Understandings of ‘Intention’ Found Wanting

March 6, 2008 § 22 Comments

I get the sense that there is significant confusion out there over the relation between what a person intends and what a person wants. Desire or wanting may be what drives us to form intentions in the first place, and then act on those intentions; but just because I don’t desire something that doesn’t mean I don’t intend it. If I choose something that I wish I didn’t have to choose, that doesn’t mean that my choice was unintended. ‘Unintended choice’ is a contradiction in terms.

Immediately of course the straw man will be raised that this rules out the possibility that there are foreseen effects from our acts which are unintended, and therefore rules out the possibility of double-effect applying to any real-world act. But that objection is obviously specious. If I choose to send my men into the breach knowing with moral certainty that some of them will be killed by someone else, I am not (necessarily – see David/Uriah) choosing to kill them, even though their deaths are a forseen-with-moral-certainty effect of my act. So this objection doesn’t truly rest on on the notion that double-effect is ruled out of school in general. What the objection truly rests on is that double-effect’s applicability to certain kinds of acts that people want it to apply to is ruled out of school.

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§ 22 Responses to Understandings of ‘Intention’ Found Wanting

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I sometimes think the attempt to use double effect where it doesn’t apply is a result of an insufficiently vivid imagination. After all, dropping a bomb on somebody is a little distant.So, Al and Bob are in a car accident. They both end up stuck in the car in such a way that Bob can’t get out unless we saw Al’s head completely off. Is it anything other than deception (of self or others) to say that I’m going to get out a saw and cut Al’s head right off, but I don’t intend to kill Al, only to free Bob?

  • William Luse says:

    Did I mention what a jewel of clarity this post is?

  • george r. says:

    Lydia, Let’s consider two variations of of your scenario: In the first, the car is on fire and there is a gas leak. The rescue worker knows that the car will explode at any moment. Al is stuck in such a way as there is no way to free him. Bob could be quickly freed if a certain metal bar were cut with the chainsaw the rescue worker has. However, if the bar is cut, he sees that it will snap back and decapitate Al. The second scenario is exactly the same, except that, if he is to free Bob, the rescue worker will have to cut off Al’s head so that his body will fall in such a way as to allow him to reach the metal bar that needs to be cut.Now PDE cannot apply in the second scenario because the rescue worker would be killing Al as a means to freeing Bob. This would be an intentional act. It’s as if he would say to himself, “O.K., first I’ll decapaitate Al. Then I’ll be able to cut the bar and free Al.”On the other hand, PDE may apply in the first scenario, because Al’s death is not being used as a means to the end of saving Bob. The death of Al would be beside the intention of the rescue worker. It’s as if he would say to himself here, “I’ll cut the bar and free Bob. The bar, of course, will snap back and decapitate Al, but there’s nothing I can do about that.”In making this distinction between the two scenarios, I am applying what I heard in a lecture by a respected moral theologian, Msgr. William Smith. In discussing surgical operations performed on the mother which would cause certain death to the child in her womb, he said, “If the operation would have taken place in the same way had the fetus not been there, PDE may apply.” Therefore, since in the first scenario the rescue of Bob would have taken place in the same way had Al not been there, PDE may apply.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    As an analytical sort of person, George, I’m able to appreciate the care an ingenuity involved in the distinction being made. And I know that it is an approach that has a lot of currency in Catholic ethical circles. (Just for clarity’s sake, I’m not Catholic.)But I cannot see that it makes the act licit. The causal chain between cutting the bar and Al’s death is extremely short and inevitable. It isn’t just a matter of risking Al’s life. You know _for a fact_ that your deliberate act of cutting the bar will cause that specific person’s death by a means so immediate that it scarcely even rates the term “indirect.”It’s worth pointing out (something Zippy pointed out in a thread on another blog) that the analysis you cite re. surgery on the mother ends up amounting to a “life of the mother” exception. If PDE applies in that way and makes the act licit, it applies even if the child is not dying and even if we cannot say “the child is going to die anyway.” So, for example, such an analysis would seem to apply to removing a woman’s cancerous uterus with the child even if the child would otherwise be born healthy. Now, I’m not at all sure that saying “the child is going to die anyway” is morally crucial or makes things right that would otherwise be wrong. But some people think it is. Nonetheless, _this_ sort of principle will apply even when that is not the case, which might give its advocates additional reason to rethink.

