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.