Moral Luck

Sunday, October 16, 2016
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 12, 2014

What Is It

It seems reasonable to believe that we can only be blamed or praised for actions that are under our control. Nevertheless, in many concrete scenarios, we're inclined to base our moral assessment of people on circumstances that are ultimately beyond their control. Blind chance, or “moral luck,” as philosophers call it, may determine the difference between, say, murder and attempted murder. But do we think that a would-be murderer whose attempts are foiled by chance is really less morally culpable than someone who happens to succeed? How should moral luck affect our judgments of responsibility? John and Ken welcome back Susan Wolf from UNC Chapel Hill, author of Meaning in Life and Why It Matters.

Listening Notes

John opens the show with an example: both he and Ken buy lottery tickets, and to John’s misfortune, Ken picks the winning number. Both had the same intentions and chances of success and failure. John says that luck affects the identity of our actions, while Ken argues that it does not. However, Ken adds, luck can affect the consequences of our actions, so while our choices determine our actions, the outcome of said actions is pure luck. John says that in a way, the two actors really did do different things, and Ken tells him that he is collapsing action and consequence. John provides another example, in which two doctors administer a general anesthetic without checking if their respective patients have epilepsy or not. The first patient does not have epilepsy, while the second is epileptic. Ken says that both doctors did the same thing: they behaved negligently, but the first doctor was luckier. So, John asks, should the doctors be treated the same way? The law, he says, will not, as the second doctor can be sued on numerous grounds including medical malpractice and homicide. Ken says that the law is philosophically confused and that the two doctors deserve the same treatment – there is no basis for treating them differently.

Ken and John are joined by guest Susan Wolf, Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of Meaning in Life and Why it Matters. John asks Susan why she chose to study this topic, and Susan explains that her interest in the subject began during her first semester of graduate school, a time when Thomas Nagel was responding to the term coined by Bernard Williams. Susan also talks about her upbringing and the moral luck example she was able to draw from it: her parents were Jewish and grew up in Germany in the 20’s and 30’s, but their attitudes to fellow Germans were not judgmental to the extent that may be expected given the circumstances of the time; Susan explains that perhaps they understood that everyone in the same or similar circumstances would behave as poorly. However, says Susan, if her parents had grown up in the United States, for example, those German individuals would not have acted in such a poor way, so perhaps the blame of the German population was a result of moral luck. John clarifies the idea of not judging people for the consequences they brought about because they were involved in negative actions due to luck but more for the internal qualities that in most other circumstances would not lead to such detrimental results. So, asks John, is there such a thing as moral luck? Susan recognizes that her parents had the right view about not taking merely the consequences as indicative of a person’s moral qualities. But it is a complicated matter, she explains; there is a rational phenomenon where people are angrier at those who have caused harm than people with equally faulty action who have not caused harm. Furthermore, those who have caused harm might feel worse about themselves than those who acted in the same way but faced better consequences. But, asks Ken, shouldn’t the person who got away with his actions feel as badly as the person who did not, since he took the same risk? Susan explains that the two persons are equally blameworthy, but they did different things, as John suggested earlier. It would be irrational, she says, for the person who didn’t cause harm to feel the same guilt as the person who did.

Ken presents two intuitions: that what a person morally deserves is dependent on their intention and motive and not on external factors and that consequences do matter to the character of a person’s actions. Are these two reconcilable? Susan strongly agrees with the first intuition, and John offers an analogy of negligent actions to question to what extent the things within our control should affect our moral responsibility. John and Ken welcome audience participation and respond to questions including why failed murders are treated differently from committed murders and how two distinct actions can be considered to be the same if one has a bad outcome and the other does not.  John concludes by explaining the concept of distribution of punishment for negligence.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 5:15): Philosophy Talk's Reporter Caitlin Esch plays out various scenarios and real cases of negligent actions with different outcomes, positive and negative, and gets a response from the public as to the guilt and responsibility the perpetrators of the acts should feel or be charged with.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 44:53): Ian Shoales discusses various intentions and whether the successful realization of actions affects the way in which a person is treated, featuring examples of the murder of a school vice-president, Oedipus, and online bullying.