Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Another Prussic problem

Alexander Pruss has put forward some very troubling counter-examples to the solution Frances Kamm gives to the 'Loop' case. Since I follow Kamm, at least in outline, these are problem cases for me too.

Rather than summarise all that here readers can see Pruss for themselves. Here is a response - though not, at the moment, a solution.

Case 1. Jim the railway enthusiast is keen to build a railway between two large cities. His motivation is simply that he loves railways. A safety expert tells him, however, that over 50 years there are likely to be 50 deaths on this railway, if built. Jim is sad because this appears to show that it would be wrong to build it: 50 deaths is a high price to pay for his dream of a gleaming new railway. However, the expert quickly adds that the railway will divert traffic from the roads, and since railways are generally safer than roads the number of lives saved will be, say, 55.

Jim is happy again: it seems that these two unintended side-effects of his project don't just cancel each other out, but leaves him with a modest credit balance.

Case 2. Benny the blackmailer tells Jill that unless she kills one person (Charlie) he, Benny, will kill two other people (all these victims are innocent with nothing much to distinguish them). Jill knows it would be wrong to intend the death of an innocent even to save two lives. Instead, she points her gun directly at Charlie's head, and, with the intention of giving her trigger finger some much-needed exercise, pulls the trigger. She knows, of course, that Charlie will be killed as a result of this, but whereas this would normally be an act of terrible recklessness, she knows that the unintended side-effect of Charlie's death will be more than off-set by the saving of the two other innocents.

What we need to bear in mind with Pruss's cases, which are like my Case 2, is that while it seems that in these cases something is going horribly wrong, the plausibility of the reasoning in Case 1 and others like it is perfectly ok. Not just ok, in fact, but it is essential that we are able to off-set side-effects if we are to engage in any large-scale action: government policies on transport, education, health and so on will invariably generate 'winners and losers' and we balance these out to see if the policy is permissible. If we are to stop Jill's line of reasoning we must show that it is different from that of Jim. Case 1 shows that Kamm's original insight ('triple effect') remains correct.

So how are they different?

1. Jim could intend the good results if he wishes; Jill could not, because if she did she would have to intend the evil means to them. Put another way, the good results come from the evil results for Jill, but not for Jim.

2. Jill is acting much more immediately than Jim, on persons she can identify. She is more closely involved in the evil of innocent deaths.

3. The trivial goods Jill and others like her are intending could be achieved in other ways, which do not bring about such drastic harms. We might ask: what is Jills' intention in doing it this way? The answer would be: to take advantage of the favourable balance of unintended side effects available in this exact situation.

I'm not happy with any of these three differences, as the basis for allowing Jim's reasoning and ruling out Jill's.

On 1: Jim could intend the good results, but as stipulated he doesn't. This will often be the case with the leaders of large-scale projects. Again, consider the 'butterfly effect': by turning over in bed, we may cause a hurricane in New Zealand. We don't need to worry, however, because we are just as likely to be preventing a hurricane in New Zealand. We don't need to go to the trouble of intending the good possible results of our careless actions in order to take advantage of their neutral overall effects; we just note (in response to objections) that we aren't making things any worse.

2. It has been noted before that having identifiable victims can have an effect on our intuitions. It surely can't have an effect on the truth of the matter. The identifiable victims in the Jill case partially explains our distaste for her reasoning, but I'm not ready to bite the bullet and say that, therefore, what she does is ok.

3. We might we say: Jill's intention in exercising her trigger finger with a loaded gun pointed at Charlie with the safety catch off is to capture the positive balance of side-effects, which would not be captured in any other way. Similarly, we always adapt our plans in order to avoid disastrous side-effects. If someone tells you that simply by travelling from A to B via C you may spread a deadly disease from C to B, then you don't go via C, you go via D instead. So Jill can exercise her finger with the gun pointed another way, unloaded etc. etc. but if she does that a disastrous result arises: two innocents are killed by Benny. Instead, she gains her trivial good in a way which won't have this disastrous result, but a less disastrous one, that of Charlie dying.

My feeling right now is that there is a moral difference between the cases, but I can't identify a principled explanation for it.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Intending harms: some thoughts

Following the Double Effect conference organised by the Anscombe Centre, I've been thinking about what it means to intend harms. Here are some preliminary thoughts.

