Moral luck

It’s Saturday night and you’re at a party.  You drink too much and foolishly decide to drive home.  On the way, you lose control of your car.  Then one of two things happens:

Scenario A

There is no traffic around.  Your out-of-control car careens across the left lane and into a ditch.  It hits a fence post.  The car is damaged, but you are unhurt.  The police come  and arrest you for driving under the influence.

Scenario B

A car is approaching.  Your out-of-control car careens across the left lane and clips the oncoming car, which crashes into a tree.  The driver and her two young children are killed.  The police come and arrest you.  You are charged with manslaughter.

The crucial difference between the two scenarios is sheer luck.  In scenario A, you were simply lucky that no traffic was around.  In scenario B, your luck wasn’t as good, and three people ended up dead.

You made the same irresponsible decision — to drink and drive — in both scenarios.  Is your moral culpability greater in scenario B than in scenario A?  If so, why?

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128 thoughts on “Moral luck

  1. I think that one’s moral culpability does vary with luck and it’s important to accept this. In Scenario B one’s actions have resulted in a great loss to the community because a person has been killed. In Scenario A no one died. The fact that one’s intentions were somehow the same in the two scenarios tells us that there’s more to moral responsibility than intentions. (Avowed intentions are probably a really bad way of assessing moral responsibility anyway.) Our actions are not and cannot be entirely under our own control, and its hubris to want them to be. Rather, I think that living an ethical life requires accepting that no one is wholly independent from others; we live in relations and those relations are not under anyone’s control. The desire to be wholly independent of others is the desire to be a god and not a human being at all. So it’s not a problem that one’s actions can affect others and one is responsible for those actions even if one didn’t intend them.

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  2. An awful lot seems to depend here on one’s ability to predict the future, and do so with remarkable omniscience. We can dimly see how certain actions could increase the risk to ourselves or others over, well, actions more difficult to assess. We are smugly telling ourselves how things would be if they were different. If the driver had been sober, nothing untoward would have happened, right? He wouldn’t have had an accident, the victims wouldn’t have suffered any other misfortune, there would be NO ripple effects from the infinity of things all parties MIGHT have done differently. And so we can point fingers and assign blame snug in the vacuum of our own ignorance of any conceivable ripple effects. IF the drunk had started driving a few minutes earlier or later, or had taken a different route, would he have been responsible for anything? It’s easy to assume that no, he wouldn’t have been.

    But if we step back a bit, we see that everything that happens is the consequence of a long sequence of vanishingly unlikely events, which we are obliged to pretend don’t exist. WHY was the drunk drinking at all? What if a fight with his or her spouse led to it — do they carry any of the responsibility? How about those involved in the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages? Like the tobacco folks, they have to know their products increase certain risks. How about the car manufacturers, who saved money by failing to include currently available technology that would have dodged the accident? Do we suppose any survivors should sue all of these people if the drunk has no money? They often do, and sometimes win, because juries seem convinced that whenever someone not “at fault” is injured, somebody must pay even if their responsibility is several steps removed. If the injuries (or deaths) are severe enough, we’re good at tracking back through these sequences of events to pin blame somewhere. Are we correct in doing this?

    America once had a thriving small plane industry, but no longer. People did stupid things, insanely dangerous things, they were untrained, they ignored air traffic rules and protocols, and they killed themselves and others and caused damage. But who could we blame? The pilots were dead. So juries found the manufacturers guilty, and rewarded victims with huge settlements. Killed off the entire industry. Now we’re trying to do the same thing with gun manufacturers, blaming them for the acts of gun owners (or thieves, etc.) Small plane manufacturers were held morally wrong for the irresponsible use of their products.

    So I don’t accept all this moralizing. I think making ourselves aware of risks and taking responsible steps to reduce them is sensible. Some are better at this than others, but the others are not immoral.

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  3. KN,

    The fact that one’s intentions were somehow the same in the two scenarios tells us that there’s more to moral responsibility than intentions.

    How does it tell us that?

    (And just to be clear, the intention we’re talking about here is the intent to drink and drive, not the intent to kill someone, which was absent in both scenarios.)

    Our actions are not and cannot be entirely under our own control, and its hubris to want them to be. Rather, I think that living an ethical life requires accepting that no one is wholly independent from others; we live in relations and those relations are not under anyone’s control. The desire to be wholly independent of others is the desire to be a god and not a human being at all.

    I’m not seeing how our interdependence leads to the conclusion that we must be morally responsible for certain things that are outside our control.

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  4. keiths:

    The desire for vengeance is deeply ingrained in us, no question. But should the penal system cater to that desire?

    Corneel:

    It shouldn’t, but the legal system needs support from society, or it won’t be able to function at all. If there is sufficient support to remove retributive punishment from all legal considerations, then I am all for it. I just don’t think there exist many places that are ready for that just yet.

