Collateral Damage

In saying to Walt, Jr., that “things happen that I never intended... I never intended...,” Walt could mean something weaker than simply that he lacked the requisite mens rea to be blamed, morally or legally. He could mean that, although he believed either initially or eventually that these bad things would happen, nevertheless, he did not intend that any of these bad things would happen. He could be saying, simply, that he never intended to harm anyone— that he never intended for anyone to get hurt.

If this is what Walt is claiming, then he may be attempting to escape moral blame (if not legal blame) by implicitly appealing to the Doctrine of Double Effect (or the Principle of Double Effect), according to which an action that has both good and bad effects may be morally permissible. According to this doctrine, so long as I am intending some significant good, it is sometimes morally permissible to do something bad as a foreseen side-effect (the double effect), even if it would be morally impermissible to intend that same bad thing.16 For example, in fighting a just war, it may be morally permissible to bomb a munitions factory in a nighttime bombing raid, injuring and even killing civilians asleep in their beds near the factory, as a side-effect of the factory bombing (so- called collateral damage), even if it would be morally impermissible to bomb those same civilians for the sake of winning the war. So long as I act in a way that is in itself morally praiseworthy, or at least not morally wrong (blowing up the enemy’s munitions factory), only intending the good effect (the destruction of the enemy’s arsenal, and ultimately, the defeat of the enemy), and not intending the bad effect, which I nevertheless foresee (injuring and killing nearby civilians), then my action is blameless, and may be praiseworthy. There are a few caveats to this: the bad effect I produce cannot be a means to the good effect (injuring and killing nearby civilians is not a means of destroying the arsenal or defeating the enemy), and the good effect must be sufficiently proportionately good that it compensates for the bad effect (the destruction of the enemy’s arsenal, and ultimately, the defeat of the enemy, is sufficiently proportionately good that it compensates for the injuring and killing of nearby civilians). Such a doctrine may be said to be behind, for example, the morally permissible prescription of certain pain-reliving drugs like morphine that shorten life expectancy, or the removal of a cancerous womb from a pregnant woman (a hysterectomy), which kills the fetus.

According to some interpretations of the Doctrine of Double Effect, selfdefense (and likewise the defense of innocent others) may be justified in this way: I perform some morally neutral, or morally praiseworthy, action, with the intent to defend myself (a good effect), and I merely foresee harming another person (bad effect).17 If this were correct, then it could be argued that, for example, when Walt poisons Emilio Koyama and Krazy-8, his would-be killers, he does something that is morally neutral (mixing compounds and producing a gas) for a good effect (saving his life), and merely foresees their deaths as a result.

But it is highly doubtful that self-defense can ever be justified by appealing to the Doctrine of Double Effect. In self-defense, I do, in fact, intend to harm the other person who is about to harm me: this is the means to saving my life.18 Self-defense is justified because you are justified in intending to harm someone who intends to harm you. That other person is a current threat, and not an innocent person. But even if Walt’s acts of self-defense can somehow be justified by appealing to this doctrine, there are many other things that Walt does that cannot be justified by appealing to the doctrine. An example is when Walt (presumably) poisons Brock Cantillo—the son of Andrea, Jesse’s girlfriend— with enough Lily of the Valley to make him ill, but not enough to kill him, and blames it on Gus Fring. Walt intends to harm an innocent boy (a morally wrong act), as a means to save his own life (a good effect). But intentionally committing a morally wrong act, even for a good end, is completely prohibited by the Doctrine of Double Effect. Walt cannot avoid blame for poisoning Brock Cantillo by appealing to this doctrine. The same can be said about Walt’s ordering Jesse to kill Gale. Even if Walt believed that Gus was going to replace him with Gale and kill him, Gale himself was innocent. Walt intended to harm an innocent person (a morally wrong act), as a means of saving his own life (a good effect), something completely prohibited by the Doctrine of Double Effect. None of this can be considered collateral damage.

This is even more true with respect to Walt’s making and selling of crystal meth. Walt produces very large quantities of an illegal, highly addictive substance for which there is a huge commercial demand. He does so, as he says, to provide for his family, and to cover his expenses for his cancer treatment. But the good effects of making large profits don’t remotely compensate for the bad effects of the distribution and sale of crystal meth over a vast territory by criminal gangs. Moreover, those good effects could have been achieved by other means, had Walt been prepared to swallow his pride and accept the money offered by his fabulously rich former partner, Elliott Schwartz, and Walt’s former girlfriend (now Elliott’s wife) Gretchen Schwartz.

Appealing to the Doctrine of Double Effect, therefore, will not allow Walt to escape moral blame.

 
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