Implications of The Doctrine of Double Effect in Captain America: Civil War

The movie Captain America: Civil War contains a battle scene that serves as a case study on the mechanics and implications of the Doctrine of Double Effect (DoDE). The DoDE was developed to determine morally permissible responses in situations that lead to both good and bad consequences. The DoDE entails trade-offs, where the good outcomes favor the actors (those committing the responses), and the bad effects are to the detriment of all others.

The case in point is a battle is between the Avengers and a group of mercenaries in the city of Lagos, Nigeria, that leads to the death of several Wakandan bystanders in a crowded public square.

The operative question is: Was it morally permissible for the superheroes to put civilians at risk?

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives the following framing of the DoDE (attributed to Joseph Mangan).i

A person may licitly perform an action that he foresees will produce a good effect and a bad effect provided that four conditions are verified at one and the same time:

1. Definition

  1. The Moral Principle Condition–that the action in itself from its very object be good or at least indifferent.
  2. The Means-End Condition–that the good effect and not the evil effect be intended.
  3. The Right Intention Condition–that the good effect be not produced by means of the evil effect.
  4. The Proportionality Condition –that there be a proportionately grave reason for permitting the evil effect.”

Application of the DoDE requires a clear determination of (1) the act, (2) the intention of the act and (3) the consequences of the act. While good and bad consequences may arise from its commission, an act is permissible if and only if the bad consequence was unintended, even if it was foreseen.


At first glance, the DoDE seems plausible because it provides an intuitive mechanic for deciding “right” or “wrong” responses to moral dilemmas. For example, consider the case of a pregnant woman who has cancer of the uterus. A hysterectomy will save her life but abort the pregnancy.

Here is a decision table with instantiations of the four DoDE conditionals:

Act = Hysterectomy

Moral PrincipleRemove cancerous uterusGood
Means-EndSurgery not abortionGood
Right IntentionKill cancer (intended) and not child (though foreseen)Good
ProportionalitySaving mother greater or equal to saving childGood

Since all four conditions are met, the act (hysterectomy) is deemed morally permissible under the DoDE. The litmus test is that pro-choice advocates and even pro-life states permit abortions given the above stated circumstances. Pro-lifers would also be encouraged to learn that abortion in and of itself is not condoned according to the DoDE. Abortion is bad because it fails all four conditions. In effect, abortion without just cause equivocates to murder, and by the proportionality criterion advantages neither the mother nor the child.

Other plausible applications of the DoDE include tactical bombing (permissible) versus terror bombing (impermissible), diverting a trolley with a switch (permissible) versus pushing one person in its pathway to save five others (impermissible), and sacrificing one’s life for others (permissible) versus committing suicide (impermissible).ii

DoDE determinations grow in complexity with issues entailing time criticality, increasing numbers of people and property. There are numerous scenes in Captain America: Civil War where conventional military and unconventional actors (be they vigilantes, mercenaries, or superheroes) cause casualties and/or collateral damage to each other and innocents, with little or no apparent regard for an overarching mission objective. 

2. Application to the operative question

We turn now to consideration of the DoDE with respect to the operative question given earlier. The initial objective of the superheroes was to reclaim a biological weapon that threatened all of humanity. Once the weapon was secured, however, a secondary goal of tracking down the perpetrators and their buyer (the presumed ringleader) emerges. 

That secondary goal overarches the pivotal engagement between Captain America, his teammate Wanda Maximoff, and bad guy Brock Rumlov (aka Crossbones). A concise account of the scene is given in the movie’s bonus content:

Crossbones has lured the Avengers into a public battle, under the guise that he is attempting to steal a biological weapon. During the chaos, Crossbones fights against Captain America, but is quickly defeated. In a last-ditch effort, Crossbones detonates his suicide vest, but Wanda Maximoff mistakenly diverts him into a building just as he explodes, killing him as well as several Wakandan relief workers.

It could be argued that the mercenaries were solely culpable for the civilian deaths in earlier scenes. The blame in the subsequent engagements up to the public square incident was shared.

It is in that culminating scene, however, that considerations of fault centers squarely on Captain America, Maximoff and Crossbones. 

It’s a given that Crossbones’ intentions were evil, and that the Avengers were ostensibly the good guys. They fell for his ruse, and thought they had a just cause for action. Crossbones was suicidal and made his intentions clear to Captain America with the words, “When you gotta go, you gotta go. And you’re coming with me.”

