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. Is your moral culpability greater in scenario B than in scenario A? If so, why?

    I think the same, because I think that’s what God teaches, however, there should be appropriately a civil reckoning. But God will in the final day will judge people by both their actions and their hearts.

    In scenario A, the guy lucked out that his heart didn’t cost someone his life.

    Presumably, his intent wasn’t to kill anyone, he shouldn’t be charged with murder in either case.

    Only God is capable of weighing what is in people’s hearts.

    In the case of Annanias and Sapphira in the book of acts, NO one was physically harmed by their sin of lying about the magnitude oft their church donations. But God imposed capital punishment on them for the evil in their heart.

    Acts 5:

    5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

    7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

    “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

    9 Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

    10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

    So, morality is based on the intentions of the heart, and God is the ultimate judge, man only make faint approximations how to dispense justice.

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  2. stcordova: In the case of Annanias and Sapphira in the book of acts, NO one was physically harmed by their sin of lying about the magnitude oft their church donations. But God imposed capital punishment on them for the evil in their heart.

    Hi Sal,

    Something doesn’t add up in the interpretation of this story…
    Nobody was required to sell all and donate all…
    So, why would Peter even ask if they had donated all the money?
    There must have something else going on…IMV…

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  3. J-Mac: Hi Sal,

    Something doesn’t add up in theinterpretation of this story…
    Nobody was required to sell all and donate all…
    So, why would Peter even ask if they had donated all the money?
    There must have something else going on…IMV…

    Seems like a clear case of entrapment and extortion, pay or die.

    Six guys just happened to be there ready to plant the husband.

    Sounds like Peter was sending a message.

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  4. newton: Seems like a clear case of entrapment and extortion, pay or die.

    I don’t think Sal has all the facts… Neither do you…as usual…

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  5. J-Mac: I don’t think Sal has all the facts… Neither do you…as usual…

    You doubt the Word of God?

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  6. J-Mac: That’s my right…though in this case I doubt Sal has all the facts…

    Of course, though be careful if you see six guys waiting around with a sheet.

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  7. newton: Seems like a clear case of entrapment and extortion, pay or die.

    Six guys just happened to be there ready to plant the husband.

    Sounds like Peter was sending a message.

    The executioner was NOT any human agent, but God himself. Annanias and Saphira kicked the bucket as soon as they lied again.

    Peter pointed out, they could have kept all the money, it was theirs. Lying about it, perhaps as false virtue signalling, was repugnant enough to God, that God took their life.

    Soooo, back to Keith’s question, in an atheistic world view, morality is hard for humans to judge because we don’t know where people’s hearts are, and surely intentions count for something! I mean, let’s say one is going on a mission to get medicine for a loved one, and because of mechanical failure someone dies in an accident. We might charge someone on civil grounds, because using public highways has a presumed willingness of the participants to compensate others for unintentional ACCIDENTS.

    Whereas in the Christian world view, there is a judge who does KNOW and weigh peoples intentions. Even Christians will fail to evaluate intentions accurately in this life, but in the final day, morality will be adjudicated by the Judge of all things.

    So God knows if someone acted morally, even if we don’t know.

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  8. In an atheistic,purely materialistic world view, I find it difficult to find grounds for holding anyone accountable morally any more than holding gravity accountable for causing someone to die in a sky diving accident.

    In that sense, the idea of ultimate morality in an atheistic world is nothing more than a pragmatic/feel-good way of doing business where everyone pretends there is right and wrong, when intellectually they can’t justify it from their premises about reality. Yet in their hearts, people tend to think and act as if there were an ultimate right and wrong.

    I mean, some Darwinists think it immoral to claim there is a God and teach those ideas to kids.

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  9. stcordova,

    Sal,
    You haven’t provided enough evidence for Annanias and Saphira to die just because they had lied…

    Didn’t Peter lie too by saying he didn’t know Jesus? Why didn’t he die for that?

