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August 01, 2005

Tony Blair and the Doctrine of Double Effect

Reflecting on the July 7 bombings, the leftist MP George Galloway (on whom I have written before) said, "London has reaped the involvement of Mr. Blair's involvement in Iraq." Most people to Galloway's right--which means most people--think he is wrong to blame Blair for the terrorism. Yet it seems likely that a causal chain does connect the bombings to British participation in the Iraq invasion. Extremist Muslim radicals attacked UK targets only once they had become incensed by the presence of British "crusaders" in Iraq. The use of terrorism against civilian British targets was a fairly foreseeable result of the invasion and occupation.

I wouldn't try to deny Blair's causal role, but I would argue that someone can be a cause of something without being morally responsible for it. Blair set in motion a chain of events that led to the bombings, but the bombers are completely responsible for what they did, and Blair is completely innocent of it. Thomas Aquinas' Doctrine of Double Effect comes in handy here. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, as quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, explains that the Doctrine excuses an act (in this case, the invasion) that has bad results under these conditions:

1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent. 2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary. 3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed. 4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.

Thus, to take Tony Blair's side, we would say: The act of invading Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein was morally good. Even if its net consequences turn out to be bad for Iraq (mainly because of the incompetent US leadership), British participation was well-intentioned and reasonable. Blair did not will a terrorist response to the invasion, even if he had reason to predict it. The removal of Saddam was a direct consequence of the invasion; the London bombings were highly indirect results. Finally, the end that Blair willed was sufficiently good to compensate for the death of Londoners.

The Doctrine is relevant to other current events as well. For example, last Friday, the IRA promised to renounce violence. Did the Doctrine of Double Effect ever excuse its use of terror? Alison McIntyre would say "no." She writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia article, "The terror bomber aims to bring about civilian deaths in order to weaken the resolve of the enemy: when his bombs kill civilians this is a consequence that he intends." Thus bombing a pub or train station is a bad act with a bad intention, and the Doctrine never excuses it.

However, McIntyre thinks that bombing campaigns undertaken by people in uniform can be permissible under the Doctrine. She writes, "The strategic bomber aims at military targets while foreseeing that bombing such targets will cause civilian deaths. When his bombs kill civilians this is a foreseen but unintended consequence of his actions. Even if it is equally certain that the two bombers will cause the same number of civilian deaths, terror bombing is impermissible while strategic bombing is permissible."

Supporters of the IRA deny this distinction. They argue that it's unfair to defend established nations with large budgets that drop bombs from airplanes--yet damn individuals as "terrorists" if they kill smaller numbers of people with car bombs.

Of course, one response is that no one has the right to kill anyone else except in the most immediate self-defense. Then the Doctrine of Double Effect would not cover the IRA, but it wouldn't excuse Tony Blair, either. By invading Iraq, he willed the death of Iraqis (and Brits); a pacifist would deny him that right. But the true pacifist would also say that Neville Chamberlain impermissibly willed the death of civilians when he declared war on Hitler. Once we admit that someone can cause death for a good reason, then we are either "consequentialists" (i.e., we assess acts by subtracting their costs from their benefits), or we subscribe to the Doctrine of Double Effect.

In the last few months, three different people have told me that the IRA bombings had a good consequence: they brought the British and the Unionists to the bargaining table. I do not know whether this is true or whether the same result could have been obtained by peaceful means. Consequentialist reasoning might possibly rationalize the IRA bombings, but not those of Hamas and the other Palestinian terrorist groups. It seems to me that suicide bombings in Israel and the Occupied Territories have had one overall consequence: Israel has begun to build a security fence. Thus Hamas indirectly caused the fence. For consequentialists, that makes Hamas responsible for damage to Palestinian national interests--which is indeed what I believe. However, according to the logic of the Doctrine of Double Effect, Hamas might be causally responsible for the fence, yet Israel might have sole moral responsibility for it.

(See also a good short article by William Soloman from the Encyclopedia of Ethics.)

Posted by peterlevine at August 1, 2005 06:42 AM


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