Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Moral Luck Part 3: Moral Mistake

Perhaps moral luck is not a problem at all for any moral theory. Perhaps it is just a mistake.

Two posts ago I explained the issue of moral luck. It involves the fact that we praise or blame people for things that are outside of their control. More importantly, we punish them for that which they cannot control – adding years onto a prison sentence based solely on a role and even executing them purely because of a role of the cosmic dice.

The news yesterday contained a story of moral luck. Connie Culp's husband shot her in the face with a shotgun. Connie became the recipient of the first face transplant in the United States. Her husband, Thomas, got seven years in prison. It is clearly the case that Connie’s survival had nothing to do with Thomas’ intention, or his desires. Yet, it was considered relevant in determining how much he deserved to be punished for his actions.

In my last post I pointed out the role that luck plays in determining the amount of compensation that one owes if one’s wrongful action harms others. It plays the same role in determining how much we are harmed when we do harm to ourselves through a momentary lapse in judgment. However, this is not "moral luck". This is simply a fact of life.

Certainly one way we can approach the issue of moral luck is to say that it constitutes a mistake. It is not something for moral theorists to sit around trying to justify. It is, instead, a set of behaviors that have no justification and, as such, are to be condemned, rather than defended.

We can imagine a group of Southern gentlemen meeting in South Carolina in 1830 to discuss the moral justification for slavery. We know that it is wrong simply because it does not feel wrong. We look inside our conscience and we feel a sense of rightness or, at least, of moral permissibility in owning slaves. The problem is that we have done a poor job explaining why slavery is morally permissible. So that is our task here – to deal with the problem of the moral legitimacy of slavery.”

Of course, one option is that the whole project starts with a false premise. Slavery is not justifiable. A project that begins with the assumption that it is justifiable starts off on the wrong foot.

In the realm of moral luck, it is perhaps natural that our desire to strike back at somebody (or something) is in proportion to the perceived harm done. We even strike back at inanimate objects – at chairs and computers – who thwart our ends, even though it is foolish to assign moral agency to them. Well, sometimes foolish. Sometimes, it seems that simple malicious intent best explains some of my laptop’s behavior.

We desire to do harm to people proportional to the harm we suffered, so we invent justification for inflicting that harm.

The process here is no different than that which lies behind many evil acts. The rapist who wishes to do harm will often first "justify" it in his own mind by saying that women like rape, or that a woman deserves to be raped because of how she dresses or behaves.

In turn, we rationalize punishment in proportion to harm done by inventing a natural moral law. Or we invent a God that we assign our feelings to, and then justify acting on those feelings by saying, "God said I could: an eye for an eye and a life for a life."

This excuse-making still leaves us on the same moral footing as the rapist and the murderer, depending on the degree of harm we rationalize in this way.

One could deny that these are morally equivalent because an agent first has to “do something” to be placed in this moral lottery. However, this would be like setting up a big wheel in a courtroom. After determining that the accused is guilty, the judge gets to spin the wheel to determine how much punishment the agent gets. The severity of the punishment is not matched to the severity of the crime. It is simply blind luck. But blind luck is not not justice.

To the degree that we allow moral luck into our moral systems, to that degree we are allowing people to inflict harm based solely on their desire to harm. The rationalizations we put behind it are as baseless as the rationalizations of those who try to explain the moral legitimacy of slavery. "We know it is wrong because it does not feel wrong to us." Of course, what we feel are our desires and prejudices. The moral question is not, “How do we feel about these things?” It is, “How should we feel?” To use facts about how we do feel to address questions about how we should feel is to commit an arrogant and groundless form of question-begging to sit at the foundation of our ethics.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Would it be within the scope of desire utilitarianism to inflict greater punishment on a person whose mistake led to the death of a child versus a person whose mistake caused no harm? Although an element of moral luck is involved, perhaps it would be in society's best interest to promote an aversion to killing, even at the expense of punishing a person who did not mean to kill.

Luke said...

Just want you to know I do keep the FAQ updated. I just added your three posts on moral luck, for example.

Tom said...

There is a made-for-TV movie and autobiography of Ben Carson, called "Gifted Hands". Part of the story is hot-tempered Ben who attempts to stab someone who has angered him, but the blade hits the belt buckle of the intended victim and breaks.

I think people have a hard time with "luck". In this case, it was seen as God interacting, leading Ben Carson to go on and become a top neurosurgeon. How often we hear, "But for the grace of God thereto go I." When flukes happen that are counter to our intents, we are likely to place more meaning onto them than dumb luck.

I know this comment is slightly off-topic, but it would be great to hear your perspective (in a future post) on the positive or ill effects of ascribing more meaning to outcomes of moral luck than are deserved.

GNN On Air said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Polymeron said...

Ah, about this one I just have to comment. On this one I think I can actually add something.

In broad strokes, I agree with your assertion. It has always been my position that moral luck should not be a part of judging an act's wrongness, for exactly the reasons you stated.

