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A Critique of Scanlon on Double Effect

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According to the Principle of Double Effect (PDE), there are conditions under which it would be morally justifiable to cause some harm as a foreseen side-effect of one’s action even though it would not be justifiable to form and execute the intention of causing the same harm. If we take the kind of justification in question to be that of moral permissibility, this principle correctly maps common intuitions about when it would be permissible to act in certain ways. T.M. Scanlon argues that the PDE so interpreted is problematic, as it returns implausible verdicts in other scenarios. Scanlon is unable to account for the common pattern of moral reasoning that we employ in the relevant cases. I argue that we can account for this pattern while avoiding implausible verdicts if we interpret the PDE as a principle about when it is licit to inflict harm rather than when it is permissible to do so, and if we connect the concept of the licit with that of the permissible in the right way.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Philosopy, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul MN, USA


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