    Possible explanation is that Annanias and Saphira had schemed in advance to sell everything, keep some of what they got, be keep telling everyone that they donated all, so that they would be admired by others for their sacrifices…
    There could be other reasons I’m not aware of…

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  10. stcordova: In an atheistic,purely materialistic world view, I find it difficult to find grounds for holding anyone accountable morally any more than holding gravity accountable for causing someone to die in a sky diving accident.

    In that sense, the idea of ultimate morality in an atheistic world is nothing more than a pragmatic/feel-good way of doing business where everyone pretends there is right and wrong, when intellectually they can’t justify it from their premises about reality. Yet in their hearts, people tend to think and act as if there were an ultimate right and wrong.

    It’s even worse than that.

    In an atheistic, purely materialistic world view, when you are claiming the moral higher ground while all you do is patronizing others that identifies you as a hypocrite.

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  11. 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?

    My gut feeling says there is no difference in moral culpability between the two scenarios, because the decision was taken without knowledge of the future events.

    Whether the difference in legal consequences is justified is another matter: In scenario B other considerations come into play, because of the death of innocent people. Not sure about that one.

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  12. Corneel: It’s even worse than that.

    In an atheistic, purely materialistic world view, when you are claiming the moral higher ground while allyou do is patronizing others that identifies you as a hypocrite.

    I would agree with this…
    The claim of being moral and actually applying the moral standards are two different things…
    Many atheists/agnostic may have higher moral standards than those who claim to be moral just because of their religious affiliation…

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  13. J-mac:

    Many atheists/agnostic may have higher moral standards than those who claim to be moral just because their religious affiliation…

    Yup. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker come to mind. Jim Bakker especially, yuck!

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  14. The law doesn’t deal in Truth or Morality. It deals in verdicts and consequences.

    Personally, I have no respect for anyone who drives legally drunk. I worry about driving after one drink. I can tell I am impaired, and I’m about five drinks from being legally drunk.

    So the law goes about it’s business based on happenstance, and I choose friends based on whether they put other people at risk, unnecessarily.

    I don’t call it morality.

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  15. J-Mac: The claim of being moral and actually applying the moral standards are two different things…

    Exactly. Whenever I meet people who are friendly and nice, the last thing I care about is whether their justification for doing so is sound.

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  16. stcordova: The executioner was NOT any human agent, but God himself. Annanias and Saphira kicked the bucket as soon as they lied again.

    So it was not the original lie, it was repeating the lie which was worthy of termination.

    Peter pointed out, they could have kept all the money, it was theirs. Lying about it, perhaps as false virtue signalling, was repugnant enough to God

    Is the the same Peter who lied three times about being a follower of Jesus? Wonder why these people ,who actually did donate to the Church , got whacked because they exaggerated the amount. Maybe like Star Trek they were wearing red shirts and were expendable for the purpose of the narrative.

    Last I checked Hitler died by his own hand, he surely must have been more repugnant and did more harm than the couple who donated to the Church and who basically were guilty of cheating on their taxes.At least God did not sic bears on them.

    that God took their life.

    And left far more egregious sinners like Ted Bundy above ground ,free to do harm.

    Soooo, back to Keith’s question, in an atheistic world view, morality is hard for humans to judge because we don’t know where people’s hearts are

    That is why the non theological judge by the actions people take. A drunken driver whose car will not start is not guilty of DWI. Public intoxication, yes.

    ,

    and surely intentions count for something

    Intentions which lead to an action. Good or bad.

    I mean, let’s say one is going on a mission to get medicine for a loved one, and because of mechanical failure someone dies in an accident. We might charge someone on civil grounds, because using public highways has a presumed willingness of the participants to compensate others for unintentional ACCIDENTS.

    Criminal or civil , one would need to show some negligence. Excess speed , bad car maintenance, distracted driving. Actions which led to the accident.

    Whereas in the Christian world view, there is a judge who does KNOW and weigh peoples intentions. Even Christians will fail to evaluate intentions accurately in this life, but in the final day, morality will be adjudicated by the Judge of all things.

