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David Bain's Brain Strain

10:44 UK time, Monday, 20 July 2009

bain_126.jpgWelcome 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.ferrari2_ap_226.jpg

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    In the example, you say that Kim is jailed for 5 years while Tim is disqualified. Perhaps Tim should be jailed for 5 years too - i.e. what happens if we are judged on the potential of our actions rather than the actual outcome? It would be impossible to know where to stop - perhaps that child was going to find a cure to cancer, and Kim should be jailed for life for her effect on human suffering. We cannot know the ramifications of our actions, so we judge and are judged on the reality of them (though driving fast carries a penalty even if you don't hit a lamp-post as we are acting on statistical probability, but it is a blunt tool that requires large amounts of data). So luck does play a part in how we are judged - but then it plays a large part in our lives anyway, so perhaps this is right.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    Morality is incoherent because people twist things to suit themselves, it is called taking advantage. A man who tells me not to assume, for example, does not listen before he leads off at people, also knows what is said when he is not present.

    The law does prosecute on the outcome of your actions. If a victim one shoots, for example, dies, the offender is facing a more serious charge.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think the solution to the Tim and Kim problem is that both should be jailed for five years. After all, driving at 90mph in an area which will presumably have a 30mph limit is such an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do that it seems almost academic whether or not anyone was actually killed. It's true that, by this logic, Tim would still receive the same sentence as Kim if they had both been driving at 40mph with the same outcomes, which may seem quite harsh for only breaking the limit by 10mph and not causing any harm, but presumably Kim's sentence would be much lower anyway, given the lower speed.

  • Comment number 5.

    I think the elements of intent and/or recklessness are missing here: Tim & Kim both drove illegally fast in a high-risk area. Neither comes out smelling of roses. Likewise the Auschwitz worker & the English anti-Semite, even though one would be labelled as repellant.

    I couldn't possibly know someone had poisoned my water, according to the script. However, I would suffer considerable mental and emotional anguish, thus punishing myself probably more than I would punish the poisoner.

  • Comment number 6.

    Many legal systems, e.g. the US, allow victims or their families to address the court prior to sentencing. This means the sentence is not simply punishment for the original criminal intent or recklessness, but also a means of revenge for the damage done. Some systems go even further, and recognise a right to revenge even when there was no recklessness or criminality. Mmm ...

  • Comment number 7.

    It all comes down to the fact that we are judged by our actions rather than our beliefs and that sometimes the full repercussions of our actions are unknown.

    Which is worse? Someone who accidentally kills another in a road accident (manslaughter?), or someone who goes out of their way to knock another person down thus commiting murder.

    For example, everyone has judged Michael Jackson on his appearance and some off his more "odd" actions when as far as anyone knows, he was perfectly sane and actually held it together rather well over a 40 year career (c.f. Britney). Most people who have worked with him don't have a negative word to say about him. It's only the media that portrays him as this naive madman!

    Thus it all boils down to the fact that people judge other people differently. People view certain actions as "worse" than other actions.

    What's worse? Accidently killing a 9 year old, or murdering 5 90 year olds? One has a whole life ahead of them...

    You make your own luck

  • Comment number 8.

    Risk = probability x consequence.

  • Comment number 9.

    Lucky people are luckier. That's all. Not "better"

    The law takes account of the consequences of actions as well as intent, but from a moral standpoint, both drivers and both anti semites in the above examplesare "wrong". In each case one is luckier than the other since the consequences of their actions are so different.

    A clearer example may be a murderer getting life and an attempted murderer not. All down to the consequence.

  • Comment number 10.

    Maybe Kim's sentence is more a punishment for not learning from previous actions. Surely Tim would've mentioned hitting a lamppost when he drove home with a big fat dent. Why then would Kim do the exact same thing, knowing that it has negative repercussions? (Because it might be less easy to conceptualise the impacts of fast-driving in the abstract, but when you have a dent in the car, it shouldn't be THAT hard).

  • Comment number 11.

