comes in, and the parents decide that the surgery is necessary to save the child's life, and saving the child's life is the good that is intended by the decision or act of the will—there is the good effect—and the bad effect of the decision is the loss of the leg for the youngster.

The good is intended and the bad is allowed to happen. What is very important to understand is that there has to be a proportion between the good results and the bad. The good effect has to be at least as great or greater than the bad effect. If the good effect is not as important or as great, the decision should not be made or considered morally correct or right. Such would be the case of being out in a boat with your dog and your little girl. When the boat capsizes, you have to make a quick decision. Morally speaking, and according to this double effect principle, if you decide to go after the dog, knowing that the little girl will drown, that is absolutely wrong. All life is important but human life is more sacred and valuable than animal life and animal life is a higher form of life than plant life. In this situation, you are intending the wrong or evil result instead of intending the good result. You see, that is backwards, a reversal of the double effect principle. In our society today with so many living together, a woman sometimes has to make a big decision between her "live-in boyfriend" and her two children whom the boy friend is abusing in areas of cigarette burns, beatings, sexual abuse, and other cruelties. Any decent human being will tell you that when she chooses to cover up and stick with him while her children are abused, that is the wrong decision and it is the reversal of the double effect principle. She is choosing what is wrong over what is right.

Let me make it clear at this point that the use of the principle does not always refer to abusive situations involving things such as sex, drugs, or drink. I will conclude with a very common, very stressful and very sensitive decision affecting many lives. It involves the decision to put one's close relative, like a mother or father, or a grandmother or grandfather into a nursing home. Many sleepless and agonizing nights have resulted from the pressure of such a decision.

Families very often are torn apart by decisions like this. Circumstances may differ in each case but they must be taken into consideration when a decision has to be made. When the good to be desired includes factors like not being able to lift the person, bathe and clothe the elderly or sick person, by an act of the will, the double effect principle is exercised. That which is good, namely the proper care and attention for the patient or the elderly person, is the good effect that is intended. The unfortunate or bad effects like loneliness, regular conversations with family members, the food, sometimes the lack of heat or air conditioning, and other inconveniences are permitted or allowed to take place. The bad effect is permitted or tolerated, while the good is intended. That is what the double effect principle is all about. The greater good is intended and the other results are allowed to take place.

The End


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