However, it is PARTLY justifiable, for two reasons that are very likely what makes this such a common, widespread mistake:

(1) It makes for more efficient examples for right/wrong behavior for those whose behavior we are trying to influence. This has to do with belief and probability - when I tell someone that "this act could have resulted in disaster", it has impact, especially if they agree with me, but some doubt could remain. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm over-inflating the severity of the consequences, or the chance of them happening. I mean, you could have hit your uncle's leg, or arm, or somesuch - the probability of him getting killed is debatable.
When I tell you an act *did* end in disaster, it makes it very clear that the act was wrong, because there's no denying its consequences (and intent plays no role here, since it is moral luck we're discussing after all, which assumes identical character etc.)
Likewise, you would publicly praise someone for their vigilance if it stopped a crime, because it would clearly demonstrate to everyone the consequences (increased fulfillment of people's desires) which we would like to associate with the desire to perform this act (be vigilant for possible crimes in progress). We might still praise a person who displayed vigilance and nothing came of it, but it would not be as effective in demonstrating that the desire to perform this act does, in fact, tend to fulfill other desires.
So reason (1) - moral luck makes certain actions more effective as examples.

(2) Certain consequences have detrimental effect in that they thwart people's desires, which we therefore have strong reason to prevent if possible. As a result, we have reason to discourage many different actions that cause or tend to cause those consequences.
So, if you shot and missed your uncle by accident and I tell people about it, they will learn a lesson about negligence. But if you shot and killed your uncle, and I could tell people about how bereaved the family was, how many desires were now hopelessly thwarted now etc. because of his death, it would actually serve as a good lesson not only about negligence, but for any sort of killing. This story could influence someone's actions years later when they are contemplating murder, or suicide - they'd remember how your uncle's death affected people and might be influenced by this, even though their dilemma *has nothing to do with negligence at all*. Thus you have promoted several good desires at once.
Using an example without the consequence (moral luck) might still have this effect, but the chance is much less. This is because the human way of thinking is primarily associative.
So reason (2) - moral luck serves to make an example more potent in encouraging other good desires with similar consequences, by way of association.

That makes moral luck's influence on punishment/reward a sound policy, to some degree; giving us reason to employ it, despite the *act itself* not being more or less right or wrong. The act has the same moral value, but our interests as a society are greater for handling it differently. Which means the desire to treat it differently tends to indirectly lead to more desires being fulfilled. Which makes it a good desire, one a person with good desires would make, and thus, justified.

...Yeah, I didn't mean to arrive at that conclusion, but there you have it - a desire utilitarian justification for treating cases differently because of moral luck, *despite the cases not being made morally different*.

Mind boggling, isn't it? o_O

Polymeron said...

Ah, about this one I just have to comment. On this one I think I can actually add something.

In broad strokes, I agree with your assertion. It has always been my position that moral luck should not be a part of judging an act's wrongness, for exactly the reasons you stated.

However, it is PARTLY justifiable, for two reasons that are very likely what makes this such a common, widespread mistake:

(1) It makes for more efficient examples for right/wrong behavior for those whose behavior we are trying to influence. This has to do with belief and probability - when I tell someone that "this act could have resulted in disaster", it has impact, especially if they agree with me, but some doubt could remain. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm over-inflating the severity of the consequences, or the chance of them happening. I mean, you could have hit your uncle's leg, or arm, or somesuch - the probability of him getting killed is debatable.
When I tell you an act *did* end in disaster, it makes it very clear that the act was wrong, because there's no denying its consequences (and intent plays no role here, since it is moral luck we're discussing after all, which assumes identical character etc.)
Likewise, you would publicly praise someone for their vigilance if it stopped a crime, because it would clearly demonstrate to everyone the consequences (increased fulfillment of people's desires) which we would like to associate with the desire to perform this act (be vigilant for possible crimes in progress). We might still praise a person who displayed vigilance and nothing came of it, but it would not be as effective in demonstrating that the desire to perform this act does, in fact, tend to fulfill other desires.
So reason (1) - moral luck makes certain actions more effective as examples.

(2) Certain consequences have detrimental effect in that they thwart people's desires, which we therefore have strong reason to prevent if possible. As a result, we have reason to discourage many different actions that cause or tend to cause those consequences.
So, if you shot and missed your uncle by accident and I tell people about it, they will learn a lesson about negligence. But if you shot and killed your uncle, and I could tell people about how bereaved the family was, how many desires were now hopelessly thwarted now etc. because of his death, it would actually serve as a good lesson not only about negligence, but for any sort of killing. This story could influence someone's actions years later when they are contemplating murder, or suicide - they'd remember how your uncle's death affected people and might be influenced by this, even though their dilemma *has nothing to do with negligence at all*. Thus you have promoted several good desires at once.
Using an example without the consequence (moral luck) might still have this effect, but the chance is much less. This is because the human way of thinking is primarily associative.
So reason (2) - moral luck serves to make an example more potent in encouraging other good desires with similar consequences, by way of association.

That makes moral luck's influence on punishment/reward a sound policy, to some degree; giving us reason to employ it, despite the *act itself* not being more or less right or wrong. The act has the same moral value, but our interests as a society are greater for handling it differently. Which means the desire to treat it differently tends to indirectly lead to more desires being fulfilled. Which makes it a good desire, one a person with good desires would make, and thus, justified.

...Yeah, I didn't mean to arrive at that conclusion, but there you have it - a desire utilitarian justification for treating cases differently because of moral luck, *despite the cases not being made morally different*.

Mind boggling, isn't it? o_O