Bob is drunk and driving too fast on rain-slicked streets. He runs a red light and doesn’t even see Belinda, a pedestrian who is crossing the street. He hits her and she dies.
Bob is drunk and driving too fast on rain-slicked streets. He runs a red light. Belinda, a pedestrian, is about to cross the street. Luckily she spots Bob’s speeding car in time and remains on the curb. She lives. Bob doesn’t even see her.
Bob’s behavior is identical in the two scenarios, and the difference in outcome is due to something completely outside of Bob’s control: whether Belinda spots his car in time.
Questions for discussion
1. In moral terms, is Bob equally blameworthy in both scenarios, or does his culpability depend on the outcome?
2. The legal system will punish Bob far more harshly in the first scenario than in the second. Is this appropriate?
Justify your answers.
We are not blamed for our behavior. We are not held culpable for our behavior. The blame and culpability are for the consequences of our behavior. And the consequences are different in the two situations.
Yes, I think it appropriate.
The alternative would seem to be a society where the Gestapo are monitoring our every behavior, and punishing us for our behavior rather than for the consequences of that behavior.
I don’t think we would want to live in that kind of society.
By only targetting consequences, good samaritans could be liable for prosecution when attempting to aid someone in trouble while someone shooting randomly from a moving car might then face a very light fine provided no one gets hit.
Only willful intent should be held accountable, not the luck of a potential victim.
Behaviour doesn’t need to be monitored, but it does need to be addressed after the fact.
Life is unavoidably a sequence of calculated risks. Nearly everything we do MIGHT have harmful consequences depending on variables beyond our control. If we engage in unnecessarily risky behavior, our chances of harmful consequences rise, and with them the chance of punishment.
I think we kind of compromise here. If a behavior is not regarded as inherently risky and there is no harmful intent, then we regard unfortunate consequences as not involving fault. Otherwise, we weigh a mix of consequences, judgment, and intent. Bob engaged here in highly risky behavior, and exercised bad judgment. We decide he knew better, so if his behavior has bad results, well, he’s culpable.
The law attempts to apply the principle of “the ordinary reasonable and prudent man”, the idea being that if his behavior under the circumstances was reasonable and prudent, he did the best he could. Unfortunately, this principle in practice has become “the extraordinary and omnicient man.” Juries, feeling an obligation to compensate the victim, tend to search for anything the accused could possibly have done differently to avoid what happened. And generally there is something, even if nobody would have thought of it or done it.
So in practice, if whatever you do has unfortunate consequences, the burden is on you to convince the system that your behavior was not risky and you had no such intent. But since something bad DID happen, your behavior was risky by definition. So this can be a tough burden to carry.
There are two outcomes in both cases – one affecting Belinda and one affecting everyone else.
In the first case, Belinda is dead, in the second she may suffer some continuing psychological trauma.
But in both cases, there is a further outcome. The whole point of banning drunk driving is that even unrealised risk (no deaths have ever occurred) has an effect on other people – if the world is filled with speeding drunk drivers, then I (undrunk) will be fearful about walking the streets. This is an outcome, and Bob is culpable for it.
In scenario 1, Bob would be charged for the death and for contributing to a general social fear. In scenario 2, he would (if caught) be charged with causing any psychological damage to Belinda and again for contributing to the general social fear.
Since psychological damage is likely to be rated as less severe than death, it is appropriate that Bob’s culpability depends on the outcomes, and also that his punishment be graduated by those outcomes.
True, which is one of the reasons I posed two separate questions, one about the morality of Bob’s actions and another about the legal consequences.
I believe that Bob is equally blameworthy in both scenarios. He performed the same actions with the same intentions and with an equal (lack of) knowledge about Belinda and her actions. It seems absurd to me that his culpability should vary depending on Belinda’s actions.
However, I do think a harsher legal penalty is appropriate in scenario 1 for several reasons, including the one you raised.
Not true. Suppose I’m walking on a balcony that collapses due to a construction flaw, killing someone who is standing underneath. My behavior (walking) caused the collapse, which caused the death, but surely you wouldn’t argue that I should be blamed for causing the death, would you?
The issue could be clarified if all actions and their consequences while under the influence were considered willful. Thus, the death would be considered first degree murder. Driving while drunk could be considered attempted murder.
if this seems draconian, consider that the number of innocent people killed each week in the U.S. is not far from the number killed in the recent school massacre.
We tolerate a degree of carnage resulting from drunk driving that is 50 times worse than gun violence. It’s not even news unless you know a victim.
This is what Jesus and the bible talked about a great deal.
Bob is equally morally blameworthy in both cases.
No more and no less for this carelessness.
His motive is the same in both cases so that is what to judge.
However the death is beside the issue of motive.
So he should be punished for hurting that person. As far as people are punished for accidents.
The legal system is right if the punishment is about the death and not the motive.
This is one of those instances when Jesus blew it. Feeling lust, for example, is part of our nature — something presumably created by god.
Acting or refraining from action is what morality is about.
