Moral Luck

Saturday, January 11, 2014 -- 4:00 PM
John Perry

Suppose Ken and I buy tickets for the California Lottery.  We go to the same 7-11,  pay the same amount, push the same button to get a ticket with randomly generated numbers.  Ken, lucky fellow, plays the winning number and collect $10 million.  (This is a fictional example!).  I play a losing number, and get nothing.

That’s a pretty good example of luck.  Ken was lucky, I wasn’t.  Suppose I argue that the result --- Ken with his $10 million, me with nothing --- is unfair.  After all, we paid the same amount, put the same amount of thought into choosing numbers (none),  had the same good intentions about how we would spend the money, and had about the same need for $10 million (none).  So it’s unfair that he gets all that money, and I get nothing.  I deserve the prize as much as he does.

You would not find this argument impressive.  What is it I want?  That the lottery jackpot should be divided equally among the ticket buyers?  Then it wouldn’t be a lottery, would it?  Even if you call it a lottery, who would play?  Pay a dollar for a ticket, and then get back less than a dollar (to take care of expenses).  The whole idea of  a lottery is to get a jackpot you don’t deserve any more than anyone else --- to be lucky.

It seems that morality is quite a different matter.  In a fair moral system, it seems that how one is treated -- how one gets praised and blamed, punished and rewarded---- whether by the state, other people, or oneself, should depend on what one deserves.  And what one deserves should depend on one’s own intentions, desires, motivations and things like that; it shouldn’t be a matter of luck.

But consider this example.  Doctors A and B both perform operations, using general anesthesia.   Both A and B are negligent, in not checking whether their patients have epilepsy --- an important thing to do, with general anesthesia, although of course most people don’t have epilepsy.  Dr.  A is lucky.  His patient doesn’t have epilepsy, and does fine.  Dr. B is unlucky.  His patient has epilepsy, and has a seizure and dies.

Both doctors were negligent.  And we can assume they both had good intentions and were equally skillful.  The difference was luck.  So, given what we said a moment ago, they seem to be the same in terms of what they deserve.  But we certainly wouldn’t treat them the same.  Dr. B will may be guilty of medical manslaughter, or at least malpractice.  They probably won’t even treat themselves the same.   Dr. B is likely to feel guilty, and perhaps be haunted by what he has done.  If Dr. A hears about what happened with Dr. B’s operation, and realizes that he himself was similarly negligent, is likely to feel some guilt, but not be wracked with guilt, as might be appropriate for B.

So, what should we say?

  • The doctors do differ morally, not because of difference intention, but  because of lucky and lucky circumstances, and this justified the difference in treatment?
  • The doctors do not differ morally, and the difference in treatment is unfair and uncalled for?
  • The doctors do not differ morally, but the difference in treatment makes a lot of sense.

I go with the third option.  Think of it this way.   The state of California wants us to play the California Lottery.   The more riches are piled on the winner, the more people will want to play.  So it makes sense to treat the equally deserving lottery players differently.

The state of California does not want doctors to play the Negligence Lottery.  Each negligent doctor (or driver, etc.) wins if nothing bad happens, loses if it does. The dreadful result of being a loser, provides an incentive doctors not to play the game at all --- i.e. not to be negligent.   If the costs and punishments for the occasional bad results were distributed equally across all the players --- all the negligent doctors --- that might be fair, but there would be little negative incentive for playing the game.  But piling on the penalties on those who lose the lottery --- those whose negligence leads to disaster --- the state strives to run a lottery that no doctor will want to enter.

 

 

 

Comments (15)


Mello Jello's picture

Mello Jello

Saturday, January 11, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

-- I'm going to call a

-- I'm going to call a Strawman logical fallacy: the reactions of the doctors are based on perceived normality and unjustly supplement the integrity of the argument.
-- The inclusion of "luck" into the argument is risky. It's quite vulgar in the post-modern age to lay causality at the feet of Fortuna. Luck is a vulgar imposition of order that distorts anything nearing truthful causality.
-- I'm going to call False Dilemma on the bullets offered; you did not offer the fullest set of options based on the options you gave; I'm not asking for a realization of every potential, just for the "do differs" and "do not differs" to be more neatly dichotomized in more logical form.

Ultimately the idea is great but not proven here: you cannot reasonably compare 1.) the causality leading up to the morality surrounding the prosecution of a doctor regarding negligence in surgery resulting in death to 2.) the inverted causality of winning the lottery. 1 and 2 are apples and oranges.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, January 12, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I suppose there may be some

I suppose there may be some connection between luck and morality, however, I have not yet been able to assess just what that might be. This may comport roughly with the above comment by Mello Jello. If, for example, morality has some universal parameters, then it would not appear to depend upon a roll of the dice, spin of a roulette wheel or draw of the cards. Granted, there are some probability theorists who may dispute this on one level or another. People argue over the proven reality of evolution all the time and in many ways, just as they argue over science vs. religion. There are always points of dissent. This is reality. And consciousness.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 13, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

