- Intention, Character, and Double Effect by Lawrence Masek
While a young graduate student of ethics, I confronted the theoretical question "Why be good?" I was familiar with the Christian response and as a believer found it convincing: like in all things, we do good for the sake of the Kingdom. But I wondered if non-Christian philosophy had a convincing reply. The Utilitarian response troubled me deeply; the Stoic response made me yawn; and Kant confused me.
Then I read of Socrates and the just man Leon of Salamis. The Thirty Tyrants had ordered Socrates under pain of death to round up Leon for execution. Socrates asks himself whether it is better to do evil or suffer it. In his reply to the tyrants, I found the answer I was looking for: Socrates turns his back on them and goes home. Why? Because he believed that nothing can compensate a man for becoming an evildoer, not even avoiding death. He was convinced that the sorest judgment on evildoing is that evildoers become evil.
To its considerable credit, Masek's book takes this Socratic insight seriously. And he uses it plausibly to explain the morally relevant distinction, central to the principle of double effect (PDE) but not uncontested by its critics, between effects we intend and side-effects that we cause, even foreseeably, but don't intend. Those we intend, he argues, have a deeper reflexive impact—closer in—upon our characters; if we intend a bad effect we corrupt ourselves.
If this were the book's only virtue, it would justify a reading by scholars interested in the PDE. But Masek defends two other foundational principles of morality that make the book a substantial contribution to PDE debates.
The second is that any sound analysis of action, and especially identifying an agent's intention, must proceed from the agent's internal perspective. We can consistently understand what he intends only if we consider his action from his perspective.
Thirdly, although actions are principally defined according to what an agent intends and not by what he accepts as side-effects, intention is not [End Page 378] the only source of the morality of action. Thus, sound moral theory must assess action in the light of principles that single out all relevant sources.
Armed with the three principles, Masek ably explains the PDE, defending it against both critics who reject or minimize one or more of the three principles as well as defenders who fail to consistently apply them.
Among others, he defends the following important conclusions: (1) Although actions should be judged firstly according to what an agent intends, it is a mistake to reduce moral assessment to an analysis of intention; this results in the futile attempt to fit all negative judgments under the category of bad intention; (2) Agents intend whatever and only they include in their intelligible goal for acting, including all the steps they include in their plan for achieving that goal; (3) What they intend is a factual reality; although they can give false reports, they "cannot change what they intend by redescribing ["gerrymandering"] their intentions, just as they cannot change what they foresee by redescribing their knowledge"; (4) Treating actions as "bundles of bodily movements and observable effects" to be assessed by third-party observers is a common error; (5) Those who do so end by developing "amorphous criteria about closeness or immediacy to draw a jagged line around intended effects in a way that includes some effects that play no role at all in the agent's plan"; (6) Any sound account of intention must maintain a distinction between "what agents intend" and "how those intentions are related to physical states"; (7) When PDE defenders disregard this agent-centered perspective, they sever the reflexive relationship between actions and moral character, which leaves them incapable of saying why intention is relevant in the first place.
The book defends other conclusions, which seem to me of secondary importance to PDE debates, but to which the author gives considerable space...