    The difference is between law and morality. Tim and Kim are both as morally to blame as each other, but, while the law can take intention into account to some extent, for the most part it has to judge on what actually happens. If the law could judge you purely on intention the wannabe nazi from the example would be judged the same as the Auschwitz worker - but where would we stop? I don't think anyone would trust a legal system to police someones thoughts. So Tim is very lucky he didn't hit a child, but just because the law doesn't judge moral intention doesn't mean he is a better person than Kim.

  • Comment number 12.

    In the film Minority Report, Tom Cruise's character arrests people on the basis that they will commit murder in the future. He swoops in to save the day just before the murder takes place, and the would-be-murderer goes to jail. All that matters in this film is the intent, however is intent enough? If I conspire with others to commit murder I have committed a crime - but the crime is conspiracy. If I plan to murder someone but do not share my plan with others have I still committed a crime?

  • Comment number 13.

    The problem with this argument is that it assumes that there are unlimited prison places, which isn't the case. Yes they are both at fault however one of them has caused serious harm as a direct result of their actions. Following David Bain's argument to its logical conclusion no-one could be accused of murder since the bullet did it!

    Deliberately endangering life eg by deliberately breaking health and safety legislation should end up with imprisonment, rather than the current situation in this country where we are the only ones left in Europe that imprisons for civil debt.

  • Comment number 14.

    I've often thought about pretty much the same scenario as your Kim/Tim one, for instance when they is outrage at someone getting what is perceived as too short a jail sentence for killing a child by reckless driving. How many of those calling for life inprisonment have driven keeping to the law their entire lives? Most have been lucky. I believe the same sort of issue came up when a man was found guilty of murder despite the fact that the victim could have been saved had they not refused a blood transfusion. It may not be fair, but the law can only judge by results of actions. It's the same sense of justice which differentiates between attempted murder and murder (by the way, attempted murder is entirely based on intent- if I pointed a stick at you, convinced that it would kill you, that would be attempted murder). Objectively, of course it's not fair to give different punishments for the same actions. But the world isn't objective, and people will always demand a tougher sentence for actions that kill someone than for the same actions that don't.

  • Comment number 15.

    In essence, as far as Kim and TIm are concerned, although their action was the same the result of their action was different. Both deserve to lose their licenses for driving. On top of her reckless driving Kim also killed a child. Her crime is greater than Tim's who only caused damage, therefore this explains the difference in their sentences.

  • Comment number 16.

    In this Brain Drain by Bain he has not defined 'luck'.

    Responsibility is a multi-level and multi-directional complex of rational and irrational responses and desisions.
    EG> Tim has a family, and did not kill a child but the accident made him quadraplegic, where does his responsibility sit regarding his family.

    So can I re-write 147breaks equation.

    situation X risk X circumstance = consequence

  • Comment number 17.

    Are you sure Osweld killed Kennedy I suggest you watch JFK

  • Comment number 18.

    Assuming the penalty in Kim's case is deemed fair for the crime of killing a child, whether by accident or otherwise, it could be said that the penalties averaged over all the Tims and Kims of the future begin to reflect the inherent riskiness of the action in question, even if any individual case falls almost arbitrarily to one extreme or another. This would seem to go some way towards making the justice system fair with regards to the deterrent effect created by such punishments.

  • Comment number 19.

    We can only be held accountable for our actions, not our potential actions (which is different from intended actions). Tim hit a lampost, so he is held accountable for that action. Kim hit a child, so she is held accountable for that action. If Tim had gone out intending to hit a child but hit a lampost instead then he should be held accountable for that intended action as well.

    Tim and Kim's sentences are different because there were different outcomes. Kim isn't unlucky in the sense that she brought about the conditions which killed the child. Tim isn't better, or being rewarded for being lucky. We can only punish him for his actions or intended actions, not every potential outcome of his actions, at least in part because we cannot ever know what any other outcomes from his actions may be, until they happen.

    We could punish Oswald for attempting/intending to kill JFK if his rifle jammed or was stopped. However if his rifle jammed though we couldn't punish him for the possibility that if he had fired one of his shots may have killed a bystander, because we could never know that. Maybe if he had a machine gun and it would've been likely that in shooting at JFK he would wound and kill many others, but otherwise we can only punish what has happened, or someone intends to seriously make happen.

  • Comment number 20.

