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The Problem of Moral Luck
Two would-be assassins take shots at their intended victims. One hits and is guilty of murder. The other misses and is guilty of attempted murder. Legal distinctions aside, most of us will see the successful murderer as morally tainted by his act, a taint that his failed colleague, by pure chance, escaped.
Why the difference? Being a bad shot is not a moral virtue.
For a second example of the same puzzle, consider two drunk drivers, one of whom hit and killed a child, one of whom barely missed doing so. Again, to both the law and individual moral feelings, the former is worse than the latter. Actual blood stains, potential blood does not, even if the difference is a matter of pure chance. Why?
For a third example, consider our feelings towards someone who was a Nazi concentration camp guard. Suppose you are convinced that most people in his society, offered the job, would have taken it. Does that make him less guilty? Does it mean that most of his contemporaries are, morally speaking, just as guilty, having escaped only through the good luck of not having the opportunity to commit his crime? Suppose you are convinced that most human beings, probably including yourself, if born and brought up in his society and offered the job, would have taken it. Does that mean we are all equally guilty? Nobody I know feels that way and yet the argument looks convincing. Why should someone’s moral status, praise or blame, depend on factors over which he had no control?
That is the puzzle that philosophers refer to as the problem of moral luck.
The assassin who missed might just be a bad shot, but he might also have lost his nerve at the last minute. The drunk driver who did not quite run down a child might have been a little less drunk, or a little more careful, than the one who did. Seen from this standpoint, the legal distinction is a consequence of our imperfect knowledge. It is a special case of the general issue of whether we should punish acts by their consequences, ex post, or by what we know of their causes, ex ante. Interested readers can find an extended discussion in a webbed chapter of my Law's Order. The moral version of the puzzle is more difficult.
Part of the answer is that most of us believe in two quite different systems of morality. For one, what matters is what happens inside someone's head. The man who tried to commit murder is bad whether or not he killed anyone, the consequences for the outside world are accidents. As Adam Smith put it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his first book:
To the intention or affection of the heart, therefore, to the propriety or impropriety, to the beneficence or hurtfulness of the design, all praise or blame, all approbation or disapprobation, of any kind, which can justly be bestowed upon any action, must ultimately belong.
The other approach looks at morality as a system of accounts; the question is who owes what to whom. If your house has been wrecked, someone is going to have to pay for it. If I am the person responsible, however innocent my motive, I am the one who should pay. If your house has not been damaged no debt is owed, however much I wanted to wreck it or however hard I tried.
Think of the first approach as the God's eye view of the world. God knows enough to judge who is good and who is bad, who deserves Heaven, who Hell. And God, unlike humans, does not face a budget constraint. If a house has been smashed but it is nobody's fault, God can put it back together. Imagining ourselves in the position of God looking down at the world, we judge people by what they are, not by what they did.
The accounting approach makes more sense from the standpoint of a society of equals. My opinion of the state of your soul is worth no more than your opinion of the state of mine. A house has been destroyed and we can, with luck, figure out who did it. Since there is no god offering to do repairs, someone has to be stuck with the bill.
The distinction maps, imperfectly, to the difference between criminal law and tort law. Criminal guilt requires intent; an attempt that does no damage is still a crime. Tort liability does not require intent and an attempt that does no damage is not a tort. A tort case is a dispute between equals. A criminal case is a dispute between the defendant and the state. States are not gods but are often viewed as having a moral status rather like one.
You can find a longer discussion of the puzzle and its history in an old law review article of mine.I found particularly interesting Adam Smith's extended discussion, where he argues both that our moral intuition is wrong and that it being wrong is a good thing, evidence of divine benevolence, since human beings are not competent to fairly judge other human beings on the contents of their hearts.
Robert Nozick described the distinction as between what I am entitled to and what I deserve. If we wager a dollar on the flip of the coin and I win the bet, I am entitled to the dollar. But I did not deserve to win the bet so do not deserve the dollar.
Moral judgement based on desert, combined with the assumption that what you deserve can be depend only on things you are responsible for, can be interpreted as implying a radically egalitarian conclusion. Differences in wealth or income due to accidents of birth cannot be deserved, since my being born to rich parents or you to poor ones was neither my doing nor yours. That applies to my genetic inheritance as well. That too was an accident so far as I was concerned, so could not affect what I deserve.
The same is true for other accidents of birth. I did not deserve to be born to loving parents who brought me up to be a generous, honest, productive individual, nor did you deserve to be born to the opposite sorts of parents who brought you up to be the opposite sort of person. The man who ended up a guard in a Nazi concentration camp did not deserve to be born in Germany in 1920 nor did I deserve not to be, so his guilt is undeserved, as is my innocence.
The conclusion is more radically egalitarian than most egalitarians would like, since it applies not only to the difference between rich people and poor people but to the difference between good people and bad people. Strip off everything a person is not himself responsible for — genes, wealth, upbringing, both nature and nurture — and it is hard to see what is left on which differences in desert could be based.
One possible response to this disturbing conclusion is that we all deserve the same outcome but giving it to us costs more than it is worth. In a society where outcomes do not depend on what you do there is no incentive to be honest, productive, or helpful; the result is equal poverty and misery. The implication of that argument is that inequality is always unjust, that every difference in outcome must justify itself as producing enough benefit in increased size of the pie to justify its cost in a less just division.
Another possibility is to reject the concept of desert in favor of entitlement or at least to argue that entitlement ought to be given some moral weight. The heir does not deserve his inheritance but it was given voluntarily by someone who legitimately earned it, so he is entitled to get it. While I have a good deal of sympathy with that position, I think it more interesting to try to deal with the egalitarian conclusion of the argument from moral desert on its own terms.
What, if anything, is wrong with it?
