A friend recently sent an e-mail with news of mutual friends but also including this moral question:
Here is something I’ve wondered about, as I read the stories of tiny children separated from their parents on the US border: I have of course heard all of the horrified objections to such cruelty… but I’ve wondered: is it morally justifiable for a government to to perpetrate, even publicize, the practice, in the hopes of discouraging FUTURE parents from endangering THEIR children by trying to enter the US without permission?
I suppose the question is: is it ever justifiable to do evil in the service of what you see as a greater good?
This was my reply:
The immigration problem is, obviously, very difficult. I travel much in the global south, as you have too. So we both know there are, let’s say, a billion people there who would like to be in the U.S. or Western Europe. A large percentage of those people have perfectly legitimate reasons to want to leave where they are – horrible poverty, insecurity, conflict, etc. If they all came here, the U.S. would cease to be as it is – just think of the environmental degradation and economic dislocation of adding another 300,000,000 or so.
How to discourage that outcome? I think the best approach is to focus on employers, using E-Verify and serious penalties for illegal hiring of undocumented workers. The ‘push’ from the poor parts of the world will remain, but at least the magnet that pulls can be weakened.
The general moral principle is that it is always wrong to do evil that good may result. It is permissible in certain circumstances to do good that will have some foreseeable bad consequences. Then one is doing good and tolerating some evil, as opposed to doing evil and hoping for good. Or to put it another way, when asked if the ends justify the means the answer is: only the end can justify the means, but no end can justify bad means.
The border enforcement from one point of view is doing good (controlling immigration and applying legitimate laws) though some evil will result. If some of the evil in question (e.g., the distressing separation of parents from children) has an additional good effect (discouraging future illegal immigration) then that goes into the balance.
The casuistic principle in question is called double effect theory. Suppose in the course of a lawful war – say, fighting the Nazis – we are thinking about bombing a munitions factory. Suppose that the foreseeable results of such bombing will include some civilian casualties. The double effect is, obviously, crippling the Nazis’ war effort (good) and killing civilians (bad). The act in question is traditionally considered moral IF:
1. the good effect is intended by the agent;
2. the bad effect is merely tolerated by the agent and would be avoided if possible;
3. the good effect precedes or at least is simultaneous with the bad effect (i.e., the bad effect is not causing the good effect);
4. the good effect is proportionate to the bad effect.
To blow up a Nazi bomb-making plant is a good thing, and the civilian casualties are not the cause of that good thing but are a secondary and subsequent effect of it. We would avoid the civilian casualties if we could. At that point then the calculation of proportionality enters in. If 100,000 civilians die and the munitions factory is minor,the bad effect is disproportionate. If 100 civilians are likely to die and 100,000 lives saved by destroying the factory, the act is proportionate. BUT the calculation of proportionality only can be made if the act passes the preceding tests.
The nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in WWII were immoral by this traditional standard. The good effect (ending the war early) was caused by the bad effect (huge civilian casualties and a terror bombing). Most proponents of the act jump to the calculation of proportionality — 1,000,000 U.S. servicemen and probably more Japanese lives saved. But the act fails the moral test before getting to that stage. Hiroshima was a classic case of doing evil that good might result – which is always wrong.