image edited by Web Investigator
Two people drive drunk at night: one kills a pedestrian, one doesn’t. Does the unlucky killer deserve more blame or not?
There is a contradiction in our ordinary ideas about moral responsibility. Let’s explore it by considering two examples. Killer, our first character, is at a party and drives home drunk. At a certain point in her journey, she swerves, hits the curb, and kills a pedestrian who was on the curb. Merely Reckless, our second character, is in every way exactly like Killer but, when she swerves and hits a curb, she kills no one. There wasn’t a pedestrian on the curb for her to kill. The difference between Killer and Merely Reckless is a matter of luck.
Does Killer deserve more blame – that is, resentment and indignation – than Merely Reckless? Or, do Killer and Merely Reckless deserve the same degree of blame? We feel a pull to answer ‘yes’ to both questions. Let’s consider why.
On the one hand, we believe that Killer deserves more blame than Merely Reckless, because it’s only Killer who causes the death of a pedestrian. Plausibly, a person can deserve extra blame for a bad result of her action that she reasonably could have been expected to foresee, and causing the death of a pedestrian by driving drunk is that kind of bad consequence. So, even though they deserve an equal degree of blame for their callous and reckless driving, Killer deserves more blame overall, because only Killer’s foreseeable moral risk turns out badly.
On the other hand, we believe that Killer and Merely Reckless must deserve the same degree of blame, because luck is the only difference between them, and luck, most of us think, cannot affect the praise and blame a person deserves. It would be unfair for Killer to deserve more blame due merely to what happened to her, because moral judgment is about a person and not what happens to her. So, they must deserve the same degree of blame.
In summary, our commonsense ideas about moral responsibility imply the contradiction that Killer and Merely Reckless do and do not deserve the same amount of resentment and indignation. More generally, our commonsense ideas about moral responsibility have the paradoxical implication that luck in results can and cannot affect how much praise and blame a person deserves.
Nevertheless, the vexation runs deeper. Luck clearly affects the results of actions but, less obviously, as I’ll demonstrate, luck can also affect actions themselves.
Fumbles, our third character, is in every way like Killer and Merely Reckless. They all get drunk and decide to drive home in the dark, and they all walk on autopilot to their cars. Fumbles takes a slightly different path to her car from the others, trips over a patch of uneven lawn, and drops her keys down a drain. Fumbles is forced to call a cab to take her home. Of course, it’s a matter of luck which path each person takes, because they’re all oblivious to the relative merits of the different routes to their cars. If Fumbles hadn’t taken that path and lost her keys, she would’ve driven drunk just like Killer and Merely Reckless.
Night Blind, our fourth character, has many of the same beliefs and character traits as Killer, Merely Reckless and Fumbles. She differs from those three mainly by having horrendous night vision, and this incapacity distinguishes her character by making driving at night unthinkable for her. When Night Blind gets drunk in the evening, she doesn’t even entertain the idea of driving home. Of course, her having bad night vision is a matter of luck, like the good vision of the others. If Night Blind had better vision (and if driving drunk had also been an option for her), we might suppose that she would’ve decided to drive home drunk just like Killer, Merely Reckless and Fumbles.
The contradiction at the heart of our thinking extends to these new characters. On the one hand, we believe that luck affects the degree of blame deserved by all four characters. We believe that Killer and Merely Reckless deserve more blame than Fumbles, because they drive home drunk, and Fumbles does not. We also believe that Killer, Merely Reckless and Fumbles deserve some degree of blame, but that Night Blind, who got a cab home, deserves no blame at all. In other words, we think that luck affects the degree of blame each person deserves.
On the other hand, we believe that luck cannot affect the blame that Killer, Merely Reckless, Fumbles and Night Blind deserve, and so believe that all four deserve precisely the same degree of blame. The salient differences between these four characters is something outside of their control: the location of the pedestrian, tripping over uneven ground in the dark, or having bad night vision. But they each would’ve driven drunk if they had been in the same circumstance and had the same constitution. So, they all must deserve the same degree of blame…