Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Moral Luck Part I: Understanding the Issue

I have been asked to write a few words about moral luck.

This will probably take a couple of posts to accomplish. The first thing I need to do is to explain the issue of moral luck and explain why it might be a problem for a moral theory such as desire utilitarianism. Then, once we have that down, we can move on to the question of how a desire utilitarian deals with the issue of moral luck.

Moral luck concerns the apparent fact that a person can be morally praised or blamed, effectively, for things over which he or she had no control.

Here is an example of moral luck.

A man plots the murder of his former girlfriend. He takes a gun, goes to where she works, pulls out the gun, aims, and fires it. However, quite by chance, the gun misfires. Before he gets a chance to fire again he is tackled and brought to the ground.

Whether the gun misfired or not is an event entirely outside of the agent’s control. The agent did not intend for the gun to misfire. He did not desire that the gun misfire. However, the gun did misfire. As a result, the agent is treated as somebody who had done less wrong than he would have done if the gun had not misfired. The agent, in other words, gets moral credit (or less moral debt) based on things outside of his control.

I think that clearer cases of moral luck apply to instances where we do not intend to do harm.

I can relate a personal story of moral luck to illustrate this aspect. When young, while hunting, I heard an animal coming through the brush. I raised my rifle and fired. I missed, fortunately, because the person coming through the brush was my uncle. It boggles the mind to think of how much different my life would have been if I had hit what I was aiming at. My uncle laughs about it, but I still get sick just thinking about it.

There are people today, in prison, who have done less than I have done. The only difference is that they were not as lucky as I was when they had their moment of poor judgment. Their act of negligence gets somebody killed or maimed or causes a huge amount of unintended damage to property.

The issue of moral luck asks us, "Are we at all justified in treating these cases differently? Are we justified in punishing the person whose act of negligence does harm while the person whose act of negligence does no harm suffers only a mild rebuke?"

There is nothing in the nature of the person that justifies this difference. We can use these factors to draw an infinite list of examples of cases where two people, having exactly the same personal qualities (moral character), perform some action having drastically different results, were we are naturally disposed to condemn people based on the harm done rather than on the quality of the person causing the harm.

Desire utilitarianism holds that a moral prohibition is an action that a person with good desires would not have done. A person with good desires – with sufficient concern for the welfare of others – would not have taken the risk of shooting at an unseen target in a bush. It was a morally prohibited action. Whether I had hit my Uncle or not does not affect the degree to which a person with good desires would not have fired. It should have no relevance to the degree of moral condemnation. Yet, it seems, it does.

So, how are we going to handle these issues of moral luck?

Stay tuned for my next posting.


anton said...

Moral Luck occurs when a home does not get burgled because a guard dog is in the home. In the 1980s, a burglar in Alberta illegally entered a home and was horrifically mauled to death by the resident guard dog. Their were howls of disagreement as the owner was charged with "manslaughter" and convicted. A civil suit brought by the burglars relatives was also successful in claiming the dogs owner facilitated the wrongful death of their "loved" one. I would imagine the owner would have fared better if he had an association like the NRA organizing his defense. IMHO,though, people with guard dogs are creating a situation where they can "impose" their own punishment on an intruder that far outdistances any "legal" punishment that could be enforced by society. Consequently, the custodian of a guard dog is just as guilty of the fellow with the misfiring gun even if he is experiencing "moral luck" because no intruder has entered his home. The intent is to kill or maim. That is immoral.

James said...

I don't think the intent of the dog owners is to kill or maim, but rather to protect their property and have a companion.

Emu Sam said...

Lack of intent to cause harm may have been the reason the charge was manslaughter and not murder.

Not having read about the case, I can make a hypothesis - that the dog was in some way trained or bred to attack in such a way as might lead to death, and that if the main purpose was to have a companion (not a guard), he would not have been found guilty that way. To test the hypothesis, I'll go read the decision and report back.

In such a case, the desire to protect property should be coupled with a desire for the proper degree of punishment, and should not involve killing anyone for a B&E.

Emu Sam said...

What I've found is that there are a LOT of similar cases, but many places where the owner would be found liable in such a way don't care if the dog is trained to kill or not. Dog enthusiasts suggest most dogs would not kill, but it is clearly not a tested opinion. Also, I've wandered into legal issues again, when this is an ethical blog, and the issue should properly be what an ethical law would be, not what current law is.

A person who chooses to live with a dog should either choose a gentle dog or take responsible steps to see that the dog harms none beyond the level of the infraction committed. This would probably mean making sure that the dog does no harm at all because of the difficulty of explaining to a dog the difference between being in the wrong place, and being in the wrong place while holding a gun (and similar distinctions).

anton said...

Emu Sam:
I am glad that you researched the issue. At one time I bred dogs. None of them were trained to attack or kill but there are no "experts" who can determine what I dog will do in defense of his home.

My personal experience was similar, but not deadly. Blood was still spilled and caused a lot of family bitterness because the victim was my father-in-law. Without telling us, he came to visit for the first time and made good time on his 500 mile trip so he arrived about 3 a.m. Not wanting to disturb us, he let himself into our planetarium which we had converted into our pet dog's "home". Our dog attacked the "intruder" and bit him quite savagely. We didn't know our dog had it in him but were glad that he had "repelled" the intruder who had "escaped". Many hours later, a bandaged and "angry" father-in-law appeared. He "ordered" me to get rid of the dog. I didn't. Hostilities were directed towards me for the remaining 40 years of his life!

Emu Sam said...

You're welcome. I should probably specify that I am not a lawyer and that laws are different from area to area. What seems to hold true is that an area which allows you to shoot an intruder will not prosecute for what your dog may do defending territory, and vice versa. The dog is a gun, and an owner allowing it to roam free is equivalent to pointing and pulling the trigger, whether both things are allowable or both are impermissible.

Your father-in-law is obviously not a dog person. Personally, I don't blame the dog. But it's hard to blame the father, too.