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Unequal Vividness and Double Effect

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 July 2013

National University of Singapore,


I argue that the Doctrine of Double Effect is accepted because of unreliable processes of belief-formation, making it unacceptably likely to be mistaken. We accept the doctrine because we more vividly imagine intended consequences of our actions than merely foreseen ones, making our aversions to the intended harms more violent, and making us judge that producing the intended harms is morally worse. This explanation fits psychological evidence from Schnall and others, and recent neuroscientific research from Greene, Klein, Kahane and Schaich Borg. It explains Mikhail and Hauser's ‘universal moral grammar’ and an interesting phenomenon about Double Effect cases noted by Bennett. When unequally vivid representations determine our decisions, we typically misjudge the merits of our options and make mistakes. So if Double Effect is a product of unequal vividness, it is likely to be mistaken. This argument, I claim, fits Berker's specifications for good empirically grounded arguments in ethics.

Research Article
Utilitas , Volume 25 , Issue 3 , September 2013 , pp. 291 - 315
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1 Greene, Joshua, ‘The Secret Joke of Kant's Soul’, Moral Psychology, vol. 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders, and Development, ed. Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (Cambridge, Mass., 2008), pp. 3579Google Scholar; Singer, Peter, ‘Ethics and Intuitions’, The Journal of Ethics 9 (2005), pp. 331–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Much of the empirical data supporting these positions appears in Greene, Joshuaet al., ‘An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment’, Science 293 (2001), pp. 2105–8CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Greene, Joshuaet al., ‘The Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment’, Neuron 44 (2004), pp. 389400CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; and Greene, Joshuaet al., ‘Cognitive Load Selectively Interferes with Utilitarian Moral Judgment’, Cognition 107 (2008), pp. 1144–54CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

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3 Guy Kahane et al., ‘The Neural Basis of Intuitive and Counterintuitive Moral Judgment’, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access (2011), pp. 393–402; Colin Klein, ‘The Dual Track Theory of Moral Decision-Making: A Critique of the Neuroimaging Evidence’, Neuroethics (2011), pp. 143–62.

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5 McIntyre, ‘Doing Away With Double Effect’, p. 219.

6 McIntyre, ‘Doing Away With Double Effect’, p. 220.

7 McIntyre, ‘Doing Away With Double Effect’, p. 219. McIntyre argues that Double Effect examples can't be captured under any simple principle. They provide a ‘gallery of miscellaneous objections to simple forms of direct consequentialism that can be expressed, with more or less strain, using the distinction between intended and merely foreseen consequences. They are tied together by nothing more penetrating than the claim that the distinction between what an agent foresees and what an agent intends sometimes matters, and matters a great deal, to moral evaluation’ (‘Doing Away With Double Effect’, p. 255).

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10 Here I must take ‘harms intended’ to include harms close to what we intend. The ‘straightforward view’ of intention in the section on Bennett's phenomenon will characterize them as not really intended.

11 Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Selby-Bigge, L. A. and Nidditch, P. H. (Oxford, 1978), 2.3.3Google Scholar.

12 Hume, Treatise, 2.3.4.

13 Hume, Treatise, 2.2.7.

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17 Schnall, Simone, Benton, Jennifer and Harvey, Sophie, ‘With a Clean Conscience: Cleanliness Reduces the Severity of Moral Judgments’, Psychological Science 19 (2008), pp. 1219–22CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. For more cases of how emotions affect moral judgement, see Haidt, Jonathan, ‘The Emotional Dog and the Rational Tail’, Psychological Review 108 (2001), pp. 814–34CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

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19 For more experimental findings along these lines, see Prinz, Jesse, The Emotional Construction of Morals (Oxford, 2007)Google Scholar.

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21 This also explains the appeal of choosing a normal life over a life of button-pushing to generate unspecified good results in the case at the end of Lenman, James, ‘Consequentialism and Cluelessness’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 29 (2000), pp. 342–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 I've omitted mention of Greene's reaction time data, as it seems that Berker's arguments and Kahane's findings on that topic leave little reason to discuss them. See also McGuire, Jonathan, Langdon, Robyn, Coltheart, Max, and Mackenzie, Catriona, ‘A Reanalysis of the Personal /Impersonal Distinction in Moral Psychology Research’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (2009), pp. 577–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Klein, ‘Dual Track Theory’, p. 146.

