Monday, April 17, 2017

Moral luck

First case. You drive home from your work. Suddenly a pedestrian crosses the road without looking to see if it was safe to do so. You cannot stop and you hit him. He is seriously injured. You feel guilty, but you couldn’t help. Actually it was simply bad luck that you were there just when the pedestrian crossed the road.
Second case. You drive home from your work. You take your mobile and call your wife that you are on your way home. Suddenly a pedestrian crosses the road without looking to see if it was safe to do so. You cannot stop and you hit him. He is seriously injured. You feel guilty, for it’s not allowed to use a mobile when driving. However, even if you had had both hands on the wheel, it would have been absolutely impossible to stop in time and not hit the pedestrian. So, actually it was simply bad luck that you were there just when the pedestrian crossed the road.
On the face of it, both cases are the same: You couldn’t have stopped, anyway, and it was simply bad luck that you were there and hit the pedestrian. As Thomas Nagel writes (p. 25): “Whether we succeed or fail in what we try to do nearly always depends to some extent on factors beyond our control.” Here the factors were that the pedestrian suddenly crossed the road and that just then you were passing by. However, in the second case, you were calling with your mobile, which was not allowed. Just this gives a moral aspect to the second case: Maybe you could have stopped in time, if you hadn’t been calling, even if it is dubious. Therefore philosophers talk of “bad luck” in the first case and of “moral bad luck” in the second case: that you were using your mobile makes that the accident has a moral aspect.
Moral bad luck, or generally “moral luck”, is an important though not much discussed problem in philosophy. The term has been introduced by Bernard Williams, and the idea has been further developed by authors like Thomas Nagel and Alfred R. Mele. For reasons of space I’ll limit my remarks to discussing Nagel’s article “Moral Luck”.
In the course of time, we do many things that can be judged morally – positively or negatively –, but whether it’s done so often depends on chance occurrences, as my cases illustrate. “What has been done, and what is morally judged, is partly determined by external factors”, so Nagel (p. 25). To take an example by Nagel: “Someone who was an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had never come to power in Germany. And someone who led a quiet and harmless life in Argentina might have become an officer in a concentration camp if he had not left Germany for business reasons in 1930.” (p. 26) This, so Nagel, illustrates a general point: “Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck. Such luck can be good or bad.” (ibid.) However, what is under your control and what is beyond your control? If we would consider all factors that determine what you do, we might come to the conclusion that “ultimately nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.” (ibid.)
Nagel doesn’t go that far. He sees a connection between the problems about responsibility and control and the problem of the free will. It’s true that “everything seems to result from the combined influence of factors, antecedent and posterior to action, that are not within the agent’s control. Since he cannot be responsible for them, he cannot be responsible for their results.” (p. 35) And “admittedly, if certain surrounding circumstances had been different, then no unfortunate consequences would have followed from a wicked intention, and no seriously culpable act would have been performed; but since the circumstances were not different, and the agent in fact succeeded in perpetrating a particular cruel murder, that is what he did, and what he is responsible for. Similarly, ... if certain circumstances had been different, the agent would never have been developed into the sort of person who would do such a thing.” But since the circumstances weren’t different and “he did develop ... into the sort of swine he is, and into the person who committed such a murder, that is what he is blameable for.” (ibid.)
In other words: An agent makes choices and that’s what he is responsible for. “Moral judgment of a person is judgment not of what happens to him, but of him.” We don’t judge his circumstances or his fate. “We are judging him, rather than his existence or characteristics.” (p. 36). It is the agent who acts, not his or her circumstances or fate that do. It’s so that “something in the idea of agency is incompatible with actions being events, or people being things. ... [T]hose actions remain ours and we remain ourselves, despite the persuasiveness of reasons that seem to argue us out of existence.” (p.37).
In discussing Nagel’s view on moral luck I had to leave out much what would make Nagel’s view clearer and what gives a better foundation of his conclusion. Anyway, it’s a conclusion that I endorse. Even if the circumstances happen to us, it’s me who bends them to my will by my actions. In this way, moral luck is also moral chances.

Source: Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck”, in: Mortal Question; Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979 (1991), pp. 24-38. (all italics in the quotes by Nagel)


Svitlana Sibirtseva said...

So, in both cases the driver is guilty, right?
I think the responsibility for what happened should also be taken
by the pedestrian, as he is more mobile, flexible and he was not operating any machine.
The basic safety rules should have been followed.
That means it is a bad luck for the pedestrian who did not care enough
to take basic care of himself.

I knew a case in law (it was American Law course on, it happened in the United States. There was a dog fight and two owners were watching the dogs. Then one owner got the stick and he approached to dogs, then he swung the stick in the air behind him to beat up the dogs with the stick, but the other owner was standing so close behind this man with the stick, that he got accidently hit by this stick in the eye and he lost the eye.

In all cases the man with the stick is guilty. But the verdict was that this person, who had lost the eye, should have taken care of himself and stayed away from the fighting dogs and the man with the stick. Because the man with the stick was concentrated on the dog fight and he could not see what was happening behind him!

So, Henk, isn't this case with dogs similar to the situation with this pedestrian?
I think that not only the driver is responsible for the whole situation
or it is a concatenation of circumstances which are beyond our control, but the pedestrian himself has a head on his shoulders and should partially had held the responsibility for his
own actions unless he was somnambulist or had severe psychotic disorder.

What is the punishment for the driver? Hypothetically?

HbdW said...

Hello Sveta,
Thank you for your comment. The point is that in both cases the drivers are not guilty that they were involved in the accidents. The accidents just happened to them, because the pedestrian cross the street inattentively. Had they passed the site a little bit before or later, the accident wouldn’t have happened.That’s why we say that it was bad luck that they were involved in the accident. In this sense the drivers were not responsible for the accident. However, the second driver was doing something that is not allowed when driving a car: calling with a mobile in his hand. This gives the accident a moral aspect for him, and he will be fined for it and it will be related to the accident, even if he couldn’t help that the accident happened. That’s why it’s called “moral bad luck”. It’s still a matter of bad luck, for would he have passed the site a moment before or later, the accident wouldn’t have happened and nobody wuld have seen that he was calling with a mobile in his hand while driving.
The pedestrian was guilty and responsible for the accident because he crossed the street without looking to see whether it was safe to do so. Of course, it was also bad luck for him that the accident happened.
The difference with your case is that the man with the stick failed to look whether he could swing it safely (which made him guilty), while the driver in the first case of mine had done everything he could reasonably do to avoid an accident (and the driver in the second case the same so with the exception that he was calling).
The driver in the first case will not be punished will in the second case maybe he will.
Thanks again for your comment,

Svitlana Sibirtseva said...

Ok, Henk!
Then why is pedestrian's responsibility in this case omitted? Isn't the
pedestrian equally or partially responsible for what had happened?

Svitlana Sibirtseva said...

I mean, if it was a deer in Swedish forest who had suddenly crossed the road,
then I would have understood. But this is a man crossing the road, not a deer.
A man is self-conscious of his actions, so the blame cannot be put fully on
the driver.

HbdW said...

Hello Sveta,
The blog is not about responsibility but about moral luck (and moral bad luck). Of course, the pedestrian had also bad luck, but for illustrating what moral luck is, I didn't need to discuss his case.
As for the deer crossing the road, it's a matter of bad luck for the driver, of course, but even if s/he was calling at the moment of the accident, morality wasn't involved. I am not a legal specialist, but I think that in most countries law will see it as an one-sided accident without legal consequences, even if the driver was calling. It's a matter between the driver and his/her assurance company (unless you are an animal rights activist).