  • george r says:

    <> You know _for a fact_ that your deliberate act of cutting the bar will cause that specific person’s death by a means so immediate that it scarcely even rates the term “indirect.”<>First of all, the notion that the bad effect must be an “indirect” result of the act is nothing but an invention of Zippy’s that has absolutely no basis in Catholic moral theology. And if I’m wrong about that, let him prove it with citations of competent authorities.Of course, he will not be able to prove it. For I have already cited Thomas Aquinas, who explained that the bad effect may be the <>direct<> result of the act. And believe me, no orthodox theologian would dare to contradict Thomas on a principle of moral theology.What is actually required for PDE to possibly apply? Only this: one act not evil per se and two effects, one intended and the other beside the intention.But notice I said, “<>possibly<> apply.” That is because there are other criteria of PDE that we are not addressing here. The question of the child in the womb would involve these other criteria. Msgr. Smith was also not addressing these other criteria, so he was not saying that surgery that would kill the baby was licit.

  • zippy says:

    George R:<>First of all, the notion that the bad effect must be an “indirect” result of the act is nothing but an invention of Zippy’s that has absolutely no basis in Catholic moral theology.<>I’ll let Aquinas himself and the Magisterium of the Church respond for me:Aquinas:<>An individual man may be considered in two ways: first, in himself ; secondly, in relation to something else. If we consider a man in himself, it is unlawful to kill any man, since in every man though he be sinful, we ought to love the nature which God has made, and which is destroyed by slaying him. Nevertheless, as stated above (A. 2) the slaying of <>a sinner<> becomes lawful in relation to the common good, which is corrupted by sin. On the other hand the life of righteous men preserves and forwards the common good, since they are the chief part of the community. <>Therefore it is in no way lawful to slay the innocent.<><>The Catechism of the Catholic Church:<>2258 “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right <>directly<> to destroy an innocent human being.”<>[Emphasis mine]

  • george r. says:

    <>no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being<>Zippy,The Catechism <>seems<> to contradict my position (and that of Msgr. Smith). Therefore, I’ll let you off the hook for now.But I’ll be back.

  • george r. says:

    I’m back.The passage from the Catechism was a quotation from the Instruction <>Donum Vitae<>. <>Donum Vitae<> itself drew its passage from Pope Pius XII’s <>Allocution to the Italian Medical-Biological Union of St. Luke, November 12, 1944.<> In it there is the following line that seems to confirm your position: “So long as a man commits no crime, his life is intangible and therefore every action which tends directly towards its destruction is illicit. . .” Now there’s that key word “directly” that bears on our debate. The question is, “What did Pius XII mean by this?” He tells us in the line that follows: “. . . whether this destruction be the goal intended or only as a means to an end;”But that these two things are excluded from consideration for PDE is already understood. In my first scenario, the death of Al was neither the goal intended nor a means to an end. Therefore, your citation of the Catechism is not decisive.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I wasn’t meaning to allude to any specific claim of Zippy’s when I talked about directness and indirectness but only to anticipate a possible defense of cutting off Al’s head by way of cutting the bar.My own inclination is to think that the notion of directness in killing is useful chiefly for two reasons: First, it points to cases where you are not in any real doubt about the result that will follow. If the person is going to die only if several genuinely questionable and partly or largely independent contingencies come together the wrong way, then you’re probably risking his death, not intentionally causing it, which may still be wrong but isn’t the same thing at all. But if on the other hand you are setting off a Rube Goldberg machine that you know works perfectly, and it pulls a trigger at the end of it which fires a shot into the innocent man’s head, you are killing him just as if you had pulled the trigger with your finger. That sort of “indirectness” is trivial and not morally exculpating. Second, the notion of directness helps to single out those cases where another person’s free will is not required for the thing to happen. It isn’t that if you do a certain thing, the terrorists will be angry and kill their victim. That would not be a case of your killing him directly, because their evil will is a necessary part of the causal chain.

  • zippy says:

    George:On the ‘direct’ issue you seem very much out of your depth, particularly given that you initially asserted that I was just making it up. “Direct abortion” for example is common parlance in Catholic moral theology. Try Google. If you dig into discussion of salpingectomy versus salpingotomy, for example, you’ll find that – despite the fact that the ‘intention’ is the same, that is, to save the mother in a case where the child is morally certain to die – it remains illicit to choose salpingotomy. How would you explain that salpingotomy is always an impermissable direct abortion, never permissable no matter why one is doing it, and despite the fact that a salpingotomy (unlike the -ectomy) saves not only the mother’s life but also her fertility? Isn’t the death of the child ‘beside the intention’, the way you use the terminology? Then why is Catholic moral theology virtually unanimous on the <>per se<> impermissibility of salpingotomy? If there were no child there, and merely an infected fallopian tube or even a dead child, wouldn’t the -otomy be the way to go? Isn’t it the mere presence of the living child, and not the intentions (in the question-begging way you use the term), which makes -otomy a direct abortion and thus always morally illicit? (The answer to that last is “yes”, by the way).

  • zippy says:

    If we don’t like microscopic examples with medical names, by the way, we can use macroscopic.I personally know of a case where a man chose to have his in-the-process-of-being-born infant’s skull crushed in order to save the mother’s life. Killing the child was ‘beside the intention’ in George R.’s parlance, as far as I can tell: he would much rather have not killed his child. Now I would never accuse a man faced with such a terrible choice: that is between him and God. However, looking forward, the question <>should I do that myself<> is perfectly valid; and the answer is unequivocally ‘no’.And given that I should not do that – given that there is no ‘life of the mother’ exception excusing direct abortion – then how is it that killing a bad guy’s innocent child, who is in no immediate danger from anyone but us and is not in any way attacking us, can possibly be morally licit under any circumstances?

  • William Luse says:

    <>the death of Al was neither the goal intended nor a means to an end.<>Seems to me like it was both of those things.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    The most fair thing I can find to say is that physically, I guess George could say that crushing the infant’s skull wasn’t a PDE thing because it wouldn’t “have been done the same way if the baby weren’t there.” I guess in his terms that one would be more like cutting off Al’s head to get at the bar.Myself, this does not make a difference, but I assume it wd. be his response. My guess is that his example on the surgical front would be something removing a cancerous uterus with a healthy unborn child inside who is too young to survive. You’d remove the uterus just the same way if the child weren’t there, etc.Your story astonishes me, Zippy. I didn’t think they ever did that anymore, what with C-sections. But it wasn’t that uncommon (I forget the name for it–head-sectioning was what it meant) many years ago when a C-section was much more dangerous or impossible.

  • zippy says:

    In happened in the 1970’s.If the baby were already dead though then the procedure would have been done the same way, without doing moral wrong. If Al were already dead we would cut off his head to rescue Bob. So I’m not so certain that the “we would do it the same way if the living person wasn’t there” rubric is anything more than special pleading. Basically it is just claiming that if the murder victim didn’t exist or was already dead we wouldn’t have had to kill him.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Yes, the principle has to be “even if the person’s body weren’t there” or “even if the person weren’t physically there” the thing would still be done the same way.I actually think George’s best argumentative bet is to _accept_ the business about “direct killing” and then to argue that this maps onto the idea of whether you would or wouldn’t do the thing if the person (physically) weren’t there. I say this because that principle usually means in practice that the killing has to be minimally physically indirect. There has to be some other object on which you act directly in the strict physical sense–the bar, the cancerous uterus–which action causes the innocent person’s death by a physical chain reaction–the bar snaps back and decapitates Al, the child dies when he is removed inside the cancerous uterus. I don’t think this is helpful, morally, and I don’t think that is what the catechism means to contrast with “killing directly,” but it does have _some_ connection with _something_ that could be called “indirectness,” so I’m actually a little surprised at George’s insistence that directness has nothing to do with the matter.

  • george r. says:

    I apologize for the confusion I caused in arguing that the bad effect may be the “direct result of the act.” When theologians use that term, I see now, they do not mean the same idea as I was trying to convey. I was merely trying to say that the bad effect does not have to depend on a second agent, as it does in Zippy’s scenario of sending men into the breach, in order for PDE to apply. Also, Zippy,You completely misunderstand my position if you think that I would think that PDE would apply to in the case of a salpingostomy, let alone the case of the baby’s skull being crushed. These are clearly illicit.But let me ask you this, do you think that PDE would apply to salpingectomy?