24 Klein, ‘Dual Track Theory’, p. 146, citing Cavanna, A. E. and Trimble, M. R., ‘The Precuneus: A Review of its Functional Anatomy and Behavioural Correlates’, Brain 129 (2006), pp. 564–83CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

25 Klein, ‘Dual Track Theory’, p. 147, citing Vogeley, K. and Fink, G. R., ‘Neural Correlates of the First-Person-Perspective’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7 (2003), pp. 3842CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

26 Klein, ‘Dual Track Theory’, p. 147.

27 Klein, ‘Dual Track Theory’, p. 143.

28 Kahane et al., ‘Neural Basis’, p. 399.

29 Kahane et al., ‘Neural Basis’, p. 399. One shortcoming of Kahane's experiments is that his DI cases and UI cases are entirely different, with different sets of harms. This is unlike McIntyre's trolley and bomber examples, which involve similar situations and pair the same harms against each other – 1 dead versus 5 in both trolley cases, and the same number of deaths in each bomber case. Kahane thus doesn't control for the possibility that one set of harms arouses more emotion in subjects than the other. Furthermore, five UI cases involve lying while no DI cases do.

30 Kahane et al., ‘Neural Basis’, p. 401.

31 Kahane et al., ‘Neural Basis’, p. 396.

32 Borg, Jana Schaichet al., ‘Consequences, Action, and Intention as Factors in Moral Judgments: An fMRI Investigation’, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18 (2006), pp. 803–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 803. Schaich Borg also found less activity in the right angular gyrus and superior frontal gyrus in Double Effect cases, which she associates with cognition. She suggests that this results from subjects being dumbfounded by their intuitive judgements (p. 815).

33 Borg et al., ‘Consequences, Action, and Intention’, p. 809.

34 Hauser, Marc D., Young, Liane and Cushman, Fiery, ‘Reviving Rawls's Linguistic Analogy: Operative Principles and the Causal Structure of Moral Actions’, Moral Psychology, vol. 2: The Cognitive Science of Morality: Intuition and Diversity, ed. Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (Cambridge, Mass., 2008), pp. 107–45Google Scholar.

35 John Mikhail and C. Sorrentino, ‘Toward a Fragment of Moral Grammar: Knowledge of the Principle of Double Effect in Children Ages 8–12’, poster presented to the Society of Research in Child Development (1999); Mikhail, John, Sorrentino, C., and Spelke, Elizabeth, ‘Toward a Universal Moral Grammar’, Proceedings: Twelfth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, ed. Gernsbacher, M. A. and Derry, S. J. (Mahwah, NJ, 1998), p. 1250Google Scholar.

36 Chomsky himself has tried to develop such explanations. See Chomsky, Noam, The Minimalist Program (Cambridge, Mass., 1995)Google Scholar.

37 This notion of branching off is nicely illustrated by the act-trees in Mikhail, John, ‘Rawls’ Linguistic Analogy’ (PhD dissertation, Cornell University, 2000)Google Scholar.

38 McIntyre, ‘Doing Away With Double Effect’, p. 234.

39 Mikhail, John, ‘Universal Moral Grammar: Theory, Evidence, and the Future’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11 (2007), pp. 143–52CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, at 149.

40 I take this argument to be subject to the most severe problem that Berker presents for the best neuroscientific argument against deontology he considers: that instead of drawing on the force of any empirical results, it simply rests on armchair identification of some factors as morally relevant and others as irrelevant (Berker, ‘Normative Insignificance’, pp. 325–6).

41 Many moral theorists have noted the importance of equally vivid representation of options for good decision-making. See Hare, R. M., Moral Thinking (Oxford, 1981)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Firth, Roderick, ‘Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12 (1952), pp. 317–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a discussion of how unequally vivid representation of options leads to systematically irrational action, see Sinhababu, Neil, ‘The Humean Theory of Practical Irrationality’, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy 6 (2011), pp. 113CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 McClure, S. al., ‘Separate Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards’, Science 306 (2004), pp. 503–7CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; McClure, S. al., ‘Time Discounting For Primary Rewards’, The Journal of Neuroscience 27 (2007), pp. 5796–804CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Sripada, C. al., ‘‘The Neural Correlates of Intertemporal Decision-Making’, Human Brain Mapping 32 (2011), pp. 1637–48CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

43 Holton, Richard, Willing, Wanting, Waiting (Oxford, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, ch. 5.

44 Berker, ‘Normative Insignificance’, p. 328.

45 Berker, ‘Normative Insignificance’, p. 329.

46 Berker, ‘Normative Insignificance’, p. 329.

47 This article was improved by comments at Waikato University, the University of New South Wales, Macquarie University, the University of Western Australia, Michigan State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Ian Ramsay Centre at Oxford. Travel to present this article as a paper was enabled by generous support from the National University of Singapore. Andrew Higgins, Colin Klein, Selim Berker, and an anonymous referee for Utilitas helped me with a variety of issues and pointed me to important empirical literature. Encouragement from Jesse Prinz and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong was also greatly appreciated.