Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Moral Luck Part 2: Compensatory Damages

In my last post I explained some aspects of moral luck and why it is a problem for desire utilitarianism. Moral luck has to do with altering the amount of praise or blame we give a person as a result of things that are outside of the agent’s control. This means, in desire utilitarian terms, holding people responsible for things that neither the presence nor absence of good desires could affect.

An example of moral luck is the difference between spacing out, rolling through a red light, and having no consequences, versus spacing out and running a red light and hitting a kid on a bicycle. The agent’s desires have no influence over whether there was a kid in the crosswalk when she ran the red light. Yet, that fact is relevant in distinguishing between a person who deserves a firm reprimand versus one who is guilty of negligent homicide.

Before turning our full attention to moral luck, I want to address some factors about luck in general and its relevance to torts. The issue of torts has to do, among other things, with the amount of compensation one owes to people as a result of doing something wrong.

I wish to start by taking a look at the non-moral issue in which an agent suffers a momentary lapse of judgment and ends up doing damage to himself or his own property. In a fit of anger, a person bashes his own computer, or the lone resident of a house falls asleep while smoking, or a rancher wrecks his own tractor by attempting to drive it while drunk.

Sometimes, we get away with doing something stupid. Sometimes, we pay a very high price for our stupidity. For every person who has overreached on a ladder and suffered no ill effects, there is another who fell and broke bones, became paralyzed, or lost his life as a result.

In short, when we suffer the effects of our own foolishness, luck has a role – sometimes a significant role – in determining how much this costs us. Luck, to put it simply, is simply a fact of life – something we must deal with. Some of us are luckier than others. Some of us pick the winning lottery numbers while others do not.

Just as the amount of harm we suffer ourselves as a consequence of our lapses is dependent on luck, so is the amount of harm we do to others. However, when we harm others as a result of our lapses one of the issues that comes into play is that of just compensation. If I damage your car, I am morally responsible to pay the cost of restoring you to what economists call the same indifference curve. The loss is my fault, not yours. So I must pay for it, not you.

This is not moral luck in the sense that I mentioned yesterday. However, it is a case in which luck plays a part in determining the magnitude of one’s moral obligations to compensate others for harms done, simply because luck played a role in determining how much harm was done. We are not assessing culpability based on luck, but we are using it to assess the size of the bill.

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