Doctrine of Double Effect and Jus in Bello

Class Prompt: In 1943 the British Air Force developed a plan to bomb three German dams. The first video you will see is a home video that I took of a summer trip to one of those dams, the Edersee. You will see several towns in the river valley that flooded when the dam was destroyed. The Edersee is Germany’s largest reservoir, providing hydroelectric power and a popular recreation area.

The dam at the Edersee was destroyed. No one knows how many people died in the attack, but we can assume approximately 100 civilians died. There was also widespread destruction of crops. The destruction of another dam in a much more urban area in the Ruhr Valley created much more destruction, with at least 1000 people dying. The Edersee dam required six weeks to repair. In the end very little harm was caused to German industry by the operation. The main benefit of the operation was to raise morale in Great Britain at a time when the war was going badly. Was the attack morally justified?

First, what was the purpose of destroying the dam? Coming to an answer to this allows us to see the intention of the British commanders.

I think I’d employ St. Thomas’s Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes,

The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides four conditions for the application of the principle of double effect:

  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“ (p. 1021).”

(1) simply states that the act in question must not be evil in itself. So, as long as it is morally neutral, it is permissible. (2) states that one ought not intentionally aim for the bad effect, but she may allow to occur. But if one could achieve the desired end without ever having a bad effect, then one should seek to do that rather than an act that will have bad effects. (3) states that the good effect must occur causality and not temporally after the action, and the evil effect can only be allowed if it is directly caused by the good effect. This is to rule out the idea that something bad can be used as a means to some good effect. (4) is similar to the idea that there must be a proportionate reason for the evil effect to occur. If the evil outweighs the good, then it’s not proportional, and the act ought not be done. Note that an act must satisfy all conditions to be morally permissible. So, now that we have an understanding of the DDE (hopefully), I hope to apply correctly apply it to the case in question–i.e., the British attack on the German dams.

First, recall I asked what the purpose of destroying the dams were. Let us suppose that the sole aim was to destroy the dam so that the British could cripple Germany in order to boost the morale of Britain. The good effect sought and the end/goal of the act, then, is the boost of British morale through the means of crippling German forces, who are enemies. Both of these seem to be good effects.

Per condition 4 of the DDE, I suspect we already have a problem. The evil effect doesn’t seem proportionate to the good. That is, the good effect of boosting the moral of the British nation does not seem to be proportionate to the evil effect of destroying the dam, which caused the many civilian casualties. Thus, on this reading of the situation, the attack was not permissible. But, is the good effect of boosting the morale the only effect to consider? Do we also consider the good effect of crippling the enemy? This highlights a little issue in the approach or methodology of the DDE.

An objection to my initial argument could be that my analysis of the act was done before the action was carried out, and in reality, not only was Britain’s morale boosted, but the good effect of crippling Nazi Germany was achieved regardless of the intention before the act. Thus, it seems condition four has a proportionate reason to allow the bad effect to occur. What this objection seems to be saying is that the overall effect and success of the attack, regardless of the intention–i.e., only seeking out the good effect of the boost of morale–is what matters when applying the DDE.

But there appears to be an issue here when applying the DDE that I would like to mention in reply to this potential objection. Simply put, when applying the DDE to an action that happened in the past like this one, do we weigh the results as (A) assuming the results have not obtained yet and only looking at foreseeable effects (that is, pretend that we are in the position of the British before the action ever took place, and we are to make our DDE assessment in that state of mind without any knowledge of what the actual results are and only estimating the potential effects) or (B) do we take into account what the results actually were as we look in hindsight and judge the act based on what we now know of the facts?

It’s easy for one to apply the DDE, following (B), posterior to the action since one has already observed the consequences and success of the act. If (B) is the correct approach, then it seems the act would be justified since the good effect of boosting morale and crippling the enemy was achieved and was proportionate to the bad effect. But I would caution that we ought not look at the justification of this action based solely on the success of the act. There are many good acts that I have an intention to do but they may fail to obtain. Just because the act failed to obtain doesn’t mean the act was never good or justified in carrying out. There are many good acts that I have an intention to perform but may fail to obtain. For example, there may be a woman that trips at a crosswalk with an oncoming car nearby. I see it and try to run up and save her, but, sadly, I’m too late and the car hits her. My act and intention, which I think were good, is not nullified simply because the good effect of saving her was never obtained. In other words, just because the act is unsuccessful doesn’t necessarily mean the act was not justified or good in carrying out. But, on the other hand, success is relevant because it would be costly to perform an act in war that although is intended for good, is likely to be unsuccessful. So if success is relevant, it would make more sense to utilize this criterion under approach (A) since in (B) we already see the success of the act. But if we already see the success of the act, then taking into account the success of it would be useless. So for example, suppose we take approach (B) and use it to justify an act that had a incredibly low probability of being successful and thus had the potential good effects highly outweigh by bad ones. If the act turned out to be successful–somehow for the sake of argument–then under (B), since it was indeed successful, the act was justified in being carried out. But this is intuitively not right, it seems. Since one, if faced with a situation where the likelihood of success is incredibly low and the likelihood of really bad effects occurring is really high, would be unjustified in performing the act given the current state of knowledge. It would be a high gamble that one would be wrong to take even if the person performed the act and it turned out–out of some lucky miracle–to come out good. (This raises more questions: If an act has some high chances of having bad effects, but one performs the act and gets some good effects, was that person justified in performing the act in the face of the prior probability before the act was performed? I’d like to say they weren’t.)

We must take into account all factors: including the likelihood of success. So, assuming the purpose was solely to boost morale, and if we take the approach found in (B), since in this case the event happened in the past, where we take into account the success of the act in not only boosting morale, but in crippling Germany, then the act seems to be proportionate and satisfies 4.

However, let’s say (B) is flawed. If we are to approach the DDE to an act in the past following (A), we must be careful to keep in mind that we are to weigh the reasons without knowing how the end result may turn out, e.g., not knowing whether or not we will in fact succeed in crippling the enemy and bringing about good effects that were not foreseeable. Thus, we don’t know the success of the act but we must keep it in mind. We return to a question I raised earlier: Is the good effect of boosting the morale the only effect to consider? Do we also consider the good effect of crippling the enemy?

If success is high, and the intention/goal of the act is to boost morale, then per approach (A), this act seems to be justified since we aim for a good effect via the means of another good effect of crippling our enemy. But If success is low, and given either intention, I argue that 4 is violated since the evil effect of having more casualties is higher given the likelihood of unsuccess. So the act is not a bad act since the means and ends seem to be good effects, but I don’t think we’d have a good enough reason to perform the act even though the means and ends aimed at is good since the actual effects may be bad a one and the good effect will most likely not be achieved.  So my aim and means might be good, but its actually obtaining is likely not going to happen. Thus while good, I ought not do it since the bad will outweigh the good that will probably not happen. Recall I mentioned earlier that success doesn’t mark whether or not the act is good, but it does add to whether or not some acts should be performed when compared to the possible bad effects. If no bad effects come from the act and likelihood of success is low, then there is no loss and I can perform the act. But if bad effects outweigh the good and success is low, then I ought not do the act even though I am aiming at good effects. Thus if something like this occurs, condition 3 is violated since the bad effect is not coming from the good effect given that the good effect never obtains

These are just my initial thoughts. If I have misapplied the DDE and if there are any good objections, feel free to respond. I will amend my position and application as needed. I also realize I mostly focused on condition 4 of the DDE.

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