Doctrine of Double Effect


The Doctrine of Double Effect says that if doing something morally good has a morally bad side-effect then it’s ethically okay to do it provided that the bad side-effect was not committed intentionally. This doctrine will also be true if such bad effect can be foreseen.[1]

This can be explained with the help of an example. A doctor gives drugs to a patient so that the patient is free from such disease even though he has knowledge that doing this may shorten the patient’s life. Here the bad result of the patient’s death is a side-effect of the good result of making the patient free from such disease.

Elements of Doctrine of Double Effect

1. The intentional effect of care must be positive

2. Any such injurious effects of care should be anticipated but it should not be committed intentionally

3. Dangerous effects of care should not be used to achieve any benefits

4. The beneficial effects of care should supersede the harmful or injurious effects

5. Interventions should be appropriate


The doctrine is commonly referred to in cases of euthanasia. Euthanasia is referred to as a practice of killing someone without pain because the patient is suffering from such a disease that cannot be cured. This is used to justify the case of a doctor who gives drugs to a patient to free him from the disease even though the doctor has the complete knowledge that such drug may shorten the life of patient.

War and Civilian Deaths

In the present era it is very difficult to ensure that only the soldiers get hurt. Despite the effectiveness of precision weapons, civilians are often hurt and killed. The doctrine of double effect is mostly used as a defence but it doesn’t always apply.

For example, there is an army camp in the middle of a city and it is bombed heavily because of which there is a huge loss of soldier’s as well as civilian’s lives. So here nothing unethical has been done even though the death could be predicted.

Abortions when the mother’s life is in danger

The doctrine is applicable in cases where the life of a pregnant woman is saved and subsequently death of the unborn child takes place. The death of the foetus is merely the side- effect of the medical treatment given to the mother to save her life.

Criticisms of the Doctrine of Double Effect[3]

1. The responsibility of all the consequences of our actions

If a person can foresee the two effects of the action then it is the responsibility of such person to give effect to both. Such person can’t get out of the trouble by performing only such effect that suits him. A balanced approach is to be applied to give both of them equal effect.

2. Intention is irrelevant

Some people think that the morality is the base to decide what is right or what is wrong of an act by looking at the intention of such person ho performs such act. Intention is irrelevant in such case. But most of the legal systems regard the intention of a person as vital in deciding whether the crime is committed by such person etc.

Case Laws related to Doctrine of Double Effect are as follows-

1. Vacco v. Quill[4]

In this case, the State of New York enacted a law which says that physician assisted suicides are prohibited and made it a crime for a physician to administer lethal medication or to intentionally ending the life of a patient, even if it was a consenting or terminally ill patient. A number of physicians challenged the law passed on constitutional grounds.

The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 unanimous decision. It held that the New York ban on physician assisted suicides was constitutional and also it prevented doctors from assisting their patients. Also, the Supreme Court pronounced that as matter of law, there was no constitutional guarantee of a “right to die”.

2. Washington v. Glucksberg[5]

In this case, Dr. Harold Glucksberg who was a doctor and four other physicians challenged the Washington state’s ban against assisted suicide in the Natural Death Act, 1969. Their claim was that assisted suicide was a liberty interest and it was protected by Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court unanimously held that a right to assisted suicide in the United States was not protected by Due Process Clause.


Doctrine of Double Effect does not provide a satisfactory solution to the problems that I have mentioned above. The doctrine cannot prevent recourse to utilitarian-type calculus in cases of conflicts. Some of the advocates misconstrue the doctrine of double effect which leads to morally repugnant conclusions. The doctrine falls short of serving the interests and humanity.


[1]BBC, The Doctrine of Double Effect, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/euthanasia/overview/doubleeffect.shtml [2]Ibid, [3]Ibid, [4]Vacco v. Quill 521 U.S. 793 (1997) [5]Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997)

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