One possible answer is that if every factor on which desert might be based, every characteristic of the individual, is due to some external cause for which that individual deserves neither credit nor blame, then we are all equally undeserving. If we all deserve nothing, any distribution of outcomes is equally just. If I don't deserve to be the particular person I am, don't deserve to be born in the country and century I was, I also don't deserve to be a human being rather than a squirrel — and a squirrel has no claim to a per capita share of the national income.
Another answer, the one I find most convincing, is that our moral judgements are predicated of people as they are, not as they might have been. If you say "Adolf Hitler was a bad person who deserved to have bad things happen to him," your statement is about the actual Hitler, not the fertilized egg that would eventually become Hitler. What a human being deserves depends on the characteristics of that human being, not the characteristics of the potential person, stripped of all accidental characteristics, that became that actual person. If I am hard working, honest and generous, the fertilized egg that became me, or the potential person that in some sense became that egg, did not deserve to have turned out that way. But I, having turned out that way, deserve to have good things happen to me.
I have discussed the question at such length for two different reasons. The first is that I find moral luck to be an interesting puzzle and paradox, only parts of which I can adequately explain away. The second is that, while I doubt there are many people who would be willing to accept the full blown radical egalitarianism it seems to imply, the basic argument is one element in the widespread view that equality of outcomes is a good thing.
Thoughts on the Trolley Problem
A familiar philosophical conundrum goes as follows:
You are standing by a trolley track which goes down a hill, next to a fork in the track controlled by a switch. You observe, uphill from you, a trolley that has come loose and is rolling down the track. The switch is currently set to send the trolley down the right branch of the fork. Four people are sitting on the right branch, unaware of the approaching trolley, too far for you to get a warning to them.
One person is sitting on the left branch. Should you pull the switch to divert the trolley to the left branch?
The obvious consequentialist answer is that, assuming you know nothing about the people and value human life, you should, since it means one random person killed instead of four. Yet to many people that seems the wrong answer, probably because they feel responsible for the results of what they do but not of what they do not do.
In another version of the problem you are standing on a balcony overlooking the trolley track, which this time has no fork but still has four people whom the trolley, if not stopped, will kill. Standing next to you is a very overweight stranger. A quick mental calculation leads you to the conclusion that if you push him off the balcony onto the track below, his mass will be sufficient to stop the trolley. Again you can save four lives at the cost of one. I suspect fewer people would approve of doing so than in the previous case.
One possible explanation of the refusal to take the action that minimizes the number killed starts with the problem of decentralized coordination in a complicated world. No individual can hope to know all of the consequences of every choice he makes. A reasonable strategy is to separate out some subset of consequences that you do understand and can choose among and base decisions on that. A possible subset is "consequences of my actions." You adopt a policy of rejecting actions that cause bad consequences. You have pushed out of your calculation what will happen if you do not act, since in most cases you do not, perhaps cannot, know. The trolley problem is in that respect artificial, atypical, and so (arguably) leads your decision mechanism to reach the wrong answer. A different way of putting it is that your decision mechanism, like conventional legal rules, has a drastically simplified concept of causation in which action is responsible as a cause, inaction is not. My failure to spend everything not needed for my own survival on saving the lives of poor people in Africa or Asia does not feel to me like murder and is not treated as murder by the law.
I now add a third version. This is just like the second, except that you do not think you can stop the trolley by throwing only the stranger onto the track. Your calculation implies, however, that the two of you together would be sufficient. You grab him and jump.
The question is not whether you should do it — most of us are reluctant to claim that we are obliged to sacrifice our lives for strangers. The question is, if you do, how will third parties regard your action. I suspect that many more people will approve of it this time than in the previous case, even though you are now sacrificing one more life for the same benefit. If so, why?
The answer may be that, when judging other people's actions, we do not entirely trust them. When you take an act that injures someone for purportedly benevolent motives we suspect the motives may be self-interested and the claim dishonest, that the overweight person whose life you have just sacrificed may be someone you dislike or whose existence is inconvenient to you. By being willing to sacrifice your own life as well as his, you provide a convincing rebuttal to such suspicions.
All of which in part comes from thinking about my response to Red Alert, the novel on which the movie Doctor Strangelove was based. In both versions of the story, a high ranking air force officer sets off a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In the movie, he is crazy. In the book, he is a sympathetic character with good reason to regard the idea of Soviet conquest with horror, having observed atrocities committed by Soviet troops in Germany at the end of WWII.He has concluded, for all the reader knows correctly, that a unilateral nuclear attack by the U.S. will succeed, destroy enough of the Soviet military so that the counterattack will not do an enormous amount of damage to the U.S. He has also concluded that the balance of power is changing, that in the near future the U.S. will not be able to succeed in such an attack and that in the further future the USSR will triumph.
Under those circumstances, his choice is not obviously wrong. It is the consequentialist choice in the trolley problem with the number of lives at stake considerably expanded.
What makes him a sympathetic character, in the book but not the movie, is that his plot requires him to commit suicide in order to make sure he cannot be forced to give up the information that would let his superiors recall the bombers he has sent off. The fact that he is willing to pay with his own life as well as that of others makes his act seem more excusable, perhaps even right.
As in my final trolley example.
Part 6 of the article webbed at http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Payne/Payne.html
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 2 Section III Chapter 3.
The Wikipedia article on Red Alert claims that the general’s act was due to paranoid delusion. That is not how I remember it. While it is possible that the facts are distorted in my memory, it is also possible that the author of the article was unwilling to consider, at least unwilling to suggest in print, that a nuclear first strike might be morally defensible. I don’t have a copy of the book and have not tried to find one to check; my point here is based on my reaction to the plot as I remember it. Any readers who have Red Alert or have read it are encouraged to report in the comments.