There are a range of ways of understanding what constitutes intending a harm, which corresponds to different ways of understanding intention as a whole. A preliminary characterisation of harm would include pain, loss of function, and loss of opportunities for good.

1. An agent intends any harm he knowingly brings about.

2. If an agent intends a physical effect which is a harm to the patient, then he intends the harm which is constituted by that physical effect.

3. If an agent intends a loss of function (etc.) to the patient, then he intends the harm constituted by the loss of function.

4. If an agents intends that the patient by harmfully effected by something, then he intends that harmful effect.

To illustrate:

A. Spraying mosquitoes: Adam sprays an area from an aeroplane to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes, in the knowledge that a small number of people will suffer a painful allergic reaction to the spray.

He intends harm under (1) but under none of the others.

B. Beatrice uses the body of Duncan to cushion the fall of Edith from a ladder. Beatrice intends Duncan to absorb the impact of Edith’s fall, a physical event which is harmful to Duncan.

Beatrice intends harm to Duncan under (1) and (2) but not (3) and (4).

C. Freddie tapes up Georgina’s mouth and nose to prevent her using up oxygen on a stricken submarine.

Freddie intends to harm Georgina under (1), (2) and (3), but not (4)

D. Henry the government official is impervious to requests for help for those suffering from an epidemic. Irene infects him with the disease, in the hope that his own suffering will prompt him to change his policy.

Irene intends to harm Henry under all the definitions.


It is easy to show that definition 1 is too wide.

Justin knows he will suffer some pain and stiff limbs after his exercise routine, but he is not motivated by bringing about these harms, he is motivated by the desire to get fit.

Contrary to definition (1), Justin does not intend the harm, since intention is tied to reasons for action and motivation. Which is to say, intending something which brings about a harm is not the same as intending a harm.

It is harder to show if any of the other definitions are too narrow, since here the question is of whether it should be said that what the agents bring about is a harm, or (like Justin’s exercise) that it merely bring a harm about.

Craniotomy: is reducing the size of the baby’s head ipso facto harming the baby, or does it merely bring about harm to the baby?

Fat Man: is using the Fat Man to stop the trolley (to soak up the trolly’s kinetic energy) ipso facto harming him, or does it merely bring a harm about?

In the exercise case, the causation of harm by the agent is direct and inevitable; it is clear that it is not intended, however, since it is clearly besides the point of Justin’s practical reasoning (though it is accepted as a side-effect of what he does): it is neither an end nor a means. In Craniotomy the death of the baby is beside the point in the same way, but the physical modification of the head is not beside the point: it is intended.

I am inclined to say: This bodily modification is not merely a cause of a harm, it is something which is undesirable in the same way that a loss of function is undesireable, that is, in and of itself. I am harmed if my limbs or organs are radically pushed out of shape; it not merely the case that having them radically pushed out of shape will cause me a harm, rather it is a harm to me. If this is right, then definitions 3 and 4 are too narrow.

This is supported by intuitions such as this. If we were to define theft in terms of intentions, then it might be ‘to intend of another the loss of property rightfully his’. The intention of something which will probably lead to a loss of property is not theft: such as taking on a weaker opponent in a game of skill, with a wager. On the other hand the harmful nature of the loss of property does not have to intended: the thief need not intend the victim to suffer grief or want, for example. All the thief needs to intend, to intend a theft, is an objective transfer of goods from the victim to himself. One way of explaining why this is wrong is to say that although the thief may not intend that the victim be harmed in terms of grief or want, taking someone’s goods harms him ipso facto. The thief intends something which is a harm, even if he does not intend the victim’s harm as a separable objective.

Again, we are harmed when cheated, betrayed, or libelled, because those things are bad things when they happen to us. Agents who intend those bad things to happen to others are intending harms to happen to their victims. They may not, in fact, care about the victims’ well being; that may be indifferent to them, whereas they have some other end in view for which cheating and so on is a useful means. Nevertheless, they intend to harm insofar as they intend these bad things to happen to their victims, since these bad things are harms.

Looking at it in this way suggests that a wide definition of harm is needed: harms include not only loss of function, but the compromise of physical or material wellbeing. Causing the loss of wellbeing in this wide sense is not necessarily wrong, but it will normally be wrong if it is intended as an end or a means.