    I wonder how Norway achieved that cultural shift.

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  5. Corneel:

    I agree: Love the Norwegian system.

    Last night I watched an hour-long documentary in which the warden of Halden prison tries to teach parts of the Norwegian approach to officials at Attica prison in New York state:

    Breaking the Cycle

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  6. Flint,

    An awful lot seems to depend here on one’s ability to predict the future, and do so with remarkable omniscience.

    Not really. It isn’t difficult to foresee the risks associated with drunk driving. And for risks that are less predictable, I think one’s moral culpability diminishes.

    We are smugly telling ourselves how things would be if they were different. If the driver had been sober, nothing untoward would have happened, right? He wouldn’t have had an accident, the victims wouldn’t have suffered any other misfortune, there would be NO ripple effects from the infinity of things all parties MIGHT have done differently.

    I’m not saying any of those things. I’m saying that the driver is (proximately) culpable for placing others at substantial risk by drinking and driving.

    IF the drunk had started driving a few minutes earlier or later, or had taken a different route, would he have been responsible for anything? It’s easy to assume that no, he wouldn’t have been.

    I would say yes, he’s responsible for putting others at risk by drinking and driving. The fact that he gets lucky in scenario A and unlucky in scenario B shouldn’t affect our assessment of his culpability, in my opinion.

    But if we step back a bit, we see that everything that happens is the consequence of a long sequence of vanishingly unlikely events, which we are obliged to pretend don’t exist.

    Everything traces back to causes that occurred before we were born, so in that sense no one is ultimately responsible for anything they do. As I mentioned earlier, that’s why I’m opposed to retributive punishment.

    WHY was the drunk drinking at all? What if a fight with his or her spouse led to it — do they carry any of the responsibility?

    I’d say no in that case. It’s a function of what a normal and reasonable person would do. Reasonable people will fight with their spouses on occasion, but drunk driving is not a reasonable response to such fights.

    How about those involved in the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages?

    Those people aren’t involved in the decision to drink and drive, so they aren’t culpable in that regard.

    So I don’t accept all this moralizing. I think making ourselves aware of risks and taking responsible steps to reduce them is sensible. Some are better at this than others, but the others are not immoral.

    You don’t think drunk driving is immoral?

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  7. What I see here is KN trying to save objective morality, Flint letting it go by the boards, and Keith taking an “as if” approach according to which it’s obvious that driving drunk is immoral, so we should just sort of pretend there is some basis for morality.

    Until a couple of years ago, i took the position that there ARE objective moral principles, but we could only rarely figure out what they are. On that view, our problems were epistemic only. I didn’t try to find some manner of explaining them, as KN is, just took them for granted. But I was won over to Flint’s view. There seems to me no way to make the intuitions coherent–try as we (and the system of legal punishments) may. It’s a sometimes useful, sometimes harmful relic.

    I don’t care for keiths’ take here any more than i do in epistemology. It seems to me just hand-waving. But KN’s approach, noble as it is, seems to me a fool’s errand. (Though maybe it’s just out of my paygrade. Dunno.)

    Anyhow, I’m in with Flint.

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  8. walto,

    …and Keith taking an “as if” approach according to which it’s obvious that driving drunk is immoral, so we should just sort of pretend there is some basis for morality.

    I’m a subjectivist, so I don’t need to pretend. The basis is each person’s (subjective) intuitions and judgments regarding what is and isn’t moral. Those can vary among individuals, of course.

    My aim in this thread has been to explore how (and if) the presence of moral luck affects those intuitions.

    Also, my question to Flint is genuine, not rhetorical:

    You don’t think drunk driving is immoral?

    I’ve never encountered anyone with that perspective before, and I want to make sure I’m understanding Flint correctly when he writes

    So I don’t accept all this moralizing. I think making ourselves aware of risks and taking responsible steps to reduce them is sensible. Some are better at this than others, but the others are not immoral.

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  9. I don’t know what you take a subjective intuition to be. I know you take objectivity to imply truth and verifiablility, but that’s about it. I do think you saying, “well, for me it’s subjective” is largely hand-waving. You say that “I like it” (when there’s no desire to deceive) is objective (though i suppose the verification must be behavioral) and ‘this is good’ is subjective. But i don’t have much sense what that means for you–other than that you like it.

    ETA: KN seems to me to want to indicate how some sort of moral world can be coherently constructed. You just shrug, but suggest that people ought to agree with you that drunk driving is immoral. That’s why it seems to me an “as if” view of the matter.

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  10. walto,

    Remember Buford and the Canada geese? Buford thinks the geese are evil incarnate, but his view is not independently verifiable. It’s just a subjective moral intuition.

    Likewise with the woman in your paper who sees sewing machines as evil. She may believe that her judgment is objective, but it clearly isn’t. It’s an idiosyncratic and subjective moral intuition that cannot be verified by others.