    Right, whack someone for an evil heart as demonstrated by lying about how much they donate to the Church and allow serial child abusers and their evil hearts to go free about their lives.

    So God knows if someone acted morally, even if we don’t know.

    What is in their heart, no action is necessary.

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  17. Corneel: Exactly. Whenever I meet people who are friendly and nice, the last thing I care about is whether their justification for doing so is sound.

    Ummmm….

    Yes and no. I don’t care about their rationale, unless it implies that they will apply their niceness selectively, based on some criteria that I object to.

    For example, people who are nice to me because I agree with their religion or politics.

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  18. petrushka: I don’t care about their rationale, unless it implies that they will apply their niceness selectively, based on some criteria that I object to.

    For example, people who are nice to me because I agree with their religion or politics.

    But those ain’t nice people, are they?

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  19. keiths:

    Is your moral culpability greater in scenario B than in scenario A? If so, why?

    Sal:

    I think the same, because I think that’s what God teaches…

    Well, the punishment is the same — eternal damnation — whether the sin is stealing a candy bar or committing mass murder, but that doesn’t mean that the two are equal in moral terms.

    I suspect most Christians (and most people generally) would agree that mass murder is morally worse than stealing a candy bar.

    …however, there should be appropriately a civil reckoning.

    Should the civil punishment be greater in scenario B vs scenario A?

    In scenario A, the guy lucked out that his heart didn’t cost someone his life.

    Right, and the question is whether luck should make a difference in his moral culpability.

    Presumably, his intent wasn’t to kill anyone, he shouldn’t be charged with murder in either case.

    True, which is why I specified a charge of manslaughter, not murder.

    Only God is capable of weighing what is in people’s hearts.

    In the case of Annanias and Sapphira in the book of acts, NO one was physically harmed by their sin of lying about the magnitude oft their church donations. But God imposed capital punishment on them for the evil in their heart.

    The biblical God is pretty inconsistent about stuff like that. He’ll also kill people when their intentions are good:

    They carried the ark of God on a new cart, from the house of Abinadab, and Uzzah and Ahio[b] were driving the cart. David and all Israel were dancing before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets.

    When they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark; and he died there before God.

    1 Chronicles 13:7-10, NRSV

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  20. newton:

    Sorry keiths for the derail.

    No problem. Digressions are inevitable.

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  21. Keiths:

    Well, the punishment is the same — eternal damnation — whether the sin is stealing a candy bar or committing mass murder, but that doesn’t mean that the two are equal in moral terms.

    I think Christian theologians frequently think there are levels of punishment for the damned, not the same.

    What do you mean by culpable? Should they be punished the same way for being drunk?

    Two issues:

    DUI and then manslaughter.

    They are separate charges. I think we can dish out the same punishment for the DUI. The punishment for the manslaughter, if we call it punishment at all, is a separate issue, and I really don’t know the answer to that. But it seems to me if there was no intent to kill someone, it doesn’t rise to the level of 1st degree murder, or even 2nd degree murder.

    From a untiliatrian standpoint, I think it goes too far to throw people in jail for being drunk as if they had bad moral luck (as in hypothetically assuming they killed someone when they didn’t).

    Even unintentional manslaughter, as I understand it, carries some punishment — like say financial compensation for the injured party’s estate.

    I think they are equally culpable for being drunk and putting people at risk.

    The consequences are different, but to me moral implies level of intent, not consequences of intent. Gravity can kill someone falling off a cliff. Gravity is not culpable because it is deterministic in behavior, not having free will. How can something not having free will be culpable? To me that doesn’t make sense.

    That’s my best guess.

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  22. Sal,

    I think Christian theologians frequently think there are levels of punishment for the damned, not the same.

    True, particularly in Catholic theology. Catholics also have purgatory. I’m thinking more of evangelical Christianity, particularly the Missouri Synod Lutheranism in which I was raised.

    What do you mean by culpable?

    Blameworthy. Should the person in scenario B be considered more blameworthy when the only difference is that his luck is worse?

