In his book, The Laws of People, John Rawls discussed the similarities and differences of the two doctrines of war, the “Supreme Emergency Exemption” and the “Catholic Doctrine of Double Effect”, that have significance in how the laws are affected by certain events, especially during emergencies. These doctrines override the rights of innocent people and shatter the convention, however, in different levels and perspectives. The idea of supreme emergency was put into context by Winston Churchill when he used it to describe the British crisis during the Second World War.
This idea was later transformed into a doctrine that had found significance in discussing just war. The very idea is, as Michael Walzer stated, “when conventional means of resistance are hopeless or worn out, anything goes (anything that is ‘necessary’ to win). ” Rawls used this as his starting point in his discussion on the supreme emergency exemption in both substance and detail. i In effect, Rawls is a consequentialist who is willing to sacrifice principles for consequences when the need arises. In much the same way, the Catholic Doctrine of Double Effect will have sacrifices when the need arises.
The Catholic Doctrine of Double Effect is used to explain the permissibility of an action that may or may have caused serious harm, including death of human beings. The “double effect” is described as a necessary act to harm innocent people to bring about good. The harmful act is permissible only if foreseen as a side effect (or ‘double effect’), otherwise it would be impermissible. The supreme emergency exemption is now widely accepted as the liberal doctrine of just war while the Catholic doctrine of “double effect” is usually referred as the Christian natural law doctrine.
While the two doctrines of just war coincided at some point, the two were distinguished by Rawls stating that “political liberalism allows the supreme emergency exemption” whereas the Catholic doctrine of “double effect” does not. i Catholic doctrine does not permit certain acts; a good example would be the use of weapons of mass destruction. The Christian natural law doctrine is confined to some degree of permissibility where certain acts are allowed if it is the result of a natural occurrence or disaster, any act unintentionally performed.
From this point of view, we can see the huge difference between the two doctrines. In my opinion, I would never permit death of innocent people in a time of war. I don’t really believe in either doctrine. Killing innocent people for me is hardly acceptable since I myself an innocent person and I don’t want to suffer such horrible fate—being killed even if I do not do something wrong. However, given that there’s always a side effect when doing good, such as killing the terrorists and criminals, the Catholic doctrine of “double effect” would perhaps adequately captures the moral status of innocent people in a time of war.