ethics / Politics

Trump, Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect

Evangelical supporters of Trump are quick to note that he is the most electable conservative candidate running for president, which in their minds justifies supporting an odious, ill mannered and unprincipled buffoon such as him. More convincingly, many evangelicals view Trump’s ostensible defense of unborn life as forming the grounds of a moral obligation to vote for him in the general election over a hypothetical third party candidate, however more deserving. A vote for a lesser party, they note, is effectively a vote for Hillary and for the unabated slaughter of unborn life. We must suppress our distaste for Trump, they argue, and support the candidate most likely to nominate a court justice sympathetic to the pro-life cause.

There is a measure of seductive force to this specious line of reasoning. Matters of life and death necessarily supersede all other considerations, and it would be foolish to argue that Trump isn’t at least somewhat more likely to defend unborn life than Hillary, who exhibits nothing but open hostility to the cause. If voting for an untenable third party candidate would weaken Trump’s odds of victory, shouldn’t we yield to the obligation to preserve life and diligently, if reluctantly, cast our votes for him?

I am skeptical of pragmatic calculus of this kind, as it proceeds from tacit assumptions about the nature of moral obligations without expressly addressing the difference between means and ends. Preserving unborn life is certainly a worthy end, but what sorts of means are justified in pursuit of that end? Electing Trump does indeed appear to be a tolerable sacrifice if it lessened the number of unborn babies murdered. But the pragmatic reasoning employed by evangelical supporters of Trump confuses the difference between effective means and virtuous means, thereby overlooking the better option. Trump may very well be the most effective means of achieving a morally desirable outcome in the short-term, namely, reducing the number of abortions. But what this consequentialist reasoning ignores is the possibility of a more virtuous means of pursuing the same goal.

Support for a credible, pro-life third party candidate in a general election contest against Hillary would in fact be the morally superior option over Trump. Peter Wehner recently documented just how unfit Trump is to represent conservatives and evangelicals, in particular. But how can one justify voting for an unelectable candidate when the lives of so many unborn children are at stake?

The thirteenth century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas offers a solution. Aquinas formulated a moral defense against unintended consequences resulting from the pursuit of worthy ends called the doctrine of double effect that provides moral sanction for outcomes that might otherwise be deemed immoral. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on the doctrine of double effect reads:

“The doctrine (or principle) of double effect is often invoked to explain the permissibility of an action that causes a serious harm, such as the death of a human being, as a side effect of promoting some good end. According to the principle of double effect, sometimes it is permissible to cause a harm as a side effect (or “double effect”) of bringing about a good result even though it would not be permissible to cause such a harm as a means to bringing about the same good end.”

Actions taken in the pursuit of just ends, such as killing an attacker in the act of self-defense, are morally permissible so long as they are not carried out as the means of attaining a morally desirable end. I cannot, in other words, justifiably intend to kill my assailant independent from the act of defense that causes his death. The defensive maneuver itself is warranted and therefore justifies the secondary, unintended consequences. To better clarify the conditions under which unintended consequences are covered by the doctrine of double effect, the Encyclopedia quotes four guidelines from The New Catholic Encyclopedia:

  1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
  2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
  3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
  4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.

Do these conditions provide moral support for voting for an unelectable but principled third party candidate over Trump, a vote that might increase the number of unborn babies murdered? Let’s consider the scenario in light of each condition.

Condition 1: The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.

The act under consideration is voting for a well-qualified, principled conservative candidate with unimpeachable moral character. There is nothing morally offensive about it, so we needn’t weigh it further.

Condition 2: The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.

The bad effect in question is the unintended continuation of abortions, and there should be no question as to whether conservatives voting for a qualified third party candidate desire such an outcome; clearly they would not. But what is the good effect sought in our scenario? Isn’t it the promotion of conservative ideals by a qualified candidate, including the elimination of abortion? If so, how can we reconcile the fact that one unintended effect of our actions is to potentially prolong the legality of abortions by ceding the contest to Hillary? My answer would be that it is a temporary result of maintaining the long-term credibility and viability of the conservative movement. If Trump supporters highjack conservatism and destroy its legitimacy and relevance, much more ground will be lost to pro-choice advocates than if conservatives maintain their commitment to principles and support worthy candidates, even if they lose in the short-term. We cannot, then, attain the good effect without the bad effect, because Trump is a bad means of pursuing our ends. He isn’t a legitimate alternative at all. He may appear to be a practical political expedient and temporary stopgap, but he cannot secure our ultimate aims.

Condition 3: [T]he good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed. 

The preservation of conservative principles and credible leadership would proceed directly from our voting for a worthy third party candidate, not from the murder of unborn babies. In other words, we would not be wielding our unintended consequences as the means to achieving our ends, namely, the furtherance of conservative ideals.

Condition 4: The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.

The good effect of preserving the credibility of the conservative movement compensates for the short-term loss of life, as it provides the best means of securing sustainable pro-life legislation. Alternatively, any action taken to erode the moral authority of the pro-life agenda, such as voting for Trump, will have a lasting negative impact upon regulatory outcomes.

It seems that our scenario survives at least one strict interpretation of the doctrine of double effect. This line of reasoning is not likely to dissuade anyone who considers Trump a worthy standard bearer of the Republican Party from voting for him, but it should provide others with moral justification for selecting a more credible candidate in the general election, should we be presented with the option. Pursing virtuous ends can often lead to unintended and undesirable consequences, and in this case we should be judged by our righteous ambitions and legitimate means, not the evil actions of those who stand in opposition.

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3 thoughts on “Trump, Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect

  1. Trump had stated he is against abortion. I have heard his story. You are misrepresenting him. He stated he would only keep Planned Parenthood open if they did away with Abortion. Please get your facts straight.

    • Dear Michele, I nowhere deny that Trump openly opposes abortion, though I doubt he holds strong moral convictions either way. In fact, my argument grants that Trump is likely to reduce the number of abortions performed, though I don’t think this obligates conservatives to support him.

  2. Hello, Aaron. I see that your post was written when Cruz was in the race. Seems to me that now, in light of present options–either Trump or Hillary–double effect now justifies voting for Trump. Don’t you agree?

    Also, I don’t think instrumental reasoning in voting entails one holds to consequentialism. In one paragraph, it seemed like you affirmed this. In another, however, something you said entailed its denial. Of course, I could’ve read too quickly and missed a clarifying point (in which case, apologies). Just curious which of the two you hold.

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