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Analysis of the moral act. A proposal

II.e) Secondary effects

At the beginning of our discussion of tolerated effects we made reference to the new complexity in which man currently lives. This new complexity has caused to appear in the moral panorama new elements which did not exist when St. Thomas elaborated his ethical theory: secondary effects of actions. This question has recently been analyzed by Spaemann, whose study has clarified the moral analysis of these effects, previously nonexistent (88).

These are called secondary effects of an action, more or less remote, hardly or only with difficulty foreseeable. Although these events are initially difficult to detect, however, once they occur they are well known and can be adequately foreseen for similar occasions, and even controlled to some extent. Contamination and garbage are typical examples of moral secondary effects: at the beginning of industrial society it was difficult to foresee that the establishment of industries could cover an entire area with soot, and the manufacturers of perishable goods had no easy time in solving the problems that empty bottles would produce. Examples such as these can be found in all areas of life: remote repercussions of political or economic measures, of regulations affecting public life, of norms, etc.

Secondary effects are especially non-domesticable: when means are taken to try to prevent or palliate their effects, these means at the same time have unforeseen effects which complicate matters. There is no possibility of avoiding them completely (89). When we want to consider them from a moral viewpoint, we are required to put two ideas into effect.

1. On the one hand, since they are tolerated secondary effects, they must be evaluated as any other tolerated effect: by examining them to see if they are effects proportional to the intention. In evaluating in this way we are evaluating, just as in the case of tolerated effects, the will of the acting agent. In this case we are supposing that this secondary effect is already known, and that we have not to foresee, with an extraordinary capacity, effects which have not yet come to pass.

2. On the other hand, their quality of omnipresence and likely inevitability must be taken into consideration. This consideration orients the action in the sense of not embarking on too many new initiatives which could complicate the panorama with undesired secondary effects. Indubitably if something seen as a good action and without special difficulties is to be done, then the action must be carried out. But when administering complex question, such as, for example, those of politics, it is more worthwhile to patch a situation than to start a completely new order which would in any event also establish problems which we are not yet prepared to resolve (90). This manner of focusing unknown secondary effects is the only guarantee for minimizing undesired effects of the action we are going to undertake. This second point of view is what must be put into action in the case of secondary effects that are not well known as yet, or simply unknown.


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