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Balancing Acts: Intending Good and Foreseeing Harm - the Principle of Double Effect in the Law of Negligence

48 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2005  

Edward C. Lyons

Oklahoma City University School of Law


In this article, responding to assertions that the principle of double effect has no place in legal analysis, I explore the overlap between double effect and negligence analysis. In both, questions of culpability arise in situations where a person acts with no intent to cause harm but where reasonable foreseeability of unintended harm exists. Under both analyses, the determination of whether such conduct is permissible involves a reasonability test that balances that foreseeable harm against the good intended by the actor's conduct. In both, absent a finding that the foreseeable harm is unreasonable in light of that intended good, no liability will be imposed upon the actor.

Even conceding, however, such general similarity between double effect and negligence analysis - disagreement over the proper interpretation of the reasonability criterion at play in negligence poses an additional challenge for the attempt to correlate negligence with double effect.

Economic efficiency interpretations of negligence, for example, purportedly based on the Learned Hand Formula and the RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF THE LAW OF TORTS, propose that culpability depends upon a utilitarian balancing of good effects of conduct (utility) versus its harmful foreseeable consequences (magnitude of risk of injury). Based on such an interpretation of negligence, however, contrasts between actors' states of mind, and normative differences between kinds of goods and harms, ultimately fade into the background and become irrelevant as essential conditions for properly assessing liability.

This article elaborates and defends the view that double effect analysis lies at the heart of negligence theory. Part I elucidates in more detail the principle of double effect and describes its prima facie operation in negligence analysis. Part II considers and rejects the economic efficiency interpretation that has been offered as a theory of negligence, overcoming the challenge that such an interpretation presents for the effort to locate double effect analysis in the law. Part III illustrates and confirms the overlap between double effect and negligence by consideration of a series of case applications.

The Article proposes that the weighing of conflicting values in double effect analysis and negligence is not achieved - as proposed by law and economics theory with respect to negligence - by imposing a consequentialist-utilitarian reduction of all value to a single concept of good and eliminating the relevance of traditional state of mind distinctions between intention and foreseeability. Instead, each mode of analysis recognizes that distinct culpability determinations flow naturally and plausibly from an appreciation of the traditional legal distinctions made between various types of goods and harms, and upon whether such goods and harms come about as result of an actor's intention or mere foreseeability.

Keywords: Double effect, negligence, intention, foreseeability, choice, law and economics, utilitarianism, consequentialism, weighing of values

JEL Classification: K00, K13, K40

Suggested Citation

Lyons, Edward C., Balancing Acts: Intending Good and Foreseeing Harm - the Principle of Double Effect in the Law of Negligence. Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. 3, pp. 453-500, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Edward C. Lyons (Contact Author)

Oklahoma City University School of Law ( email )

800 N. Harvey Avenue #422
Oklahoma City, OK 73102
United States
(405) 208-6801 (Phone)


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