David Bain's Brain Strain
Welcome to David Bain's Brain Strain - a forum for Monitor readers to debate philosophical matters and, in so doing, find a worthy distraction from the demands of the workplace.
Last month, he tackled the subject of cannibalism. This month he asks, are lucky people better people?
Read on and then add your thoughts to the debate using the comments form. Remember, this is philosophy - there IS no right or wrong answer. (The brain strainer will read all your comments before, in a couple of days, returning to offer his thoughts on the debate.)
Tim and Kim have Ferraris. On Monday, Tim drives his by a school at 90 mph, loses control, and hits a lamppost. On Tuesday, Kim drives hers on the same road, at the same speed, and loses control at the same point. But she hits and kills a child.
Tim is disqualified from driving but Kim is jailed for five years. Quite right, you say, the law is marking a moral difference.
But hang on. Yes, Tim hit a lamppost whereas Kim killed a child, but that's simply because where there had only been a lamppost on Monday there was a child on Tuesday. And that's not a difference Kim's responsible for. Certainly, she was seriously reckless--but no more reckless than Tim, just more unlucky. And surely being more unlucky can't make you more blameable.
Suppose, for example, that you and I give our dogs bowls of water, but you thereby kill yours because someone's poisoned your water supply. That's not a difference you're responsible for. You were unlucky. So, given my action was blameless, yours was too. But, by the same token: given Tim is blameable only for recklessness, Kim is too.
This defence of Kim can seem compelling. But, the more you think about it, the idea of removing luck from morality becomes discomforting.
Consider a German who in 1940 volunteers to work at Auschwitz, where he commits mass murder. Compare an anti-Semitic Englishman who would have volunteered for such a position had it been available. The German is not responsible that he had an opportunity for murder unavailable to the Englishman. It was in a sense bad luck. But does that mean he's no more contemptible than the Englishman, who we might suppose led a quiet and harmless life?
And the discomfort grows. For everything we do--every action our choices determine--depends on factors we're not responsible for.
Kim and Tim drove recklessly, but they wouldn't have if their cars had broken down. Oswald murdered Kennedy, but he wouldn't have if his gun had jammed. It was Oswald's bad luck that it didn't. But then, if we're to keep luck out of morality, are we to blame Oswald only for trying to kill Kennedy--for his act of will when pulling the trigger--not for the murder itself?
If biting such bullets tempts you, notice that acts of will are subject to luck too. Had the police got to Oswald moments before, he wouldn't have had the chance to make that final decision to shoot.
All of which leaves a paradox. People are sometimes blameable for their actions. But not those they're not responsible for. Yet all our actions depend on matters we're not responsible for.
So is morality incoherent, or have we gone wrong somewhere?
David Bain is a lecturer in the philosophy department of the University of Glasgow. Find out more about him by clicking here.