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.