It seems reasonable to believe that we can only be blamed or praised for actions that are under our control.
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.