Monday, February 20, 2017

Some Thoughts on Moral Luck

189 days until classes start.

I have not been posting to the frequency that I should. I need to be writing more - even if it means reading less. Though writing is not the absence of learning. I have learned that trying to explain my ideas forces me to make more sense of themselves myself. I get more from my writing than anybody else does, I think.

I fear that I have been having some doubts about my ability to do this philosophy thing. It's standard self-doubting, something that I am certain many people experience. I just have to keep plugging away and see what comes of it. If I am unable to do a decent job at this, at least I have not been so foolish as to think I could do a decent job at something on which the lives of others depend, like being President of the United States.

Imagine having an incompetent self-important person in that position. The consequences could be catastrophic.

I recently posted another paper on the Desirism forum of Facebook. This one concerns the moral failings of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Even though the election is long past, this topic still comes up, particularly by people who think that Sanders would have defeated Trump and brought into existence a new golden age of global peace, harmony, and understanding.

The paper does not concern the question of who would have won the election. These types of questions are outside of my area of expertise. Instead, it concerns a question that I have addressed a few times in this blog - the moral failings of the Sanders campaign.

There were three that particularly concerned me.

(a) Sanders' preference for political ideology over scientific fact, particularly in the areas of nuclear power, genetically modified foods, alternative medicine, and fracking.

(b) Sanders use of an "us versus them" political message to rally a group of supporters against "them" who he branded, as a group, as the enemies of "us". Trump used this technique targeting immigrants. Sanders used this technique targeting billionaires.

(c) Sanders' total disregard for the well-being of the global poor.

As I mentioned, I discussed this issue in some previous posts. However, in the paper I posted I put in more work in finding sources and in producing complete arguments. You are invited to find the posting on the Desirism facebook group if you want to know the details of the argument.

In the mean time, I have had an opportunity to attend the Phil 5100 class at the university twice and see three other presentations.

In one of these class lectures, I acquired a new and different perspective on the issue of moral luck.

Moral luck concerns the fact that a person can be condemned and punished for things that are not their fault. The example used in class concerned two friends who shared some drinks and tried to drive home. Both were intoxicated. One of them left the road and crashed into a tree. The other left the road and crashed into a young child, killing the child. We declare that the second person deserves more punishment, even though both agents are equally culpable. No difference can be found in their character - in their desires - yet one deserves more punishment than the other.

I have long thought that this was a problem. What we should do is determine what the normal amount of harm is by taking into account the cases in which there was extreme harm and the cases in which there was no harm at all, average the harms, and punish each person according to the amount of this average harm.

However, in this class I realized that all of the effort to average these cases is unnecessary if we only punish people for harms done.

Let us assume that there are 10 such accidents, and the amount of harm they inflict is: 0, 10, 2, 0, 0, 1, 9, 5, 0, and 4, for a total of 21 units of harm. We could add this all together, come up with the number "2.1 units of harm per accident" and punish everybody we catch according to this average risk of harm.

However, if we punish each person for harm done we get effectively the same result.

The "0" values represent people who made it home safely and do not get caught. I am assuming that they will get away with their crimes. The others got caught - some of them inflicting minor damage, and a couple inflicting extensive damage. Punish each person according to the damage done and, in the end, one would inflict punishment according to an average of 2.1 units of harm. The difference is that, instead of each person being punished as if they had inflicted 2.1 units of harm (including those who did not get caught), this represents the average punishment which, in some cases, is 0 and in others is quite high.

This option saves society the effort of determining what an average harm is. Yet, one still inflicts an average punishment that is proportional to the average harm, even though some of the perpetrators (those who made it home without incident) do not get punished at all.

Another benefit from this type of system rests in the fact that there may be ways of reducing the risk of harming others or the amount of harms inflicted. Such a system invites people to search for and follow those procedures. Doing so will reduce the chance or the amount of harms they inflict on others, and would reduce their level of punishment. We may not be able to consciously identify those factors, but that does not mean that they are not out there to be considered.

We allow for luck in a number of areas. An example of moral luck with respect to credit can be seen in the case of two soldiers who rush out of their shelter to assault an enemy stronghold. One of them, in our example, gets shot right away, while the other manages to get up to the strong hold, throw in a couple of grenades, and neutralize the stronghold. The former person becomes just another casualty. The latter becomes a hero. Yet, in this example, there is no difference between the individuals that determined these different outcomes. It is just that one of them happened to get in the way of a bullet, and the other did not.

And we allow for luck in a number of cases of actions that are neither heroic or blameworthy, but which are morally permissible. Some people buy a lottery ticket and enjoy a great reward. Most others get nothing for their effort. Here, too, their rewards are not based on any difference in their moral character, but we allow the differences in luck to stand nonetheless.

Concerning the other presentations I attended, I fear two of those presentations did me little good. One of them concerned the existence of sets and, I am afraid to say, the discussion went past me. It is as if the speaker was speaking a foreign language. Another presentation on corporate responsibility was given by a speaker whose accent was difficult for me to understand. This made his argument difficult to follow.

The third presentation, on the other hand, concerned conceptions of free will. It concerned two different conceptions of free will I have been trying to find time to write up some comments on that presentation, and hope to at least post something here in the next day or two.

I have spent much of today working on my paper on the basics of desirism. I am up to 15000 words at the moment, and it is still growing. It will likely be 25000 words when I finish, then it will go up on the desirism forum. According to my self-imposed deadline, I need this submitted by the middle of March. I should be treating this like a school assignment with a deadline.

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