Thursday, May 07, 2009

Moral Luck Part 5: Responsibility vs. Luck

I have been writing recently about moral luck - the observed fact that we hold people responsible for aspects of their actions over which they have no control. A man shoots his wife in the face with a shotgun. She lives, miraculously. We hold him responsible for assault rather than murder. In both the moral and legal sense, assault is a lesser crime. Yet, the difference between assault and murder in this case is pure blind luck.

Actually, the concept of "moral luck" strikes me as a contradiction in terms. Morality is concerned with holding people accountable for things. It is a simple contradiction to say that a person is responsible for something they are not responsible for – that a person can be held morally responsible for that which is a matter of luck.

If somebody is responsible for a particular effect, then it is not a matter of luck. And if it is a matter of luck, this implies that nobody is responsible.

Be that as it may, desire utilitarianism does not allow us to say that something is "just wrong". There is no such thing as "just wrong". And it is not the case that there is no such thing as “just wrong” only if you believe desire utilitarianism. Intrinsic values do not exist – and devotion to a moral theory that believes in intrinsic values will not cause them to spring into existence.

The way to measure a desire is according to the reasons that people generally have to promote (or inhibit) that desire.

Among the desires that we have reason to promote is an aversion to doing harm to others based solely on a desire to cause them harm. Desires that motivate an agent to act in ways that harm others are, at least at first glance, properly marked as desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit. We have the basis for a good presumption of illegitimacy here, unless and until legitimacy has been demonstrated.

It seems unlikely that one can justify the legitimacy of harming somebody because he is responsible for something that is a matter of luck.

The luck of compensatory justice and epistemic luck give us a couple of elements that somewhat resemble moral luck. The luck that determines how much harm a person does determines what the person who did the harm owes in terms of compensation. And actual praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment can only be grounded on what we believe to be the case about another person’s moral character. It implies nothing about the character itself.

A person is no more being blamed for the fact that there are additional costs to compensate for any more than is blamed when luck forces a momentary lapse of judgment to do more or less harm to the agent himself than would typically be suffered as a result of such an action.

This does suggest that good people would take pains to remove what counts as a number of injustices from our current system. It suggests arguing for changes in the law (and in morality) so that people are convicted and sentenced more on what they tried to do rather than what they accomplished. If two people tried to do the same thing – even if one failed and the other did not – then they should face equal condemnation and equal punishment. This rule is to be violated only insofar as and to the degree that we are unable to determine what it is each wanted.

This is the only principle that is consistent with the idea that we are going to hold people responsible for that which they are actually responsible for, and we are not going to take things that are outside of a person’s control as reason to believe that the person deserves to be harmed.

No comments: