How to Fail the Double-Effect Test

July 9, 2008 § 20 Comments

Catholics have a grave duty to conscientiously object[*] to the abortion legal regime, according to the Magisterium of the Church.

Some Catholics propose that we set that grave duty aside in order to work with pro-choice people on other issues, issues which (putatively) have an impact on the rate of abortions. It is necessary to set aside our duty to object to pro-choice laws, the theory goes, in order to achieve solidarity with others and thereby accomplish a reduction in the number of abortions through extra-legal means.

In this proposal, setting aside our grave duty as Catholics is a cause of our ability to make common cause with pro-choicers. But under double-effect, it is not permissable for the good effect we seek to be caused by a bad effect of our act or by an evil act or omission.

So the theory clearly fails double-effect, even if we grant its rather dubious factual premeses. It is precisely an evil omission – ignoring our grave duty to conscientiously object to the abortion legal regime – which causes solidarity with pro-choicers, a solidarity which those who propose this approach would employ in the pursuit of fewer abortions.

This is rather like skipping Mass in order to gain solidarity with non-Catholics in the pursuit of some good end. It is never licit to do evil in order that good may come of it; and deliberately setting aside a grave duty in order to cause a good effect – where deliberately ignoring the positive duty is in itself what actually causes the good effect – is doing evil in order that good may come of it.

[*] A grave duty to conscientiously object may mean any number of things. But “go along quietly and don’t make any trouble” isn’t one of them.

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§ 20 Responses to How to Fail the Double-Effect Test

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy,I know this is some what off topic, but do you think it is permissible to materially support a candidate who supports same-sex marriage?

  • zippy says:

    I wouldn’t. In the abstract it is possible for a candidate to favor ‘gay marriage’ without favoring abortion and stem cell cannibalization; in practice such a person is either on board with the other concomitants of the sexual revolution, or is an idiot, or is a liar. On the other hand I don’t know of a Magisterial command for Catholics to universally conscientiously object to this particular legal abomination which is comparable to the direct Magisterial command to conscientiously object to the legality of abortion and euthanasia.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Zippy,While I agree with your point here, does it necessarily entail that every time I encounter a pro-choice person I must rant and rail at them about their pro-choice position? Is it not possible to work in solidarity with pro-choice people toward a goal that will use extra-legal methods of reducing abortion even while praying at an abortion clinic or actively defending church teaching as you are doing?I guess I find it troubling to think that my moral differences mean irreconcilable differences in communication and solidarilty.Every day I work with homosexuals, people not living together without benefit of matrimony, and any number of people whose sins and crimes I do not know. I go to Church with these people. I am, in my own way one of these people. Must I spend my time pointing out the mote in my brother’s eye?What I’m trying to get at I guess is the middle position that says, I can work to make abortion less desirable even while I work to make it illegal. The two ends are not contradictory.And perhaps I am outside of your point all together, because there is no sense in what you have written of this. But it seems to be an implication. Surely you are not saying that in good conscience we can never work toward a verifiably good goal with a person or group with whom we disgree on important matters? (Just clarifying, for, if I understand correctly what you ARE saying is that it is never right to pretend to be what you are not, or to keep silent when the issue is broached as to the intrinsic moral evil of abortion. But if a pro-choice person opens up a home for unwed mothers, or starts an adoption agency for women who cannot keep their children, or starts a fund to pay the expenses of women who cannot afford to have a child, so long as this endeavor is not crowded round with abortion councilors, it would not be sinful or wrong to support such an end even if I am in ardent and complete disagreement with the stand of the founder? (I’ll grant that this is probably a very far-fetched reality and that on practical grounds many of these principles probably fail because of ideological differences–however, change pro-choice to “person engaged in an active homosexual relationship” (still a person holding a morally illicit view according to Catholic teaching), does the objection hold? Again, probably confusing, forgive me, but I think I’m commenting on what you have written and the “interior” of the principle you are articulating. I get all turned around when I try to make any coherent point of these issues. My apologies.shalom,Steven

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Zippy,Your indulgence for one last, much shorter note.I often find your arguments lucid, interesting, and enlightening and the sources you link to much less readable.Such is the case here, particularly following through the comment thread.I just don’t understand the binary reasoning people get into. To make it clear in a way that my previous post did not–while I am not certain about the fficacy of legal means of ending abortion, I do support any step that can be taken in that direction even as I support any means of ending abortion that does not rely ultimately upon the criminalization of abortion. I don’t see that the two conflict in any way.Which, I suppose was what I was trying to say before. I can work with pro-choice people on projects in which the pro-choice stance is irrelevant–“Habitat for Humanity” say–and which might, as a possible effect also help the disadvantaged who might be otherwise moved to have an abortion.I can also vote for a person who manifestly, resolutely, and without compromise supports the utter revocation of the mythical “right” to murder another human being. (In other words, I can’t vote for anyone presently running, but I do have a few write-in people who are closely enough aligned and eligible–Pope Benedict XVI could not serve.)shalom,Steven

  • zippy says:

    <>Surely you are not saying that in good conscience we can never work toward a verifiably good goal with a person or group with whom we disgree on important matters?<>Not at all. The proposal (which fails double-effect) is that we should set aside our obligation to oppose the pro-choice legal regime <>as a means<> of achieving solidarity with that group. It is never acceptable for us to pretend to support or to actually support the legality of abortion, or to deliberately refrain from opposing the legality of abortion, even if we see doing so as necessary in order to achieve the aforementioned solidarity.