Clearly, then, when Maximoff encloses Crossbones in a forcefield and levitates him into the air, her intentions were to protect Captain America, herself, and innocent bystanders.

The look of horror on both Captain America’s and Maximoff’s faces indicate there was no ill intent. He exclaims in the closed captioning, “Oh my . . . [Steve stares up.] Sam . . . We need . . . Fire and Rescue . . . on the south side of the building. We gotta get up there.” That lends to an argument in favor of their absolution.

Per the DoDE protocol, we have identified the act (levitation), the intention (confinement) and the consequences (unintended death of innocents). A translation of the above narrative into a decision table and evaluating the conditions yields the following.

Act = Levitate Crossbones

Moral PrincipleSave livesGood
Means-EndIsolate explosionGood
Right IntentionSelf-defense and minimize civilian casualties Good
ProportionalitySave multiple good actors at expense of a single (suicidal) bad actorGood

We conclude that Maximoff’s actions were permissible by the DoDE, even though they resulted in unintended civilian casualties. In containing and levitating Crossbones, she acted in self-defense and sought to save the lives of others. The immanency and urgency of the threat were sufficient to limit her vision and foresight to the scenario playing out before her (on the ground and not in the air).

3b. Reasonable objections

Though the DoDE analysis of the Captain America/Crossbones encounter has superficial appeal, there are nuances of interpretation regarding the notions of intentions and consequences.

The first objection is that while the DoDE weighs the intended good effects of an action against its foreseen but not intended bad effects, the motivations behind those intentions may be colored by subliminal feelings of anger, revenge, prejudice, or cultural norms. For example, an actor may claim self-defense, but privately seek retribution in killing the attacker. S/he may be unaware of these feelings or hide them from a jury. Killing an attacker intent on self-defense is morally permissible. Motions of rage or revenge color the notion of self-defense as the intent, in turn weakening reliance on a clear-cut determination of intent as a criterion in the DoDE.

The second objection arises from the fact that near-term “good” consequences of an act may be measured solely on the interplay of those involved in an engagement. The long-term “bad” consequences of the act, however, may be far more disproportionate. For example, though “only” eleven innocent Wakandans were killed in the Lagos incident, the often overlooked effects on their families, such as loss of a provider or the long term consequences of children growing up without a parent may far outweigh the good.

These observations point to the arbitrariness of distinctions between intended and unintended (though perhaps foreseen) consequences. Being beyond our purview, the mechanics of weighing intentions to determine the Proportionality Condition may be capricious—thereby undermining the credibility of the calculus. Valuating moral permissiveness based on outcomes alone, rather than intent, is a shortcoming of consequentialism.iii Expressed good intentions may be masking bad intentions, or bad subliminal motivations. This is a conundrum—the moral equivalent of getting away with murder—and engenders feelings of uneasiness.

4. Best Response

Despite its shortcomings, the DoDE is useful in determining first approximations on whether an act is morally permissible. It provides a good starting point for deeper considerations of attitude, intent, near and far consequences.

The nature of the engagement with Crossbones was constrained by the immediacy of the threat, the limited number of primary actors (two members of the Avengers and one villain) and the fact that it centered on subjugation of said villain as the objective. The bioweapon was also known to be secured by this time, eliminating the global threat issue.

It is unfortunate that Captain America and Maximoff cornered Crossbones in a public square, and that his unanticipated self-destruction caused the deaths of innocent bystanders. The script indicates that Crossbones lured them there with the intention of killing them. That puts a measure of the culpability on him. Maximoff did her best to contain the explosion and levitate it to a safe height. That removes a measure of the culpability from her.

It is also likely that an objective audience, beyond the 4th wall of the scene, would be as shocked at the outcome as indicated by the looks on Captain America and Maximoff faces.

Thus, the DoDE provides a moral justification for Maximoff’s actions.

5. Satisfactory?

Were the tactics of the Lagos incident satisfactory? Consider that the litany of disastrous secondary effects of the Avengers’ prior engagements engendered a public and international outcry. These were evidenced by the adverse television coverage, recounting in the Washington, DC meeting with the Secretary of State and the UN’s drafting of the Sokovia Accords (analysis of the latter is given in §7).

Satisfactory? No. Sufficient? Yes, considering the battleground constraints, urgency of response and unpredictability of the outcome. Military engagements must allow for such occurrences.

