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10 August 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:03pm

What the problem of moral luck can teach us about lockdown rule-breakers

Is it ever right to blame people for the unintended consequences of their actions?

By Roger Crisp

To prevent the spread of Covid-19, restrictions on travel were imposed in the UK from 23 March. Most respected them; some did not. The consequences of breaking these restrictions could be negligible, or they could be deadly.

Consider the imaginary case of two people, unknowingly carrying the virus at the time, who deliberately break the law. Lucky Linda drives several hundred miles to see her father in a care home. Though she is stopped by the police and fined, she gets home safely without infecting anyone. Unlucky Ulla does the same, except that she does infect her father. That infection then spreads to others in the home, causing several deaths. Both incidents are widely publicised.

How will others feel about Linda and Ulla’s actions? Both will be blamed, but Ulla much more than Linda. We tend to blame people more for greater wrongs, and most will think Ulla’s wrong much greater than Linda’s. This mirrors how each of them will feel about themselves. Linda may feel a twinge of regret or remorse, while Ulla will be wracked with guilt.

But is this fair? After all, it was just bad luck things turned out the way they did for Ulla. And as the philosopher Adam Smith pointed out, most of us accept the “equitable maxim” that we can reasonably blame people for what they intend, but not for the consequences of their actions that are beyond their control. This suggests that, because Linda and Ulla had the same intentions, we should blame them equally.

Yet however plausible we find this maxim, Smith notes that in real life our moral feelings are unchanged: we still sense that Ulla has done greater wrong, even if she and Linda had identical intentions. This is what philosophers call the problem of “moral luck”. It is ubiquitous, and deeply troubling.

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One solution to the problem of treating the two women differently might be to respect our feelings and dismiss the equitable maxim as a piece of abstract philosophizing. Perhaps we should face up to the fact that the world just isn’t fair and that we have to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, even when they’re beyond our control.

But that’s not as easy as it sounds, since we recognize the importance of intention so widely in our morality – for instance, when we refrain from blaming those who have caused bad consequences entirely innocently and without any kind of negligence on their part.

Consider the following example. You are backing your car out of a neighbour’s drive, slowly and carefully. Suddenly your neighbour’s toddler, who has been playing in the garden, appears from the shrubbery. You brake immediately, but it is too late and the toddler dies. Clearly, you didn’t intend this accident to happen, you were taking all reasonable steps to avoid anything like it, and you shouldn’t be blamed for the consequences.

Still, ask yourself how the accident would make you feel. Smith discusses such cases, writing: “A man of humanity, who accidentally, and without the smallest degree of blameable negligence, has been the cause of the death of another man, feels himself piacular, though not guilty.”

We don’t use the word “piacular” any more, but we know exactly what Smith means. It’s the feeling of a need not only to apologise, but to “atone” for what one has done. In fact, this feeling is so close to guilt that it’s tempting to think it’s pretty much the same as guilt, sitting uncomfortably alongside the belief that one didn’t actually do wrong.

This need to atone has a long history. In our culture, religion is almost certainly an important source. The books of Leviticus and Numbers contain many references to requirements of ritual purification through sacrifice, if, say, one has come into contact with a corpse. Mere contact is enough for pollution: to be wrong, one’s actions need not be intentional, voluntary, or negligent. What we learn from Smith, then, is that the apologies we make in cases of unintentional harm are the modern analogue of animal sacrifice. They are an attempt at purification.

These ancient feelings and emotions are, however, a poor guide to morality, and it is time for us to move on from them. Having unintentionally killed your neighbour’s child, you can express deep sorrow and regret at what has happened; but there’s no need for guilt, blame, or atonement.

The same applies to Ulla. Like Linda, she should feel guilty about what she intended – putting the lives of others at risk. And Ulla can greatly regret what happened as a result of that. But from the point of view of a morality that respects the equitable maxim, Linda and Ulla are in the same position and should be treated accordingly.

Morality so understood is a system of rules that governs the wills of individual people, not what happens in the world as a result of their willing. So, if we are going properly to judge someone’s actions, it looks as if we should focus on intentions and not on how those intentions happen to play out. Immanuel Kant stated this view clearly, saying that a good will that fails to have good results will “sparkle like a jewel” as brightly as a will that does succeed.

What are the implications of a morality that focuses on intentions and the will? The playing field will level in many situations. Consider failed attempts, for example. If you and I both try to assassinate a democratically elected political leader and your bullet is deflected by a bird while mine hits the target, we are equally morally guilty.

But it turns out that tying moral assessments so closely to our intentions is also problematic. Although it is unfair to blame you for unintentionally killing the toddler, there is equally a kind of unfairness in blaming people for what they intentionally do.

To see this, imagine that morality is a set of divine commands meant to guide our wills, and that disobeying these commands will be severely punished in the afterlife. If it were just as easy for each of us to keep the commands, so that we each had an equal chance to avoid the punishment, this system could not be criticized on grounds of equal opportunity.

Yet in our world opportunities are far from equal. As Thomas Nagel points out, it was far easier for the Germans who left their country in the 1930s to remain morally untainted than the ones who stayed behind. Neither Laura nor Ulla would have driven at all if their parents had happened to live nearby. So why should they now pay the price of being blamed and feeling guilty when others didn’t need to take the risks they felt they had to take?

The divine command story brings out the great unfairness of judging people by their intentions, since the very intentions we have are the result of luck. How might God reasonably respond? By being entirely merciful and forgiving, as many believe God to be. Were we to react to wrongdoers in the same way, by being entirely merciful and forgiving, we would have to give up on moral emotions such as resentment, as well as the desire to place blame and seek retribution for intentional acts.

This might seem to spell disaster. If people knew they weren’t going to be blamed for anything, wouldn’t many of them do the most terrible things? Not necessarily, because even if we give up on backwards-looking moral emotions and assigning blame for what people have intended, there is a vital remaining element in morality that is forward-looking: benevolence.

Benevolence, or kindness, involves trying to make the world better for others. That will consist partly in relieving the suffering of others, but also in making arrangements to prevent people harming one another, through institutions such as humane forms of punishment.

In the case of breaking lockdown legislation, this would involve resisting our ancient urge to charge Unlucky Ulla with a far greater wrong than Lucky Linda. We should also check our desire to blame them both given the unlucky fact that their fathers lived so far away. Instead, we ought to develop forward-looking deterrents, such as significantly higher fines for lockdown violations, and craft legislation that is sensitive to the unusual situation of people like Ulla and Linda.

Retribution and blame should not be the mechanism of moral assessment. Rather, we ought to adopt a form of benevolence that avoids the whole problem of “moral luck” and seeks to make the world better than it otherwise would have been.

Roger Crisp is Uehiro Fellow in Philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Mill on Utilitarianism, Reasons and the Good, and Sacrifice Regained: Morality and Self-interest in British Moral Philosophy from Hobbes to Bentham.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.

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