    From a untiliatrian standpoint, I think it goes too far to throw people in jail for being drunk as if they had bad moral luck (as in hypothetically assuming they killed someone when they didn’t).

    That’s why I’m asking about moral culpability and not punishment under the law.

    I think they are equally culpable for being drunk and putting people at risk.

    The consequences are different, but to me moral implies level of intent, not consequences of intent.

    I lean that way myself, but in future comments I’ll talk about some potential challenges to that view.

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  23. petrushka,

    So the law goes about it’s business based on happenstance, and I choose friends based on whether they put other people at risk, unnecessarily.

    I don’t call it morality.

    You don’t think it’s a moral issue when someone unnecessarily puts others’ lives at risk?

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  24. Corneel,

    My gut feeling says there is no difference in moral culpability between the two scenarios, because the decision was taken without knowledge of the future events.

    Mine too. Luck doesn’t seem to be the right sort of thing on which to base moral culpability.

    On the other hand, I can understand why people resist that idea. To members of the victims’ families, for instance, it might seem offensive, as if the deaths themselves carried no moral weight.

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  25. Corneel, Sal and I all lean toward the view that intention — not luck– should be the basis of moral blameworthiness. One way of challenging that view is to point out that intention itself can sometimes be at least partially a matter of luck.

    A famous case in the late 1800s involved four sailors adrift in a lifeboat in the South Atlantic without food or water. In desperation, two of them conspired to save themselves by killing and eating a third who had begun drinking seawater and whose health was failing rapidly.

    Clearly, their intent was to kill the victim, but it was only the bad luck of the shipwreck that led them to form that intent. Many people would do the same in their shoes, but the issue never arises for them because their luck is better.

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  26. keiths:
    petrushka,

    You don’t think it’s a moral issue when someone unnecessarily puts others’ lives at risk?

    I don’t see that motality is a usefully definable concept, soI have no use for the word. It’s a Humpty Dumpty word. It blocks communication.

    The arena of moral thought has pretty much been usurped by law. The results aren’t pretty, but they are debated and updated frequently.

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  27. petrushka,

    I don’t see that motality is a usefully definable concept, soI have no use for the word. It’s a Humpty Dumpty word. It blocks communication.

    You give up too easily on certain words. We had this same discussion with regard to “true” and “right”.

    The arena of moral thought has pretty much been usurped by law. The results aren’t pretty, but they are debated and updated frequently.

    There are plenty of moral questions that lie outside the scope of the law.

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  28. FWIW, from the Wiki entry on Hume:

    Hume was also a sentimentalist who held that ethics are based on emotion or sentiment rather than abstract moral principle, famously proclaiming that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”

    Hume’s moral theory has been seen as a unique attempt to synthesise the modern sentimentalist moral tradition to which Hume belonged, with the virtue ethics tradition of ancient philosophy, with which Hume concurred in regarding traits of character, rather than acts or their consequences, as ultimately the proper objects of moral evaluation.

    So I’d say Hume would think the two scenarios are morally equal even though the outcomes were different.

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  29. keiths: Clearly, their intent was to kill the victim, but it was only the bad luck of the shipwreck that led them to form that intent. Many people would do the same in their shoes, but the issue never arises for them because their luck is better.

    I believe that is the premise of the Spielberg movie “minority report”: Is it OK to lock people away before they have committed a crime?

    Clearly, it is only fair to take the circumstances into account for people who have committed crimes. But we are limited to judging acts that have actually occurred, not the would-have-beens and only-ifs. It doesn’t seem right to judge people on what we believe they would do, if they would be in this-or-that situation. I agree that this is not always fair to the people who actually find themselves in a tight spot.

    But in your example they only conspired to commit murder, so they did not actually commit the deed, right? (I am not familiar with the story, sorry). If so, that severely diminishes the culpability of the sailors in your example, as I see it, since no harm was done and they were unlikely to find themselves in the same circumstances again.

    The intended victim may have judged that differently, I suppose.