6. Walzer’s Argument

Michael Walzer has argued that the “supreme emergency” presented by the Nazi conquest of Europe in World War II made it morally permissible for the Allied forces to conduct terror bombings of German cities.iv Britain seemed perilously close to defeat in 1942 and was the only European country that presented an obstacle to Nazi dominion. (The Nazis’ ambitions are also known to have included subjugation of America.)

The intention of the British was to “terrorize German citizens into forcing their leadership into halting the war and surrendering unconditionally.”v The bombing campaign continued with support from the United States Air Force until the prospects of Germany’s defeat was assured. Significant numbers of German civilians were killed or injured as the result. 

Normally, the rules of engagement do not allow targeting of non-combatants. Walzer’s justification for counter terrorism responses using “dirty-hands” tactics, such as civilian bombings, requires that the situation present both a supreme emergency (immanent threat) and a moral disaster. The supreme threat was directed attacks against Britain by the Germans who at the outset had superior military resources. The moral disaster consisted of world-wide subjugation to fascist rule, extermination, and ethnic cleansing. 

7. Avengers analog to Walzer’s argument

Analogs to Walzer’s argument arise in the Avengers’ Lagos incident. The broader goal of the superheroes as given in the movie script was to secure a biological weapon. Though the plot was revealed to contain a ruse by Crossbones to lure and eliminate the Avengers, in their minds it was perceived to be only a potential national or global threat.

An assessment of the moral permissiveness of subduing the mercenaries, Crossbones, and identifying their “buyer” in the public square as given in §2 was determined by the DoDE. The Geneva Convention sets standards for conduct on the battlefield, one of which limits the theater of engagement to areas outside of civilian locales.

Changing the script to having the superheroes harbor a clear and present belief that deployment of the weapon in the city center was imminent—putting millions of people’s lives at risk— elevates the situation to what Walzer calls a “supreme threat” and a “moral disaster.” In essence, the Lagos conflict is broadened from a local engagement to a world-wide conflict.

Thus, by Walzer’s logic, given that Lagos is a sovereign national entity—like Britain in 1942— under supreme threat and subject to a moral disaster, it would be morally permissible for the Avengers to prevent massive deaths, casualties, and collateral damage. 

8. Objections to the argument in §7

Stephen Nathanson offers an objection to Walzer’s His concern is that fighting terrorism with terrorist tactics, such as bombing civilian targets, “broadcasts” the message the moral bar can be lowered, thus “increasing the use of such methods.”

Diplomatic solutions are always preferred over military confrontations.  Comprehensive planning should also generate contingency plans. The Avengers could be held at fault for that, considering the civilian casualties and collateral damage in the Lagos incident. Walzer himself once observed that “brutality in war is the product of incompetence, most often incompetence of a junior officer.” A “Plan B” might have led them to maneuver the mercenaries into a neutral battle zone outside the city.

A famous endorsement for advanced planning is the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellington’s advantage was his knowledge of the terrain—having spent part of his youth riding horseback in the region—which he leveraged to his advantage on the battlefield. The British victory led to the decades of peace.

Oversights of this sort are what led to Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross’ “Perspective” speech to the Avengers in the meeting after the conflict at HQ in Washington, DC. After reviewing a litany of disastrous consequences of their interventions, he informs them that the UN has drawn up The Sokovia Accords, approved by 117 countries, that limits the Avengers to operating under the supervision of a United Nations Panel.

It’s possible that such a panel would have advantaged the Avengers, giving them sovereign authority, additional resources, and intelligence prior to and during the engagement.

9. The strength of the objection in §8

Unfortunately, the objections given in §8 would not have altered the events as they unfolded in Lagos. Unanticipated encounters with the ineffable are inevitable in war. Split-second decision making is critical. Captain America and Maximoff were isolated from their team and under resourced.  Crossbones was culpable for both luring the team into the conflict and making the decision to self-destruct in the public square. 

Thus, the DoDE justifies their actions in battle, and is “successful” in accordance with Walzer’s criteria for averting a supreme threat.


i SEP, Doctrine of Double Effect, 1.

ii SEP, Ibid, 2.

iii SEP, Consequentialism, 1.

iv SEP, Terrorism, 2.3.2.

v Ibid, 2.3.2.

vi Ibid, 2.3.3.

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