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  11. How do these judgments differ from “i think geese are evil” and “i think sewing machines are evil”?

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  12. walto,

    “I think geese are evil” is really a statement about the speaker and his belief, not about geese, and it’s independently verifiable.

    I can look at Buford’s behavior and say “Yes, Buford really does think that geese are evil”. “I think geese are evil” is objective and true when spoken by Buford.

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  13. I.e., the others are as if about some objective characteristic.

    Your take on knowledge is basically the same.

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  14. I.e., the others are as if about some objective characteristic.

    By “the others”, you mean “geese are evil” and “sewing machines are evil”, right?

    If so, then I agree, with one caveat. When a moral subjectivist says something like “murder is evil”, they aren’t trying to talk about objective morality. There’s an implicit “by my subjective moral standards” qualifier in that case.

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  15. keiths: By “the others”, you mean “geese are evil” and “sewing machines are evil”, right?

    If so, then I agree, with one caveat.When a moral subjectivist says something like “murder is evil”, they aren’t trying to talk about objective morality.There’s an implicit “by my subjective moral standards” qualifier in that case.

    Have to be careful that that doesn’t just reduce to “i think that’s evil” since you take that to be objective. I’m still unclear what you take the difference to be.

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  16. Btw, we’re in Cali. too until tomorrow.

    Two wonderful tv shows recently ended: Veep and Broad City. Coincidently, we saw Matt Walsh (Mike McClintock) doing improv two nights ago at UCB, and yesterday we saw Abbi Jacobson wandering around the Silverlake 365.

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  17. keiths:

    By “the others”, you mean “geese are evil” and “sewing machines are evil”, right?

    If so, then I agree, with one caveat.When a moral subjectivist says something like “murder is evil”, they aren’t trying to talk about objective morality.There’s an implicit “by my subjective moral standards” qualifier in that case.

    walto:

    Have to be careful that that doesn’t just reduce to “i think that’s evil” since you take that to be objective.

    Right. I think that’s where the “as if” business comes in. “Murder is evil” is phrased as if it were about an objective evil, and that’s what a moral objectivist means when using it. In the mouth of a subjectivist, however, it isn’t an assertion about objective reality.

    I think it boils down to this:

    a) It’s objectively true that Buford thinks geese are evil, but
    b) his belief itself is a subjective one.

    Anyone who asserts the belief is making a subjective judgment. Anyone who asserts (a) is making an objective judgment.

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  18. keiths: I think it boils down to this:

    a) It’s objectively true that Buford thinks geese are evil, but
    b) his belief itself is a subjective one.

    Anyone who asserts the belief is making a subjective judgment. Anyone who asserts (a) is making an objective judgment.

    That’s closer to the position i take in my paper. If you recall, I make believing that pizza is good a subjective judgment.

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  19. walto,

    That’s closer to the position i take in my paper. If you recall, I make believing that pizza is good a subjective judgment.

    Not in the version you gave us.

    In that version, you discuss “I enjoy pasta” — not “pasta is good” — and you deem it subjective because it would be “passing strange” for that statement to be wrong. By contrast, I would judge “I enjoy pasta” to be an objective statement, assuming it’s true, because what I enjoy is an objective fact about me. “Pasta is good” would be the subjective statement.

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  20. I make both of those subjective. And i think most people would agree that “I enjoy pasta’ is a subjective judgement. Paradigm case of one, in fact.

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  21. walto,

    I make both of those subjective. And i think most people would agree that “I enjoy pasta’ is a subjective judgement.

    The liking is subjective, but the statement itself — which is a statement about you and the liking — is not. You made this very point in your paper itself:

    Alternatively, we might define “objectivity” in such a way that “I like grapes” is objective; after all, that statement is true if and only if I exemplify the property of enjoying grapes, and that is something that can be taken to be a completely objective matter.

    Similarlly, “Buford hates geese” is objectively true — that is, Buford exemplifies the property of hating geese, and this is independently verifiable.

    If I’m being objective when I say “Buford hates geese”, then why isn’t Buford being objective when he says “I hate geese”?

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  22. Yes, in the paper I say that one could do that. And one could. I also say that it’s a bad idea to do so. And it is.

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  23. walto,

    Yes, in the paper I say that one could do that. And one could. I also say that it’s a bad idea to do so. And it is.

    I didn’t understand that part of your argument. Could you elaborate? (We should probably move this to the other thread. I’ll repost it there.)

    ETA: A link to where the discussion continues.

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  24. You made the same irresponsible decision — to drink and drive — in both scenarios. Is your moral culpability greater in scenario B than in scenario A? If so, why?

    Moral culpability is not just about a decision you made. It is also about the consequences that followed. The consequences may have a luck element about them – as when nothing happened – but they also have the moral culpability element about them – certainly when consequences followed.

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