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November 07, 2006


Chris Williams

Me and Phil E made this point a few months back on his blog. Check out the comments - especially the reference to Runciman:

james higham

...The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect...

What sufficiently desirable good effect was there in Iraq which would compensate for the mayhem? Plus, deaths were very much intended. Where is the Stanford double effect principle here?

...I fear the doctrine might be a psychological self-defence mechanism - a way for people who have blood on their hands to convince themselves that, really, they are still good people...

This seems far more likely to me.

Chris Williams

The article by Runciman skewering Blair is behind a paywall, but it's here for all you LRB subscribers.


Chris D, you could afford it, but I'm pretty sure that you'd get wound up very quickly by the style of discourse they are into.

Tom H

I'm not sure double effect is especially relevant here. There's also an important distinction between war and capital punishment which is separate from questions of intention. War may, for various reasons, be necessary in some cases (let's leave aside discussions of whether particular wars are justified, and concede that there may be occasions on which participating in armed conflict and foreseeably killing people is, for whatever reason, the least worst option).

Capital punishment, which involves taking the life of someone who is already, by definition, in your custody and under your complete control, is never necessary, even if you might for various reasons think it desirable or justified.

In other words, war places you in a position where you may have no alternative but to cause the death of another person. A judicial process with a range of available punishments isn't like that.

Double effect is vulnerable to all sorts of good criticisms, but it's about finding ways of working out what to do in situations in which all options are bad, and inaction is worse than an action with foreseeably bad consequences. It doesn't really apply to the question of whether or not to impose the death penalty in the same way as it applies to some other questions around the ethics of war.

I posted about double effect a while back, here:


"When we impose the death penalty, we intend to kill a man. That's wrong." This is your premise: you have to tell us why it is wrong, not merely assert it.

"But when we go to a just war, deaths, though foreseeable, are not actually intended." Bollocks: we call it a war because we intend that deaths occur. (Though we might be delighted if the enemy surrendered and no killing ensued.) The first difference I can see is that in the case of the execution, we intend that an identifiable individual die, whereas in war we don't typically know their names - they are just a bunch of the enemy. The second difference is that with the execution, we intend to kill a man tried with full legal (but imperfect) defences againt error, who has been found guilty of murder, or whatever it might be, whereas in war the enemy whom we kill may be morally blameless, as may the civilians whom we accidentally kill as a consequence of fighting. In summary, it seems to me Execution Better, War Worse.


Dearieme - I wasn't writing that with my voice. I was merely trying to express a view that would defend Blair's position, to see if it's remotely tenable.

Charlie Whitaker

There was a discussion on Donald's blog a while back:


Not so sure about my comments there, now that I read them again. But add it all up: together with Phil E's stuff, maybe there could be a double effect wiki.


The "death penalty" is a legal term of art referring to the outcome of a trial. Saying that Blair imposed the death penalty on thousands of Iraqis be engaging in war against them is completely ridiculous - where was the trial? where was the legal defense? where was the judge? If Blair had said he opposed the declaration of war, you might have a point.


Chris, apologies.


Cheers, Chris. I think the argument's been made most succinctly in the post Tom links to - invoking 'double effect' in a war of choice is inherently dishonest. Runciman's argument, incidentally, was that Blair's rhetoric gives the 'double effect' argument an extra self-exculpatory twist: the deaths his government causes are not only unintended, they're *regretted* (which in itself proves his good intentions - which in *them*selves mean that he has that much less to regret, which in turn makes his genuine regret all the more meritorious... and round it goes, in a kind of virtuous spiral of self-congratulation).

I don't think Blair's proclaimed opposition to the death penalty tells us much about anything, though. If the British government really opposed the death penalty, presumably it would have objected by now. By saying that he opposes something which he plainly doesn't, Blair was just playing the straightforward liar as per usual. Cue some more Runciman ("Liars, Crybabies and Hypocrites"):

Maynard Handley

Matthew Yglesias covered much this same territory yesterday:


I wonder why the common notion of culpable "reckless indifference" isn't cited in this context. Employing military weapons, no matter how sophisticated - whether in Iraq, Grozny or Gaza - won't meet any safety standards for the prevention of unintended deaths, particularly in urban areas. The campaign against land mines could easily be expanded under an identical rationale.

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