In the case of drunk driving, the relevant moral action takes place before one becomes drunk. Everything that follows is the result of the decision to drink, made while sober. We all know there are ways to prevent driving while drunk, but they involve making arrangements before drinking.
Everyone responds differently to alcohol, but we know how we react by the time we can drive.
The blame for drunk driving – the same in both scenarios.
The blame for causing a death – that cannot be the same, because that only happened in one scenario.
Your argument seems to be that Belinda’s death is irrelevant. The implication is that Belinda does not matter. You seem to attach blame only to the drunk driving, presumably because it violates a social sanction. But the whole reason for having such a social sanction is that we know it can lead to deaths. Belinda does matter, and that Bob caused that death does matter. If those did not matter, then there would be no reason to have social sanctions against drunk driving.
Quite the opposite. Bob’s behavior is immoral — in both scenarios — precisely because it puts Belinda (and other law-abiding pedestrians) at risk of injury or death. The fact that Bob got lucky in scenario 2 doesn’t make his behavior any less reprehensible.
Lucky people do not thereby gain moral superiority.
To take an example where the behaviour is less clearly wrong: in the UK a guy crashed off the motorway just where it crossed a main railway line. He landed on the track, partially derailing a train coming one way which veered into the path of another coming the other, killing 10 and seriously injuring 82 – all the rail deaths, and all but one of the injuries, for the entire year of 2001. He got 5 years. Though he denied it, it was judged he had fallen asleep due to staying up all the previous night. Now, I have driven knowingly tired – once after running in the mountains for 20+ hours straight … I suspect most people have. You’re aware of the issue, and make a call. There but for the grace of … ummm … something!
Though in the wrong, I think the guy was extremely unlucky. Of all the places, at all the times … but it is pretty much standard practice to punish the consequences, not the actions. Whether that is right or wrong, I simply cannot decide.
I think that we’re in an unusual situation right now in social evolution. We are straddling the boundary between the “old” (what got us here) and the “new” (what we want now that we’re here).
I think that to a certain extent morality is defined by the power of the watcher. That “old time” religion implements this by inculcating the idea that everything you do is seen and judged. So in that respect there is no difference between the accident and the non-accident unless that “watcher” decides that there is.
Fast forward a few more years and everything everywhere will be under the eyes of data gathering systems.
Fast forward some more and we potentially are nearing “The Culture” levels of engagement with the environment. Everything “watched” all the time and the environmental systems can then react accordingly.
So, given that, the question can be re-framed as “In both scenarios nobody died, as the accident was predicted and averted by our benevolent watchers but what is the reaction of those watchers? Do they let you drive drink, knowing that you’ll cause no damage? Or as a general encouragement towards responsibility they won’t let you drive at all. ”
So an interesting question to me is does knowing that there will be no physical consequences to your actions cause to you act irresponsibly? From my “studies” of the culture I believe that the car simply would not start.
To answer the questions as stated:
1: Yes, he is equally blameworthy in both situations. You read about people who are on their N’th drunk driving conviction. For all we know this is the N’th time this has happened.
2: Yes, it’s appropriate but only as a practical measure. You can’t know what you don’t know. Should evidence during the trial come to light that drink driving was a regular thing then I would expect that to influence the outcome. Although saying that it “feels” wrong. But if the question is re-framed like “you light 10 fuses, knowing that there is a 1 in 100 chance of the bomb going off and killing somebody” then it feels right again.
You perform an action and are aware of the consequences. If the bomb never goes off then you are still going to jail for life for the attempt. That you might be in jail for 50 years instead of 500 is irrelevant to you at that point.
The law is fairly clear. Attempted murder is not punished as severely as accomplished murder. That’s even when we know the motive. So even when the law knows all the facts, it treats consequences as having more weight than mere bad behavior.
So the question remains: is this as it should be?
No, If attempted murder is not punished as severely as actual murder then how is the sentence for attempted murder a deterrence?
OFC punishments like the death penalty don’t act as a deterrent, it seems.
I attempted to blow up the nuclear bomb and kill a city.
I blew up a city with a nuclear bomb.
Extreme but in that case either way you are never seeing daylight again. So perhaps it’s to do with the disparity between the consequences and the result. In the car example, the only consequence is 1 death at worst. So “misses” are not punished so much. But in the nuclear example the consequences are far far more severe. Just the “attempt” is treated almost as severely as the crime itself.
Bob does not exist.
Neither do those who could judge Bob exist.
Neither. It’s a false dilemma.
No one can be culpable for an outcome that is merely hypothetical.
The scenario is hypothetical. The outcome is that people have a discussion about it.
An equivalence exists with the hypothesis about the existence of gods.
Is that right Joe?
Interesting discussion. In some ways it recalls the idea of “original sin”. All of us are culpable. Each and every one of us is guilty of using poor judgement in situations which could have put another at risk.
So should each and every one of us be punished for it? Or is it ok to say “we got away with it this time.”
It does seem like our culture has moved towards a greater willingness to punish for potential harm rather than actual harm. That is consistent with a move towards social/government control of every facet of our lives.
Should we be free and guilty, or automatons rendered harmless by complete external control?