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  30. The word morality doesn’t add any information to the concept of behavior that affects people’s interests.

    But there are behaviors that gratify rather than annoy, and ones that don’t rise to the level of criminality.

    The problem with the word, in common usage, is the implication that it is grounded in something other than emotional responses to harm, or benefit, or perceived harm or benefit.

    Questions about acts are complex because consequenses of actions are often mixed.

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  31. Corneel: I believe that is the premise of the Spielberg movie “minority report”: Is it OK to lock people away before they have committed a crime?

    Clearly, it is only fair to take the circumstances into account for people who have committed crimes. But we are limited to judging acts that have actually occurred, not the would-have-beens and only-ifs. It doesn’t seem right to judge people on what we believe they would do, if they would be in this-or-that situation.I agree that this is not always fair to the people who actually find themselves in a tight spot.

    But in your example they only conspired to commit murder, so they did not actually commit the deed, right? (I am not familiar with the story, sorry). If so, that severely diminishes the culpability of the sailors in your example, as I see it, since no harm was done and they were unlikely to find themselves in the same circumstances again.

    The intended victim may have judged that differently, I suppose.

    This post made me think of this very interesting recent piece in Aeon by David Papineau:

    https://aeon.co/essays/knowledge-is-a-stone-age-concept-were-better-off-without-it?utm_source=pocket-newtab

    Maybe having likely true beliefs about consequences will one day be enough?

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  32. Corneel,

    But in your example they only conspired to commit murder, so they did not actually commit the deed, right?

    Sorry, I should have been clearer. They actually did kill the poor guy.

    ETA: If you want to read about it, the case is Regina v. Dudley and Stephens.

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  33. keiths:
    Corneel,
    Sorry, I should have been clearer.They actually did kill the poor guy.

    The law has asked all these questions and supplied answers. The answers arise out of politics rather than out of philosophy or religion, and the answers sometimes change.

    How about addressing an example of positive morality, namely charity.

    For example, the person who gives a significant portion of what they have to charity. Is that person more admirable than a person of wealth who gives the same amount?

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  34. Corneel,

    It doesn’t seem right to judge people on what we believe they would do, if they would be in this-or-that situation.

    That’s at least partly because we don’t trust our ability to predict what another person would do. (For that matter, we don’t always trust our ability to predict our own actions in certain situations.)

    Let’s remove that uncertainty from the equation by taking a God’s eye view. Suppose you’re an omniscient God who can read a person’s heart and predict what he or she will do in any situation.

    Now consider three scenarios concerning Dudley, the man who wielded the knife:

    Scenario #1:
    Dudley kills Parker. He, Stephens and Brooks eat the body.

    Scenario #2:
    Dudley has fully committed himself to killing Parker. He’s just waiting for the right time to do the deed. Before that happens, the men are rescued.

    Scenario #3:
    Dudley hasn’t committed himself to killing Parker, but we know (from our all-seeing vantage point) that he will do so if the men aren’t rescued within the next day. Two hours later, the men are rescued.

    In scenario #1, Dudley commits to the deed and carries it out. In scenario #2, he commits to the deed but doesn’t need to carry it out. In scenario #3, he neither commits to the deed nor carries it out. However, we know that he would have done both had the men not been rescued within the next day.

    How does Dudley’s blameworthiness compare in the three scenarios?

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  35. petrushka,

    The law has asked all these questions and supplied answers. The answers arise out of politics rather than out of philosophy or religion, and the answers sometimes change.

    That’s why I’m asking about morality rather than legality.

    How about addressing an example of positive morality, namely charity.

    For example, the person who gives a significant portion of what they have to charity. Is that person more admirable than a person of wealth who gives the same amount?

    I would say yes, because the marginal utility of that money is greater for them than it is for the wealthy person.

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  36. Sal, quoting Wikipedia:

    Hume concurred in regarding traits of character, rather than acts or their consequences, as ultimately the proper objects of moral evaluation.

