- The Specification of Action in St. Thomas:Nonmotivating Conditions in the Object of Intention
IN A LECTURE delivered in 1982, Elizabeth Anscombe voiced some reservations about the principle of double effect.1 She said that she had come to realize that it was not really a single principle, but rather a "package deal," combining a number of principles or criteria that are not intrinsically connected.2 She suggested splitting it up and keeping only a part, which she called the "principle of side-effects." This principle is rather modest. For one thing, it concerns only one kind of side effect, namely death. Other harms or evils are not mentioned. What it says is that the exceptionless moral prohibition on murder "does not cover all bringing about of deaths which are not intended."3 Of course it does not say that the prohibition covers no such cases. Nonintended killings can be murder too. But neither does the principle of side effects determine which of them are murder and which are not. That requires other principles. Here Anscombe proposed only one, which she took to be obvious and to cover a good many cases: namely, that the [End Page 321] "intrinsic certainty of the death of the victim, or its great likelihood from the nature of the case," would render the act murderous.4
Anscombe went on to protest against the ascription of the principle of double effect to St. Thomas Aquinas. Often, in fact, the principle is said to be present, at least implicitly, in Thomas's treatment of killing in self-defense.5 In part, this is because of his requirement of "proportionate means" in defending oneself. But Anscombe insisted—quite rightly, I think—that this requirement has nothing to do with the double-effect "doctrine of a proportion of good over evil in the upshot."6 She also declared that, if we want Thomas's view on responsibility for evil consequences generally (and not just death), the place to look is not his discussion of self-defense, but rather a passage earlier in the Summa theologiae—question 20, article 5 of the Prima secundae—in which he explains the relation of a consequence (eventus sequens) to an action's goodness or badness.7 She closed the lecture by quoting that passage, without comment.
A good way to begin my own discussion will be to summarize that very passage. Then, still in the first section, I shall summarize a related passage, also from the Summa theologiae, on whether sins are graver, the more harm they cause. In light of these two passages, I shall argue that Thomas's treatment of nonintended effects that follow per se on intentional action—I call them head-on effects—does not accord well with the usual understanding of the distinction between intended effects and side effects. This is because he presents these effects as directly voluntary. In section 2, I try to correct two common readings, which I think mistaken, [End Page 322] of Thomas's discussion of killing in self-defense. As it happens, they are readings to which at least one of the authors of the New Natural Law theory subscribes. Then, in section 3, I shall start to home in on the central thesis of this paper, which is that, for Thomas, features of an action that do not motivate the agent, or do not provide reasons for acting, can fall within the agent's intention, and can sometimes even specify the action. As a way of both arguing for this thesis and showing why it matters, I undertake to contrast Thomas and the New Natural Law theory on the question of the scope of the object of intention. Section 4 therefore presents some passages from writings by the theory's proponents that illustrate their view of the object of intention. Section 5 lays out my reading of Thomas on the matter. Here I argue, among other things, that for him something can be intended merely per accidens and nevertheless not be praeter intentionem, and that it can therefore be a factor in the specification of action. In section 6, I try to characterize the issue in general...