  • zippy says:

    <>You completely misunderstand my position if you think that I would think that PDE would apply to in the case of a salpingostomy, let alone the case of the baby’s skull being crushed. These are clearly illicit.<>If the mother had a fatal tumor and the only way to get at the tumor was to use a special explosive charge that also crushes the child’s skull, and the child would be born healthy if we simply left her alone, would crushing the child’s skull be licit in that case?It seems to me that the approach you’ve articulated leads quite straightforwardly to consequentialism.

  • george r. says:

    Zippy,The following excerpt is from the Catholics United for Faith website:“This principle [PDE] applies in other pregnancy complications as well. With severe hemorrhaging, for example, if nothing is done, both will die. In respecting the life of the mother, the physician must act directly on the uterus. At that time the uterus loses its ability to support the life of the embryo. <>The mother’s life is preserved and there has been no intentional attack on the child. The mother and the uterus have been directly treated; a secondary effect is the death of the child.<>“Another example arises in the treatment of uterine (endometrial) cancer during a pregnancy. The common treatments of uterine cancer are primarily hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus) and sometimes chemotherapy or radiation therapy. <>Again, taking the life of the baby is not intended, but a hysterectomy does mean the removal of the womb and the death of the child.<> Yet, if a hysterectomy must be performed to save the life of the mother, the Church would deem the procedure morally licit.”(emphasis added)This excerpt mirrors my position on PDE exactly. I have introduced now three sources that have specifically dealt with this issue to butress my argument: the Summa, Msgr. Smith, and now this Catholic website. You, on the other hand, have not introduced a single source that deals specifically with PDE. I suggest that you either do so or concede the point like a gentleman.

  • zippy says:

    George: I don’t deny that non-magisterial sources agree with you. In fact I think the perception of double-effect you articulate is as commonplace as it is wrong.

  • zippy says:

    <>You, on the other hand, have not introduced a single source that deals specifically with PDE.<>That by the way is even more laughable a statement than your assertion that I was just making up the “direct” terminology. My posts and comments are littered with references to Magisterial documents; and the Summa doesn’t support your argument, though a tendentious reading of it is arguably consistent with your argument. (Aquinas never ‘directly’ discusses the PDE either, by the way.)<>I suggest that you either do so or concede the point like a gentleman.<>One more like that and you are outta here.

  • george r. says:

    <>That by the way is even more laughable a statement than your assertion that I was just making up the “direct” terminology.<>I never said you were making up the “direct” terminology. <>I<> was the one who introduced the “direct” terminology, which was the cause of some confusion , and which I apologized for. I said you were making up the notion that the bad effect required a second agent for PDE to apply. <>My posts and comments are littered with references to Magisterial documents<>None of which <>specifically<> refer to PDE. That’s my point. By the way, a <>non<>-Majesterial source or two would not hurt your cause at this point. After all, someone must agree with you out there.<>and the Summa doesn’t support your argument, though a tendentious reading of it is arguably consistent with your argument.<>Actually, if it seems not to support my argument, it is only because the case he presented does not involve the death of an innocent person, as do the scenarios we have presented here. The principle in universally applicable, however. <>(Aquinas never ‘directly’ discusses the PDE either, by the way.<>He does not call it “PDE.” But it is clear that that is what he is discussing in the passage.

  • zippy says:

    George R writes:<>I never said you were making up the “direct” terminology.<>An odd claim given that what you actually said was: <>‘First of all, the notion that the bad effect must be an “indirect” result of the act is nothing but an invention of Zippy’s that has absolutely no basis in Catholic moral theology.’<>George R writes:<>I said you were making up the notion that the bad effect required a second agent for PDE to apply.<>Oddly enough, I’ve never claimed that it does. I used an example with someone else performing the evil act because that straightforwardly demonstrates that the PDE – as I understand it – applies to any number of real-world situations.The document I referenced from the Pontifical Academy for Life established by Pope John Paul II applies the same distinction when discussing material cooperation with evil:From the document:<>‘Furthermore, forms of proximate cooperation and remote cooperation can be distinguished, in relation to the “distance” (be it in terms of temporal space or material connection) between the act of cooperation and <>the sinful act committed by someone else<>.’<>I’m not making that one up either.George R. writes:<>…if it seems not to support my argument, it is only because the case he presented does not involve the death of an innocent person, …<>Aquinas’ example doesn’t involve <>killing<> an innocent person, which your scenarios straightforwardly do involve. And Aquinas explicitly rejects the notion that killing an innocent person is ever morally licit.

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