    So I’d say Hume would think the two scenarios are morally equal even though the outcomes were different.

    Sounds like it, assuming the Wikipedia article is correct. If so, he would presumably see the three Dudley scenarios as morally equivalent, also.

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  37. Why not ask what use you could make of the answers?

    The movie is something of a thought experiment shambles.

    1. The future can be seen.
    2. As a result of knowing the future, you can modify it.
    3. As a result of being able to see and modify the future, you can game the system.

    Like most good science fiction, it addresses current issues. Such as, what to do about persistently violent people. What do you do about people whose anti-social tendencies are known, but who are currently not prosecutable?

    This is not an academic question. There are red flag laws being debated.

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  38. petrushka,

    The word morality doesn’t add any information to the concept of behavior that affects people’s interests…

    The problem with the word, in common usage, is the implication that it is grounded in something other than emotional responses to harm, or benefit, or perceived harm or benefit.

    Questions about acts are complex because consequenses of actions are often mixed.

    All of the above assumes that consequentialism is the only form of morality. You’re neglecting deontology and virtue ethics.

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  39. Not to mention the problem of terrorism, in which the authorities must balance rights against the possibility of mass murder.

    It may seem unrelated to the lifeboat problem, but i think it is related.

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  40. petrushka,

    Why not ask what use you could make of the answers?

    Because the topic of my OP is moral luck. In Dudley scenarios #2 and #3, it is only the luck of being rescued that prevents Dudley from killing Parker.

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  41. walto: This post made me think of this very interesting recent piece in Aeon by David Papineau:

    Intriguing piece. Thanks.

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  42. keiths:
    petrushka,

    Because the topic of my OP is moral luck.In Dudley scenarios #2 and #3, it is only the luck of being rescued that prevents Dudley from killing Parker.

    You are certainly welcome to keep the purity of the OP, but of what use are the answers? Is it not worth exploring what people have done in the past when confronted with real life examples?

    You argued that morality addresses issues that the law ignores, but the law has not ignored moral luck. It has faced it squarely and made judgments.

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  43. keiths: How does Dudley’s blameworthiness compare in the three scenarios?

    I try to convince my kids that I can see what they are up to, but they don’t believe me anymore. Anyway, here goes:

    Scenario #1:
    OK, so he did something bad, and is culpable. Easy.

    Scenario #2:
    He didn’t do something bad, but we know for sure he would have. He is as guilty as in Scenario #1.

    Scenario #1 (yes, I went back):
    OK, so he did something bad, but if the men would have been rescued, he wouldn’t have done it, so I guess I should take into account that he is a victim of circumstances.

    Scenario #3:
    And same here: If things were different, he would have committed the deed. We know this for a fact. I can no longer see any difference in moral culpability, because it is completely decided by forces outside of Dudley’s control.

    Conclusion: The God’s eye view is unnatural for us humans, and I am very grateful this is just an academic exercise.

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  44. petrushka,

    You are certainly welcome to keep the purity of the OP, but of what use are the answers?

    The topic is intrinsically interesting, and worth investigating for that reason alone. The answers are also useful because they make our moral intuitions explicit, and we can use that information to help decide whether our moral judgments are consistent and sensible.

    Is it not worth exploring what people have done in the past when confronted with real life examples?

    The Dudley case is a real-life example.

    You argued that morality addresses issues that the law ignores, but the law has not ignored moral luck.

    The latter doesn’t contradict the former, and of course the law hasn’t ignored moral luck. That’s what the Dudley case is about.

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  45. Corneel,

    Okay — sounds like you see Dudley as culpable, and equally so, in all three cases.

    Let’s take the next logical step and add a fourth:

    Scenario 4
    The ship never sinks, the men are never cast adrift, and the thought of killing Parker never crosses Dudley’s mind. That the ship doesn’t sink during the storm is a matter of luck.

    Is Dudley still equally culpable for being the kind of person who would have killed Parker if the ship had sunk, the men had been cast adrift, and the rescuers hadn’t arrived soon enough?

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