  • JohnMcG says:

    Zippy, I do think you are conflating pro-choice <>policies<> with pro-choice <>people<>.The pro-choice position is objectively unjust. As is a pro-slavery position, a pro-Nazi position, pro-segregation, etc. Nevertheless, there are people who have held those views whom I would be loathe to consider completely morally corrupted and thus ineligible to be worked with. They have been corrupted by the surrounding culture, but I don’t know that we have to assume that this corruption is total.——-I think the more fundamental problem with this approach is that it sees the problem before us as Catholics as reducing the number of abortions. The biggest problem with the pro-choice legal regime isn’t the number of abortions (though that’s bad enough), it’s that a class of human persons is not protected by the law. A legal regime that allowed for slavery would be unacceptable, even if people didn’t take on and keep slaves because it did not make economic sense to do so. And a legal regime that allowed for abortion would still be unacceptable even if you assume that social safety nets could be deployed that would reduce the abortion rate to zero. The fundamental problem is that our laws treat persons as unequal.

  • JohnMcG says:

    A couple other notes:1.) Those who favor the primacy of changing abortion <>law<> have in part opened themselves up to this line of argument by emphasizing the <>scale<> of abortion as a reason why it dwarfs all other issues in how one should determine how to vote. If the problem really is the scale, then things like the 95/10 proposals (assuming their effectiveness) would be perfectly acceptable means to address the problem. I could understand how some might feel like the goalposts are being moved.2.) That being said, if the 95/10 policies are enacted, and they were to prove successful, it seems to me the most likely conclusion that would be drawn is that we don’t need legal protections for the unborn because these economic incentives have proven so much more effective.3.) Nevertheless, I think a massive cultural shift will need to happen in order for legal protections for the unborn to be enacted. And I am still entertaining the possibility that an Obama presidency may be the shortest path to that shift.

  • zippy says:

    John:It is not my position though that one may never <>talk to<> or <>work with<> pro-choice individuals or groups. I’m tempted to say that my position isn’t even related to those ideas in any pertinent way, though they have made a perhaps too convenient straw man in some discussions.A different example may be able to illustrate. Suppose there was a group of anarchists, and we wanted to collaborate with the anarchists on something good.Suppose though that in order to have ‘street cred’ with those anarchists it was necessary to refuse to pay our taxes and debts. In this case, the specific proposal is made that we don’t pay our taxes or debts as a <>specific means<> to gaining street cred with the anarchists: that they won’t work with us unless we refuse to pay our taxes and debts.Is this justifiable under double-effect? Absolutely not, because refusing to pay our taxes and debts is specifically a <>means<> to getting them to collaborate with us.Similarly, Catholics have a positive duty to work against the legality of abortion; a positive duty every bit as real and required as paying taxes and debts. One may indeed in certain circumstances talk to and work with pro-choice persons and groups. But one may not <>refuse the grave duty to conscientiously object to the legality of abortion<> as a <>means<> of making that collaboration work better (or work at all). Doing so fails double-effect, just as refusing to pay taxes and debts as a <>means<> to making collaboration with anarchists work fails double-effect.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy,Concerning your examples —in the above post:<>This is rather like skipping Mass in order to gain solidarity with non-Catholics in the pursuit of some good end. <>and the more recent:<>In this case, the specific proposal is made that we don’t pay our taxes or debts as a specific means to gaining street cred with the anarchists: that they won’t work with us unless we refuse to pay our taxes and debts.<>Aren’t you putting things all too lightly?We are talking here about the murder of innocents, not unlike what Herod did in the New Testament and, in fact, quite worse!These folks seem more like those who would cry “Crucify Him!” at the Trial of Christ in order to obtain concessions from the State, thinking they would gain the upperhand for <>their<> Barrabas in what will most likely turn out to be a failed attempt at revolution.

  • zippy says:

    <>Aren’t you putting things all too lightly?<>Well, I’m illustrating a principle – that using <>deliberate neglect of a positive duty<> as a <>specific means<> to some putatively good end fails double effect – not saying anything about the gravity of the matter. If it fails double-effect as a matter of principle then it is always impermissible, much as performing an intrinsically immoral act is always impermissible, even though it is true that some intrinsically immoral acts are <>more grave<> than others.I mean, I’m inclined to agree with you on the assessment of gravity, and <>Evangelium Vitae<> expressly calls the duty to object to the legality of abortion and euthanasia “grave”. But it is never permissible to do evil that good may come of it, which means that even a venial evil cannot be justified under double-effect if it is the <>cause<> of the (putative) good effect.

