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David Bain's Brain Strain refrain

16:29 UK time, Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Could it be that lucky people are actually better people. Having waded into controversial waters with his latest philosophical conundrum, David Bain responds to a selection of readers' comments:

Tim and Kim each crash when speeding past a school, Kim killing a child. "Neither comes out smelling of roses", says FeeLock. That's true. Tim's lucky not to have hit a child himself, others add. That's true too; he'd have suffered serious emotional and legal consequences.

But the question remains: is his luck ordinary luck only, or is it also moral luck? Does it make him less blameable than Kim?

Many of you thought it does. But fully accepting this requires soothing the following worry: what determines the difference in what Kim and Tim do (killing a child versus not) is a difference in the location of nearby children when they crash, which neither of them is responsible for.

Yes, JohnnyPixels replies, but Kim still "brought about the conditions which killed the child". While she didn't control the children, and didn't know she would hit one, she knew there would be children around and she drove fast anyway. She knowingly opened herself up to being blamed for a killing if her luck ran out.

That's all true. And it's really bad. But the problem is: it's also all true of Tim.

On the other hand (just as Truman once called for a one-handed economist, you need a one-handed philosopher), there's a worry if you go the other way. If you deny moral luck and agree with Placey that "lucky people are luckier, not 'better'", then (as Wren asks) "where do we stop"?

Wren compares the Auschwitz murderer with the "wannabe Nazi" who's denied the opportunity to realise his genocidal fantasies. To punish them equally, Wren says, would be to "police our thoughts". And many wondered how the law could know (without the "precogs" from Minority Report, the film Jettro reminds us of) what thoughts those are, what unexpressed intentions lurk within our breasts.

That point concerns evidence and legal sanction. But a related "where do we stop?" point concerns moral culpability. For what worried us about Kim is that her killing a child depended on things she wasn't responsible for. But the same looks true of everything we do, even our intentions. And if what we do and intend can't be morally evaluated, what can?

Yet we surely can't accept moral luck if it means blaming you for poisoning your dog when someone secretly contaminates your water supply. True. But in that scenario there's nothing you're blameable for, whereas Kim is blameable for her recklessness at least. Perhaps the point is that once she's culpable for that, her culpability grows to encompass the actions and consequences that result.

So be careful out there!

[For more on "moral luck", see two classic essays with that title by Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams.]

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