    There are degrees of wrongdoing:
    Intentional harm
    Intentional harm with mitigating circumstances (eg mental illness)
    Harm as a result of reckless
    Harm as a result of reckless with mitigating circumstances (eg youthful inexperience, not understanding likely consequences)
    Unintentional harm as a result of action(where any reasonable person might also have made the same error in the same circumstances)
    Accidental harm (unforeseen and unpredictable result of circumstances).
    Imaginary harm, where the "victim" claims to have experienced harm but where none is observable, such as where someone interprets a remark as hurtful (eg paranoia)
    Contributory negligence - where the "victim" is partly to blame through stupidity or lack of care - but again mitigated by inexperience etc;
    Negligent harm - sheer stupidity or recklessness on the part of the "victim"
    Self-harm - perhaps mitigated by mental illness, unless an insurance claim is involved.

    Clearly, accidental harm is less punishable than intentional harm; but is it also less of an offence than negligent harm? This assumes that damage is both active and passive, and that allowing ourselves to be harmed (such as being burgled after going out and leaving all the windows open)is also worthy of punishment. I think we only have ourselves to blame: but on a sliding scale, of course! - so if I leave my windows open, and a burglar enters but is then bitten by my dog, I have been negligent and also committed unintentional harm, whereas the burgler has committed both intentional and negligent harm. I suppose the dog is guilty of reckless harm, as he can't be expected to understand the consequences, but that's another discussion.

  • Comment number 21.

    This is all about so-called 'moral luck' - the idea that Tim's culpability is equal with Kim's, but that only the accident of circumstance puts Kim in gaol and Tim on a bicycle.

    I've always thought it's a bit of a non-problem to be frank. Suppose 'luck' had meant that Kim had swerved enough to leave the child badly harmed but not dead. The intent would have been the same (driving without attention and driving recklessly), the actions would have been the same but Kim was 'lucky' this time not to kill the child straight away. But in a deontological world, there would STILL be a difference between Kim's sentence and Tim's. Tim would still be out and about as if nothing much had happened (albeit carless). Reduce the proximate cause of the outcome still further: Kim swerves and hits the child slightly less directly than in David's piece. The child is seriously injured and disabled by the accident although she lives, but the difference in action that brought it about (rather than death) was a less than 1 degree turn of the wheel.

    The fact is that moral categories of intent, desert or just about anything else scale differently from actions in the physical world. Setting deontological rules is silly in those circumstances, which is I guess what Bernard Williams was trying to tell us.

  • Comment number 22.

    Nobody seems to have posed the question if Tim might have been paying greater attention and may have known that there were no children around and thus decided to take a risk by speeding. But this is unlikely as reactions at 90 in a 30 zone don't allow this. Or could they?

  • Comment number 23.

    I would be interested for further comment by the people here who state quite clearly that in this country we sentence on outcome, yet in devon this year a judge sentenced a motorcylist because of the potential outcome of his speeding.
    The Judge clearly stated that his sentence reflected the fact that the motorcyclist "could" have had an accident that "may" have resulted in his own death or that of his pillion or some unspecified other who wasnt actually even on the road at the time.

    We do judge on outcome in this country except when it suits those in power to make a scapegoat out of someone as a deterent to others.

    In which case Tim is lucky that he had a judge who wasnt into making a point and perhaps if Tim had been thrown in the slammer the child Kim subsequentally killed may have grown up to be a serial killer.

  • Comment number 24.

    @ 23

    Firstly the motorcyclist was punished for breaking the law, secondly speed limits are there because speeding increases the potential for accidents, therefore the motorcyclist is (like Kim) bringing about the circumstances which determine how "lucky" he is. Thirdly, motorcyclists make up less than 1% of traffic, but account for 14% of serious and fatal accidents. In 1999 motorcyclists were 28 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than car drivers. Therefore the judge wasn't making a scapegoat of him, he was sentencing him for breaking the law, and gave him a harsher sentence because he was failing to take into account the effect that his actions would have on himself or others.


    The braking distance at 90mph is 704 feet, that's quite a distance to be looking out for kids. Getting hit by a car at 20mph, 97% of pedestrians survive, getting hit at 40mph, 90% will die.


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