  • JohnMcG says:

    Anon,Do you really think the problem here is that insufficiently harsh rhetoric is being deployed in the Catholic blogosphere against Catholics supporting pro-choice candidates? Do you really think that comparing people to the worst villains in history is an effective way to change their minds?Yes, I know you believe it’s true, and thus must be proclaimed, but if the goal is to change the rotten state of the law, you’re going to need people like MM on your side, because there’s others out there who are a lot further from your vision of the best response to abortion. I don’t see how searching for more superlatives to use in condemning them will help.—Zippy,I probably didn’t understand the argument you were addressing. If they are indeed advocating that we set aside pursuing legal defenses for the unborn, then you are indeed correct.Indeed, I would say our duty to oppose the current legal regime on abortion is before our duty to pay taxes.

  • zippy says:

    <>If they are indeed advocating that we set aside pursuing legal defenses for the unborn, then you are indeed correct.<>That is precisely the Kmeic/Minion/Campbell position, as I understand it. It is most certainly the position I am <>arguing against<>, and if MM wants to come out and explicitly repudiate it, unequivocally, with no redirection or tergiversation or qualification or equivocation – to acknowledge that whatever else we are doing, we have a grave obligation to advocate for making abortion illegal which is never superseded by those other things – then God bless him. I think he has it in him to do that, though perhaps that is a vain hope.

  • “…to acknowledge that whatever else we are doing, we have a grave obligation to advocate for making abortion illegal which is never superseded by those other things”I have no problem supporting such a statement. But I see this as a starting point, whereas you see it as the end point. First, as the Declaration on Procured Abortion notes, this must be pursued alongside, not in opposition to, non-legal methods to reduce abortion. This is essential. Second, in the event of this goal proving impossible, or at least highly improbable, then we must work within the prevailing system–however unjust– to bring about a culture of life. We can’t sit on the sidelines. That may mean working with people who support abortion, or providing them support. It does not mean we validate their views, nor does it mean that we are content with the legal status quo.But you probably don’t like this answer, do you?

  • zippy says:

    <>But I see this as a starting point, whereas you see it as the end point.<>Documentation, please, of where I said that carrying out this particular grave duty – to advocate unequivocally that abortion and euthanasia be made illegal – is “the end point”.<>Second, in the event of this goal proving impossible, or at least highly improbable, then we must work within the prevailing system–however unjust– to bring about a culture of life. We can’t sit on the sidelines.<>Nobody in the discussion, least of all me, has advocated “sitting on the sidelines”. Disagreeing with you over means, and over the morality of particular means, does not entail advocacy of “sitting on the sidelines”.But I’m glad to see you agree that no other priority supersedes our duty to advocate in favor of making abortion illegal. That means that we cannot ever agree with pro-choicers that the law should refrain from prohibiting abortion; not even if doing so would make other collaborations more productive.

  • “That means that we cannot ever agree with pro-choicers that the law should refrain from prohibiting abortion; not even if doing so would make other collaborations more productive.”I never said we should agree with them. We can face reality and work with them, but that does not mean agreeing with them over the “right” to abortion or its legal status.

  • JohnMcG says:

    Glad we could find the common ground.—Regarding Kmiec, etc, Abp. Chaput’s column about a “< HREF="http://www.archden.org/dcr/news.php?e=97&s=2&a=2293" REL="nofollow">deal with the devil<>” comes to mind. Aren’t Kmiec and others the ones giving their support? Why are they the ones who have to make concessions?What exactly are Kmiec and others getting out of this deal? It seems to me that progressives would support almost all of the policies in question regardless of their impact on the rate of abortion. Is including reducing the abortion rate on the list of goals really worth that much?I had hoped that Kmiec’s public support of Obama would put pressure on Obama to make concessions to the pro-life side. But it seems it is having the opposite effect — it is giving Obama cover to maintain his extreme positions but be considered “pro-life-friendly” for adding “reduce the abortion rate” to the list of goals for policies he would be pursing anyway.Doesn’t seem like a great deal to me.

  • zippy says:

    <>I never said we should agree with them.<>Well, when you said “I think we can agree with pro-choicers that it possible for the law to abstain from punishment [of abortion]” I took you to be agreeing with pro-choicers that the law need not punish abortion.

  • zippy says:

    <>Glad we could find the common ground.<>Likewise, John.

  • No, Zippy, I was making a very narrow and technical point about the differences between a positive law legitimating abortion and a particular decision about how to treat people implicated in abortion under the law. When I made this comment, what I had in the back of my mind was a situation that applied penal sanctions to abortion providers, but not to women– on grounds of potential reduced moral culpability. This is merely one example, but it is the one I was thinking about.

  • Paul says:

    MM said: “When I made this comment [<>“I think we can agree with pro-choicers that it possible for the law to abstain from punishment [of abortion]”<>], what I had in the back of my mind was a situation that applied penal sanctions to abortion providers, but not to women– on grounds of potential reduced moral culpability.”But that situation clearly ends up permitting (i.e. not penalizing) some abortions — and that can never be agreed with.

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