John, this is a very

John, this is a very difficult concept to understand, but maybe you could have put in some general definitions or better yet a general question.  I think Harold and Mello  are completely missing the point, because, i think, in part, the fact that you just gave examples (which seems strange since examples are such a good way to explain things.)  The point is:
* It seems that favorable/unfavorable circumstance doexist. If this is luck, then luck exists.
* We should not be blamed or praised for something that is not under our control (i.e. circumstance). This is called the 'control principle'
* Now the question is: 'Can the same moral judgments apply when what we are  assessed for is largely beyond our control?'
* What makes this tricky is, in part, the term 'Moral Luck".  Moral luck occurs when you CAN be assessed for these factors that are not under your control, so the term almost runs counter to our intuitions (e.g. the control principle).  
Mello and Harold seem to be surprised that luck has *anything* to do with morality assessments even in principle.  The very fact that they think this way, suggests to me that they don't understand the concepts. Of course luck (circumstance) plays SOME role in moral considerations.  This is why we make a distinction between manslaughter and murder.  
But, as you describe, this isn't even the main issue surrounding Moral Luck.  The issue isn't whether luck plays any role in moral assessments (it does), it's whether people can be morally judged when luck *is the determining (or major) factor*.  
I think the comments so far belie the deep debate and important considerations of Moral Luck.  This isn't a strawman or a false dilemma, this is something that people have been thinking about for centuries.  As evidence, maybe you should link to SEP:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-luck/
 

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, January 13, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I guess I just don't see the

I guess I just don't see the relationship between luck and circumstance. Luck is, I think, uncontrollable, whereas circumstance is based in part on choices we make. If I choose to chase down and attack someone who throws me a single digit salute because I did not move out of his way in traffic, I have created a problem based on circumstance. What ultimately happens only depends on luck, inasmuch as either he or I may suffer or die, because of my choice, based on the circumstance. Manslaughter and murder are, if memory serves, legal distinctions, often decided before juries who receive judicial advice. Such outcomes accrue according to particular rules of law, with plea-bargaining---truth and justice, notwithstanding. Plato and such were great, in their times. Now, maybe not so much. Philosophers beware!

Thinker_Extraordinaire's picture

Thinker_Extraor...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I would choose option three

I would choose option three from a pure practical standpoint. It makes sense that not everyone can win the lottery -- nobody would play if it was so. Regarding the doctors' illustration, there would be no way to figure out who performed malpractice. Moreover, if that was a viable option, like you stated, there would be little disincentive to perform malpractice.
From a philosophical standpoint I would also choose option three. Every lottery player knows what they are getting into when they buy a ticket -- they have a small chance of winning. They also know the next person in line has the same chance of winning. That means there is nothing unfair about either situation; each participant in your illustrations has the same chance of the said result.

Mello Jello's picture

Mello Jello

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

You're absolutely right. I

You're absolutely right. I honestly felt overwhelmed by the argument and I wasn't sure if I should have even replied to it. But I did and it's blatantly obvious that I attacked the knot without the slightest idea of how to untie it. Next time I find myself in this position I will simply ask questions. I'm finding that sophistry is such an easy trap to fall into for beginners but I'm trying my hardest to be at least Socratic. The constructive criticism is much appreciated.

Clars's picture

Clars

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

"Moral"; to defer to

"Moral"; to defer to religious teachings...What are the creator's view of Moral Luck?
If someone accidently causes the death of another, the action was not intended to kill, but the consequence killed, the actor could flee to a city of refuge to escape judgment and punishment; therefore, intention matters. (Old Testement). If the lack of moral intention exists within a person which has them desire and intend to kill or commit other moral faults, they are as guilty as someone who has acted upon them... whether they acted or not; the character and intention matters.(New Testement- sermon on the mount, regarding adultery, lusting after a woman COMMITS adultery already within his heart).
Intention matters more than outcome.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, January 16, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

It seems to me that you can't

It seems to me that you can't really compare the situations of doctors A and B. In reality many of the surrounding circumstances will be different. One of the doctors might know more about the patient than the other does, he might know enough that he can take a pretty good guess that the patient doesn't have epilepsy, or he might know how to solve any problems it might lead to during the operation, etc. And when you get to the human motivations of the doctor, the patient, and anyone else involved - maybe they like each other, maybe they don't, maybe the doctor's a Jew and the patient's a Nazi war criminal - that will throw in a wildcard or two. I think that this kind of comparison is just a philosophical abstraction. So all you can do is look at the outcomes. I think the law is right if it treats murder more seriously than attempted murder.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, January 17, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I do not believe luck and

