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Anscombe, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret, , . Action, Intention and ‘Double Effect’
2005, In Geach, M., Gormally, L. (eds.), Human Life, Action and Ethics. Exeter: Imprint Academic.
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Added by: Simon Fokt, Contributed by:

Introduction: It is customary in the dominant English and related schools of philosophy to restrict the terms “action” or “agency.” That is, when the topic is ‘philosophy of action’. This is often done by an appeal to intuition about a few examples. If I fall over, you wouldn’t usually call that an action on my part; it’s not something that I do, it is rather something that happens to me. Donald Davidson has made a more serious attempt than this at explaining a restriction on the term “action,” or what he means by “agency.” “Intentional action” is an insufficient designation for him: it determines no class of events, because an action which is intentional under one description may not be intentional under another. And anyway there are unintentional actions, which he doesn’t want to say are not actions in the restricted sense in which he wants to apply the term. So he suggests that we have an action (in the restricted sense) if what is done (no restriction on the ordinary sense here) is intentional under some description. This allows pouring out coffee when I meant to pour out tea to be an action, being intentional under the description “pouring out liquid from this pot.” I fear, however, that it may allow tripping over the edge of the carpet to be an action too, if every part of an intentional progress across the room is intentional under that description. But Davidson doesn’t want to count tripping as an action. If this is right, then his account is wrong because it lets in what he wants to exclude. Furthermore, I don’t think it comprises omissions, which are often actions.

Comment: Useful in teaching about the doctrine of double effect in general, and about its application to ethical issues at the end of life in particular. Contains a good discussion of the difference between action and omission, which is useful in teaching about killing and letting die.

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Foot, Philippa, , . The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect
1967, Oxford Review 5:5-15, reprinted in Virtues and vices. Oxford: Blackwell.
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Introduction: One of the reasons why most of us feel puzzled about the problem of abortion is that we want, and do not want, to allow to the unborn child the rights that belong to adults and children. When we think of a baby about to be born it seems absurd to think that the next few minutes or even hours could make so radical a difference to its status; yet as we go back in the life of the foetus we are more and more reluctant to say that this is a human being and must be treated as such. No doubt this is the deepest source of our dilemma, but it is not the only one. For we are also confused about the general question of what we may and may not do where the interests of human beings conflict. We have strong intuitions about certain cases; saying, for instance, that it is all right to raise the level of education in our country, though statistics allow us to predict that a rise in the suicide rate will follow, while it is not all right to kill the feeble-minded to aid cancer research. It is not easy, however, to see the principles involved, and one way of throwing light on the abortion issue will be by setting up parallels involving adults or children once born. So we will be able to isolate the ‘equal rights’ issue and should be able to make some advance.

Comment: The text introduces some crucial distinctions, discussing the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘allowing to happen’ and the related negative and positive duties. Foot argues that what matters in the Doctrine is not the directness of the actor’s intention, but whether they intend to follow a negative or positive duty. This paper is most useful in teaching on the ethics of abortion and euthanasia, as well as the doctrine of double effect in general.

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Garcia, Jorge L. A., , . Health versus Harm: Euthanasia and Physicians’ Duties
2007, Journal of Medicine and Philsophy, 31 (1): 7-24.
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Added by: Rochelle DuFord, Contributed by:

Abstract: This essay rebuts Gary Seay’s efforts to show that committing euthanasia need not conflict with a physician’s professional duties. First, I try to show how his misunderstanding of the correlativity of rights and duties and his discussion of the foundation of moral rights undermine his case. Second, I show aspects of physicians’ professional duties that clash with euthanasia, and that attempts to avoid this clash lead to absurdities. For professional duties are best understood as deriving from professional virtues and the commitments and purposes with which the professional as such ought to act, and there is no plausible way in which her death can be seen as advancing the patient’s medical welfare. Third, I argue against Prof. Seay’s assumption that apparent conflicts among professional duties must be resolved through ‘balancing’ and argue that, while the physician’s duty to extend life is continuous with her duty to protect health, any duty to relieve pain is subordinate to these. Finally, I show that what is morally determinative here, as throughout the moral life, is the agent’s intention and that Prof. Seay’s implicitly preferred consequentialism threatens not only to distort moral thinking but would altogether undermine the medical (and any other) profession and its internal ethics.

Comment: This text will mostly be of use to advanced students (or courses) focusing on the ethics of physician assisted suicide or euthanasia. It presents a detailed rebuttal to Seay’s “Euthanasia and Physicians’ Moral Duties,” so it will be of most use to students who have read Seay’s text or are deeply familiar with defenses of euthanasia based in consequentialist moral reasoning.

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Thomson, Judith Jarvis, , . Physician-Assisted Suicide: Two Moral Arguments
1999, Ethics 109 (3):497-518.
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Introduction: What I will discuss are two of the moral arguments that have been put forward as reasons for objecting to the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. They have been taken seriously by a great many people and have had a powerful impact on the state of American law in this area. I will argue that they are bad arguments. I should say at the outset, however, that even if these are bad arguments, there may be others that are better. Many people oppose the legalizing of physician-assisted suicide on the ground that (as they think) there is no way of constraining the practice so as to provide adequate protections for the poor and the weak. They may be right, and if they are, then all bets are off. Alternatively, they may be wrong. I will simply bypass this issue.

Comment: The two arguments focus on the distinction between killing and letting die, and the doctrine of double effect. The arguments offered are central to the discussion on the moral permissibility of euthanasia and assisted suicide, which makes this text very useful in teaching applied ethics. It can be also useful in more general teaching on the doctrine of double effect.

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Thomson, Judith Jarvis, , . Self-defense
1991, Philosophy and Public Affairs 20 (4):283-310.
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Introduction: But what if in order to save one’s life one has to kill another person? In some cases that is obviously permissible. In a case I will call Villainous Aggressor, you are standing in a meadow, innocently minding your own business, and a truck suddenly heads toward you. You try to sidestep the truck, but it turns as you turn. Now you can see the driver: he is a man you know has long hated you. What to do? You cannot outrun the truck. Fortunately, this is not pure nightmare: you just happen to have an antitank gun with you, and can blow up the truck. Of course, if you do this you will kill the driver, but that does not matter; it is morally permissible for you to blow up the truck, driver and all, in defense of your life.

Comment: The text discusses permissible and excusable self-defence reactions towards different types of aggressors. It is useful in teaching on issues involving the doctrine of double effect.

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