Zagano & RNS get Double Effect Completely Wrong

Phyllis Zagano recently wrote a piece in RNS where the first line is precisely wrong about double-effect. This is not some esoteric point: the first paragraph of Wikipedia on the topic or slides from the introduction to theology class I teach to non-theology majors would have clarified it. I struggle to see how someone with a Master’s degree in theology and a Ph.D. could make such an elementary mistake and not catch it before publication. Let’s examine her line, look at other sources, and then briefly note how the rest of her article fails because of this initial error.

Zagano has seemed unwilling to correct herself in Twitter discussions. So, I ask RNS (Religion News Service) to retract this or add a significant correction to this blatant error. Although I often disagree with RNS ideologically, they are generally much more careful with facts than they were here.

Zagano’s version of Double Effect

She begins her piece:

Philosophers and moral theologians tell us that an objectively wrong action can be permitted if it intends to do good, citing the principle of “double effect.” Not everyone agrees, leading to various recent collisions of policy and action.

Scales of Justice (Pixabay CC0)
Scales of Justice (Pixabay CC0)

I am somewhat suspicious when people begin with philosophers and theologians without at least giving one example. Her point, though, is that objectively wrong action is morally OK if good is intended.

EDIT: later, they removed “objectively wrong” from the live version, which avoids the error. You can still see the original via Wayback Machine.

This would reduce morality to intention only, as any object is permitted if good intentions are set. This is the exact opposite of what John Paul II said in Veritatis Splendor 78:

The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will.

Following such moral principles would have disastrous consequences. One reply on Twitter pointed out: “the genocide by the Khmer Rouge intended to do good.” You could justify almost any evil this way, as most people or groups intend good.

Descriptions of Double Effect Contrary to Zagano

Let’s look at some other descriptions of double effect. I’m going to use easy-to-find sources over academic ones, as this shows how obvious the error is.

The Wikipedia article up to the first header:

The principle of double effect… is a set of ethical criteria which Christian philosophers have advocated for evaluating the permissibility of acting when one’s otherwise legitimate act may also cause an effect one would otherwise be obliged to avoid. The first known example of double-effect reasoning is Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of homicidal self-defense, in his work Summa Theologica.

This set of criteria states that an action having foreseen harmful effects practically inseparable from the good effect is justifiable if the following are true:

  • the nature of the act is itself good, or at least morally neutral;
  • the agent intends the good effect and does not intend the bad effect, either as a means to the good or as an end in itself;
  • the good effect outweighs the bad effect in circumstances sufficiently grave to justify causing the bad effect and the agent exercises due diligence to minimize the harm.
The slide explaining it from my class “Introduction to Theology” (for non-majors, so more a college-freshman-level summary of theology):
  • Definition: a good or neutral action with positive & negative effects
  • The object and the end sought must both be good
  • The other circumstances must not completely destroy the goodness of the act
  • The positive result must be equal or greater than the negative result
  • No way to get the positive result without that or a worse negative result

An “objectively wrong action,” as Zagano states the principle, would go against the definition and the first criteria after that as it means an evil object, yet a good object is a requirement. (I explain the object and end on previous slides.)

You can also see my quote-tweet of her, which led me to write this piece.

Top results for double effect on Google:

When I googled “the “double effect,” here are a few other top results.

Saint Mary’s University (Notre Dame, IN) has the following on its site:

This principle aims to provide specific guidelines for determining when it is morally permissible to perform an action in pursuit of a good end in full knowledge that the action will also bring about bad results… it generally states that, in cases where a contemplated action has both good effects and bad effects, the action is permissible only if it is not wrong in itself and if it does not require that one directly intend the evil result.

This states, contrary to Zagano, “the action is permissible only if it is not wrong in itself.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on it also comes up high on Google. Although it uses a language of harm, not “objectively wrong action,” Zagano’s view falls under what it calls the third misinterpretation of the principle:

A third common misinterpretation of double effect is to assume that the principle assures agents that they may do this provided that their ultimate aim is a good one that is ordinarily worth pursuing, the proportionality condition is satisfied and the harm is not only regretted but minimized… Some discussions of double effect wrongly assume that it permits acts that cause certain kinds of harm because those harms were not the agent’s ultimate aim or were regretted rather than welcomed.

Zagano errs further in her article

She tries to use double effect to justify political moves for legal abortion in all nine months of pregnancy as something that can be justified by double effect. She argues politicians who “personally oppose” abortion but push for it to be legal in every circumstance imaginable argue “legalized abortion prevents a worse result.”

She argues you can do “objectively wrong action,” like killing a fetus, “if it intends to do good,” like keeping that child out of poverty. This misunderstanding of double effect has horrendous consequences. It is not just an abstract discussion of principles.

As abortion is the death of an innocent child, it is hard to see what would be a worse result. The politicians she speaks of argue for abortion in all nine months for any reason. I can understand Catholic politicians who advocate significant restrictions like at 12 weeks, but not an outright ban for various pragmatic reasons; but when a politician pushes for a level of abortion legalization (third trimester and for any reason) supported by under 15% in most polls (example), I cannot see any justification of it as a Catholic view working.

RNS or Zagano, Please Retract or Correct

In conclusion, I want to reiterate what I started with. I ask RNS and/or Zagano to retract or correct his piece. It is embarrassing for both to have a piece live on the internet that is so contrary to facts. (In case they do, here’s a Wayback Machine version.) The first criterion in the principle of double effect is that the act itself (object) must be neutral or good. Missing that means you miss the whole principle. I hope this piece clarified in case anyone was confused.

EDIT (March 18): they removed two words to make the article more accurate but did not include a note at the bottom that it was revised as is good journalistic practice:

Philosophers and moral theologians tell us that an objectively wrong action can be permitted if it intends to do good, citing the principle of “double effect.” Not everyone agrees, leading to various recent collisions of policy and action.

Zagano went beyond just not noting a change as normally would be done, she actively hid the fact. She told Taylor Patrick O’Neill to reread it, then when he replied, “You changed the article! It is extremely intellectually dishonest not to admit that and even to insinuate that you didn’t by telling us to ‘reread'” she hid that reply. This comes across not only as making an error but then being intellectually dishonest about it. The opposite of what a good scholar, which she claims to be, would do. She had already blocked me for pointing out the issue with her piece.

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