Rounding the Horn with the Principle of Double Effect
April, 1805: Napoleon is master of Europe.
Only the British fleet stands before him.
Oceans are battlefields.
Thus opens the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
The audience finds British Captain Jack (Lucky Jack) Aubrey and the crew of
his man o'war on the north coast of Brazil, hunting the French privateer
Acheron. The film follows the hunt down the east coast of South America,
around Cape Horn and into the Pacific.
"Rounding the Horn" in the days of sail was often a treacherous business,
and the film makes the most of the tradition with a roaring gale, mountains
of roiling water, blinding spray and the sepulchral moan of the wind in the
rigging.2 Aubrey, his quarry in
sight, is pushing his ship to its limits when the ship's carpenter shouts a
warning: "I'll not vouch for this mast, sir! Not around the Horn!"
But Aubrey presses on, and the result is tragedy in the full sense of the
For the carpenter is right about the mast. Unable to withstand the fury
of the wind, the top of it snaps off and blows into the sea, carrying with
it a sail and boom and a hapless sailor. When the broken mast and sail crash
into the waves, the rigging connecting them to the ship instantly pulls
taut, turning the wreckage into a deadly sea anchor. The ship, crippled,
begins to heel over, while the desperate sailor thrashes through the water
to reach the rigging, his only hope of getting back to the ship.
Aubrey and the men above instinctively urge him on, but the camera
reveals seasick men below deck, suddenly terrified when they feel the lurch
of the ship as it begins to go over. A shout from a ship's officer brings
the danger home to Aubrey and the choice before him. He must cut loose the
rigging to save the ship and crew, leaving the man in the water to drown, or
wait for the man to reach the rigging and pull himself to the ship, risking
the loss of the ship and all hands.
Three hatchets are produced, and the Captain, an officer and crewman hack
at the lines even as the floundering sailor nears the rigging and his
comrades aloft call hope to him. With a final look at the doomed man, Aubrey
cuts the last rope. The ship, suddenly freed, rights herself and lifts once
more in the surge, leaving the gasping victim to his fate. The men below
break into cheers; Aubrey, the officer and the crewman sink in grief.
Afterward, the ship's surgeon, trying to console Aubrey, suggests that he
had to choose the lesser of two evils. In fact, the incident was a fine
cinematic rendering of the principle of double effect.
Aubrey's act - cutting loose the wrecked mast and rigging - had two
inseparable effects, one intended (saving the ship and crew) and one
unintended (the death of the man overboard). The intended effect was
unquestionably good, and the unintended effect unquestionably evil.
But the act - cutting the lines - was not, in itself, wrong. And the good
effect was accomplished by this act, not by the death of the sailor, which
was an unintended and unavoidable consequence. Finally, the evil effect (the
death of one sailor) was not disproportionate to the good effect (saving the
ship and crew).
These are the essential elements of the principle of double effect. The
man overboard scene in the film, only a few minutes in length, dramatically
illustrates the nature of the choice: the good and evil effects, their
inseparability and proportionality, that the good is intended, the evil,
unintended. Especially praiseworthy from an ethical perspective is the
portrayal of the death of the sailor as not just 'unintended' in a technical
sense, but something clearly unwanted, a source of profound sorrow.
It is remarkable to find a principle that is sometimes mocked as ethical
sleight-of-hand so vividly illustrated by acting, music and script in a
20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures and Miramax Films,
2004. The DVD version of the film, with its scene-selection option, is
particularly convenient for classroom use.
2. Scene 14 in the DVD version.