Developing our understanding of the morality of public policy decisions using the Principle of Double Effect (PDE)


Joseph Drew (University of New England, Australia), Bligh Grant (University of Technology, Australia), Josie Fisher (University of New England, Australia)

One of the remarkable features of public policy debates generally is their predictable shape.

A recurrent example in the Australian context is municipal amalgamation. In one corner stands state government, arguing that amalgamation will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number, with this “happiness” measured in financial savings. In the other corner stand a collection of voices—in particular local government itself—vehemently opposed to amalgamation.

The reasons for this opposition are varied but by far the most heart-felt argument is one that insists that extant communities have the right to be left alone. This rights-based argument might have several components—that democratic representation will diminish, for example—alongside claims about particular communities being incompatible with others with which amalgamation is proposed.

What normally happens—like in a lot of public policy processes—is that after a period of consultation the government bites the bullet and amalgamates councils. Yet the end result is broadly perceived as being deeply ethically unsatisfactory. In particular, programs of amalgamation (again, akin to other policy decisions) are often accompanied with an underlying narrative as to the “real” reasons for the reforms—in essence, conspiracy theories swarm around amalgamations as they do other policy decisions.

It is against this background that the Principle of Double Effect (PDE) merits attention. Derived from Aquinas, PDE insists that ‘good’ public policy must aspire to more than merely maximising (monetary) utility and takes into account the possibility of unintended consequences. There are three essential components of PDE. First, it resolves the tension between utilitarianism and rights-based reasoning. Simple utilitarianism asserts that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, so let’s get on with utility maximisation and pity the harm that is done in the meantime”. Alternatively, rights-based theory asserts that some rights should never be violated—so in some cases we can never break eggs to make omelettes (or anything else, for that matter). PDE combines the two propositions and asserts that bad side effects are permissible, as long as there are very good, demonstrable reasons for doing so In essence, PDE insists upon the profound defensibility of process and outcomes.

Second, PDE insists upon proportionality, where the benefits of the ‘good’ final state of affairs must completely dominate any harm associated with the ‘bad’ foreseen side-effects. This condition is notably utilitarian and we can argue about the “good” and “harm” of particular policies and the types of normative theory that are required to sort this out. For instance, it is entirely conceivable some rights-based moral principles are inviolable. It is PDE’s insistence of a profound examination of proportionality—set against what are at times quite questionable claims about pecuniary benefits—that is the difference.

Third, PDE insists upon the examination of questions of intent. This speaks very directly to what we have labelled as the “conspiracy theories” or “urban myths” that often accompany specific public policy decisions. Questions of intent (rather than simply outcomes) seem to be particularly important to our intuitive understanding of the morality of an act: if we accidently run over and kill a small child on a proverbial dark and stormy night it is very different from waking up one morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and intentionally skittling a child outside a pre-school. While the result is the same—a dead toddler—we don’t ascribe the same moral culpability to the acts.

This still leaves us with the problem of establishing intent, a notoriously difficult task. However, aside from naively asking what the intent of a particular actor is, we can test for it. For example in the case of so-called “conspiracy theories”: Does a particular public policy lead to these nefarious reasons more clearly than the reasons publically offered? Or alternatively: what compensatory steps is government undertaking to mitigate bad side-effects, foreseen or unforeseen?

Public policy-makers might readily object to any claim of originality in the formulation of PDE advanced above, and assert that of course the opinions of stakeholders are taken into account when making difficult public policy decisions. Arguably, however, this assertion is made in a glib way, or at least it can be interpreted as such. Further, it is open to a genuine charge of tokenism (“We consulted with the community; they don’t want to amalgamate but we’re doing it anyway”), and this is very different from insisting on moral grounds that all efforts ought to be made to mitigate any undesired side-effect.

In short, with its focus upon process, proportionality and intent, PDE is a useful tool for producing a more nuanced understanding of the moral dimensions of difficult public policy decisions, in particular those that see utility-maximisation pitted against rights-based arguments.

Read more: Re-evaluating local government amalgamations: utility maximisation meets the principle of double effect (PDE). Policy & Politics 2016, doi: 10.1332/030557316X14539914690045.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read Towards a model of the intervention process by Lewis et al. 

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