CNN and the Doctrine of Double Effect

by Harry on January 5, 2009

David Velleman (NYU, Philosophy) observes (in an email to me) that CNN is describing the Israeli killing of civilians in Gaza as “unintentional” (he didn’t give me a link, but I believe him, and no doubt one of you will supply it). He continues:

As a philosopher of action, I say that this description
is false.

The Israelis knew that they would would cause civilian casualties vastly
disproportionate to the Israeli civilian casualties that they are trying
to prevent. They have accepted those Palestinian deaths as a cost of
pursuing their ends, and hence as part of a “package deal,” all of which
is intentional on their part.

I know that the Catholic doctrine of “double effect” would excuse these
killings as unintentional. But the doctrine of double effect is bad

Look at it this way. The Israeli authorities are not trying to get their
own soldiers killed; they are trying to minimize harm to Israeli forces.
But should it turn out (god forbid) that their incursion results in
disproportionate Israeli losses, and that they antecedently knew it
would, they will rightly be held responsible for having struck a bad
bargain, intentionally incurring costs too great for the anticipated
benefits. In such a case, they would not dare to plead “double effect”.

So it is with killing of Gazan civilians, which is clearly intentional.

I’m not a philosopher of action, and I’m also not the kind of philosopher that gives common sense much weight in trying to discern the philosophical truth. But the doctrine of double effect has always seemed to me to be one of those things which is deeply counterintuitive to common sense, for reasons illustrated in Velleman’s email, and is a case where philosophers ignore that unease that common sense suggests at their peril.

Tom Geoghegan for Congress

by Henry on January 5, 2009

Many CT readers will be familiar with the work of Tom Geoghegan. We’ve often talked about his book, _Which Side Are You On_ which is a simply wonderful piece of political writing – brilliant, complicated, beautifully written, arguing with itself the whole way through. Now, he’s running for the Democratic nomination in Rahm Emanuel’s old district. I’m usually a bit chary when intellectuals run for office – they (we1) are usually not very good at all at dealing with the day-to-day grind and compromise of politics. But Geoghegan, as “James Fallows says”: is different.

The remarkable thing is that in Geoghegan’s case writing has been a sideline. Day by day for several decades he has been a lawyer in a small Chicago law firm representing steel workers, truckers, nurses, and other employees whose travails are the reality covered by abstractions like “the polarization of America” and “the disappearing middle class.” Geoghegan’s skills as a writer and an intellectual are assets but in themselves might not recommend him for a Congressional job. His consistent and canny record of organizing, representing, and defending people who are the natural Democratic (and American) base is the relevant point. The people of Chicago would have to look elsewhere for Blago-style ethics entertainment. Tom Geoghegan is honest and almost ascetic. Because it’s an important part of his makeup, I mention too that he is a serious, Jesuit-trained Catholic.

This is a purely personal endorsement; as a general rule, we don’t take collective positions on issues or people at CT. But I can’t imagine anyone more likely to contribute more to American political life than Geoghegan. I’ve contributed money to his campaign – if you want to do so too, you can do it easily “here”: There’s a Facebook group “here”: (with a good bio attached).

1 In case it’s not clear, the term ‘intellectual’ here doesn’t refer either positively or negatively to intellectual worth, but to social position.

This is the second in a planned series of posts assessing the implications of the global financial crisis for the economic ideas and policies that have been dominant for the past few decades. The large-scale privatisation of publicly-owned enterprises both in capitalist countries like the UK and Australia and in formerly communist countries after 1989 played a big role in promoting the kind of triumphalism that characterised much commentary about free-market capitalism in the 1990s and (to a somewhat lesser extent) in the years leading up to the crisis. How well do arguments for privatisation stand up in the light of the financial crisis.

The case for privatisation had two main elements. First, there was the fiscal argument for privatisation, namely, that governments could improve their financial position by selling government business enterprises. This argument assumed that privately owned firms would have higher levels of operating efficiency, and therefore that the value of those firms would be increased by privatisation. The second argument was a dynamic one, that the allocation of capital between alternative investments would be improved if governments were not involved in the process. Both of these arguments have been fatally undermined by the collapse of the efficient markets hypothesis.

[click to continue…]


by Chris Bertram on January 5, 2009

Much of the blogospheric chatter about “proportionality” in warfare has been characterized by disinformation of a rather systematic kind. That was the case in the recent Lebanon war, and it is happening again during the current Israeli operation in Gaza. At Opinio Juris, Kevin Jon Heller does an excellent job of explaining the legal issues by way of what it would be absurdly ironic (in this context) to call a thorough “Fisking” of Alan Dershowitz. As Brian Leiter (via whom) points out, the moral issues are also significant.

Update: I found “this BBC article”: about who is legally entitled the benefit of the principle of noncombatant immunity quite useful.