I do not believe luck and circumstance are the same. I am not "surprised" by this belief, just as I am not surprised by my disbelief in "any" relationship between luck and morality. Luck is,as I have maintained, unpredictable. Which is why I, for one, do not play lotteries or slot machines. Circumstance is at least somewhat within our control: don't walk or jog in the street, at night, wearing black clothing, while listening to your favorite Black Sabbath tunes on your walkman---or whatever the current distractive device you might have acquired. Hopefully, these illustrations will clarify my beliefs---although I doubt it. Joggers, walkers and bicyclists die often in my state and city because they do not believe they should have to look out for themselves. This is a pity, but it due to irresponsibility,or: circumstance;... not luck. Why is it this is so difficult for people to understand? I AM surprised by stupidity---and baffled, in this age of reason and enlightenment. Or, it is?...hmmmmm.

dabrowsa@indiana.edu's picture

dabrowsa@indiana.edu

Sunday, January 19, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

There are at least 3

There are at least 3 different threads here: 1. moral, 2. psychological , 3. legal.  Only the first is really the purview of philosophy.  My take, which I think is common, is that luck should not affect morality but does in fact affect psychology.  Assuming the latter is widely held, the legal realm should follow the psychological one or the laws will not be supported.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 20, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Fortune

Fortune
Seneca created a Goddess for man to know
Equal are her gifts to all her show.
The beautiful Fortune with cornucopia in hand
As many treasures as grains of sand.
The other hand with ore she steers, any direction she please
 Not for you or I to direct, only Fortune as she sees.
It is not her malice only our weak scale
When things go bad to ruin life?s perceived tale.
When she is good, who is to say
Millionaire or pauper has most time to play.
Fortune so busy with no space to run
The one who walks becomes the healthier one.
She gives us a house to live and take care
The homeless a simple life of nature to share.
Love is from Fortune so powerfully sought
Sometime in our life it seems we have naught.
The power of love can never be lost
Nor be taken away at any cost
In love?s absence she continues to grow
Hearts strengthening aura glow.
Fortune?s gifts are only measure
Which is sad which is pleasure?
We can not judge Fortune?s good or bad
Only have thoughts some glad some sad.
Better to have then to not
Imagine to lose one?s whole lot.
And if we have not anything at all
Would one be happier to never worry of fall?
To have is to have whatever may be
Fortune is life?s happy thoughts only to see.
The man who has seen both rich and poor
The gifts in Fortunes hand, all of her store.
Has the full life, will never long
Only to sing Fortune?s beautiful song.
Then nothing truly can be won or lost
Only flawed value need to be tossed.
If truth over material is all man sought
Seneca?s Fortune, is only a thought!
=

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, February 6, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Let's start over and try to

Let's start over and try to simplify this apparently complex discussion. Firstly, might we define morality? Oh, no! This won't do will it? Because morality appears to be CULTURALLY connected---examples include the manner in which negroes were treated in early America, and the manner in which women are treated in India today. But wait. Moral issues depend on where one lives? Yes! Surprise! Morality IS a function of culture, practice and tradition. Ergo, if we aspire to change morality, we must, therefore,aspire to alter the culture(s) that offend our notions of what is properly moral. This has not worked much in my short lifetime. Nor did it work in the short lifetimes of my parents. Say What You Know. Share What You Have. Do What You Can...Notice, then, I have dwelled on morality, diverse though it may be. Morality is a function of cultural intractibility. It is where we are more than who we BELIEVE ourselves to be. How quaint.
Now, to luck: Snake eyes, you lose; boxcars, you lose; play the lottery?---dice game odds are better, short-term---but, there is no morality to gambling. And you can take that to the bank. Heh, heh.
If any of the above reminds you of history, it should. You have lived it; if you noticed. As to the gambling observations, those are merely peripheral facts. Good night.
Harold.
(I'll consult with anyone on matters of cultural intractibility and Historionic Effect, but my time is valuable, therefore(or ergo), expensive.)

Hugh Millar's picture

Hugh Millar

Friday, February 7, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Here's another perspective.

Here's another perspective.  Fairness is a strong human intuition, helpful in fostering social cooperation but sometimes felt inappropriately.  An doctor who doesn't check for diabetes before administering anesthesia risks not only the death of his patient but his job.  That's the upfront deal, which everybody understands.  If he takes a shortcut and gets away with it, he's been lucky and suffers no penalty.  If the patient has a seizure and dies, the doctor has been unlucky on two counts and takes the consequences.  A losing $100000 bet on the stock market might cost one guy his home, while another has only to postpone the purchase of his new sail boat .  The consequences of the potential loss have to be factored in to the decision to make the play, in which case there is no unfairness in the outcome.
Hugh

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, February 7, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Well-stated, Hugh---well

Well-stated, Hugh---well-stated. I live as practically as possible. Sounds like you do too.
Newman.

Daniel Pech's picture

Daniel Pech

Sunday, March 2, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

"What one deserves should

"What one deserves should depend on one?s own intentions, desires, motivations and things like that; it shouldn?t be a matter of...x."
What one deserves, in terms of reward and burden, very much partly depends on the effects which one's actions have on others of equally well-intentioned moral standing. If my physiology needs the thermostat turned up and yours needs it turned down, we each could be wrong upon the other in our own good intention to 'make the world the right temperature'.
 

 

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