Journal Entry – Sun Dec 06

Tuesday is garbage day – I’m used to just taking the garbage out and dumping it in the big bins every morning or sending it down the chute. When I was young, I’d throw glass bottles down and wait. If I got lucky and the container was empty, I’d hear them break. 

I am almost ready to write a third piece to my Frisbee Loner story. Please let me sleep better tonight; at least I don’t have any early morning meetings! I wish I could see how my fish are doing – hopefully my neighbour didn’t break in to terrorize them!

Promise me you won’t turn gray! And if you already have, find a way to get your colour back! Don’t be afraid to express yourself in your unique way everywhere you go!

I drew two koalas – One from my artbook and the other from a picture. I absolutely love how three plain old circles can turn into a loveable koala (the artbook version on the left was much easier to draw). It’s very gratifying to see your creation come to life and jump off the page! De showed me how to turn my canvas in Procreate – that way, I don’t have to turn the iPad.

Lesson 8 : Cool Koalas ( You Can Draw in 30 Days – by Mark Kistler)

Lecture 18 – Luck and the Limits of Blame

This lecture explores the role luck plays in our moral lives. Special attention is given to how considerations about fate might end up affecting the way we think about responsibility and blame. When we confront the dark side of human nature, we often want to hold someone accountable, but what if it turns out that no one is truly responsible?

We usually excuse people from responsibility when their actions are involuntary or physically forced. It is natural to think that there’s a control condition for moral responsibility and blame. Remember, we can only hold someone responsible and condemn them if what they’ve done is within their control. This is intuitive, but it is possible to challenge the control condition. 

Image two possible results of the classic case of a drunk driver who wrecks his car:

  1. A pedestrian dies
  2. No one is injured

The driver whose accident results in someone’s death might be convicted for manslaughter or worse, whereas the driver who injures no one will have his driver’s license suspended at worst. How we judge each of these drivers depends on factors outside their control. (I know they didn’t have to drive after drinking in the first place, but I am talking about once they are under the influence). This is where we find moral luck. 

Roughly, moral luck occurs when we’re willing to hold someone responsible even though what they’ve done depends on factors that are beyond their control. The drunk-driver scenario is a case of what the philosopher Thomas Nagel calls resultant moral luck. This kind of luck is associated with how the results of our actions are beyond our control.

In addition to resultant luck, Nagel identifies three other kinds of moral luck: 

  1. Causal luck – is associated with the ancient problem of freedom and determinism. Causal luck occurs when our actions are determined by causes over which we have no control.
  2. Constitutive luck – when who we are is, at least in some significant sense, beyond our control.  
  3. Circumstantial luck – is about how the places and times we find ourselves are sometimes beyond our control. Being in these different places and times might affect our actions.

The four kinds of moral luck present a severe philosophical problem: If we consistently apply the control condition—the principle that we’re responsible only for what’s within our control—then we can no longer blame people for their “evil” actions. This is because, as Nagel puts it, “almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.” (almost nothing)

The philosopher John Greco frames the problem of moral luck as a straightforward argument about our lack of control. The first premise of the argument is the control condition. To this premise, however, Greco adds the luck assertion: Everything that happens is the result of luck.

These two premises together present a conclusion that many people want to resist. The conclusion is that no one is morally responsible and blameworthy for anything that happens. (Interesting right!)

The problem of moral luck can become even worse. To see just how bad the problem of moral luck is, imagine two people: Alex and Beth. Alex drinks too much at a party, tries to drive home, and kills a pedestrian after swerving onto the sidewalk. Beth also drinks too much at the party and drives home. At one point, she swerves onto the sidewalk as well, but no pedestrians are present.

The only difference between Alex and Beth is a matter of resultant luck. Alex and Beth make all the same choices and even do all the same things, right up until the lucky difference: Alex’s car hits and kills a pedestrian who happens to be standing on a corner, whereas Beth’s car doesn’t hit anyone because no one happens to be there.

Beth is only morally different from Alex because of factors outside her control. It wasn’t up to her that no pedestrians were around when she lost control of her car, just like it wasn’t up to Alex. 

The philosopher Michael Zimmerman suggests distinguishing between two kinds of blame: substantial and insubstantial: 

  1. Substantial blame is grounded in the decisions we make
  2. Insubstantial blame is grounded in the results of those decisions

Using this distinction, we might say that Alex and Beth are equally to blame in the substantial sense, but not equally to blame in the less fundamental insubstantial sense.

At the risk of moving beyond common sense, we can imagine yet another person: Erica. Under no circumstances would Erica ever drink and drive. But the only reason Erica would never ever drink and drive is a matter of luck: Erica had a family member die in a drunk-driving accident, and that trauma has made drunk driving unthinkable for her.

Erica is in no way blameworthy for being the kind of person who would decide to drink and drive if given a chance because she would never make that choice. But the only reason she wouldn’t make that choice is due to luck – something that happened in her past and was beyond her control. (I’ve never looked at luck this way)

Erica is a very different kind of person from Alex, but she also has a very different moral record. Someone’s moral record is a function of what they have freely decided and what they’ve voluntarily done; it’s a record of their actual choices and actions.

On Alex’s moral record, he has a drunk-driving accident that has resulted in someone’s death, and that appears on his record because he made a choice. Nothing like that appears on Erica’s moral record because she made no such choice. On this way of thinking, your moral record is impacted by luck, but it’s only a function of the actual choices you make.

Beyond our moral record is what Greco refers to as our moral worth. Someone’s moral worth is a function of what they would freely decide and what they would voluntarily do in the circumstances they might never even encounter. Moral worth is about the kind of person someone is, whereas moral record is about what someone has actually done.

Erica and Alex have different moral records, but also different moral worth. Alex and Beth only have different moral records; they have the same moral worth because they are both the kinds of people who would voluntarily drink and drive given the opportunity. This raises a question: Is moral nature insulated from luck, or is our nature just a fact over which we have little or no control?

The Buddhist philosopher Shantideva thinks that each person’s fundamental nature lies beyond praise and blame.

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre resists the idea that we have tailor-made natures that determine who we are. He argues that in every moment of our lives, we are making ourselves through our choices (that’s quite cool. See! You can always reinvent yourself!)

Picking up on this, Robert Kane, one of the most influential contemporary philosophers of free will, argues that each of our genuinely free actions is “the initiation of a ‘value experiment’ whose justification lies in the future and is not fully explained by the past.” Kane posits that in making a choice, people say,” ‘Let’s try this. It is not required by my past, but is consistent with my past and is one branching pathway my life could now meaningfully take.'”

This is an exhilarating view of free choice and human possibility. If it is correct, it might show that luck can’t undermine blame. Perhaps we have to allow that resultant luck infects our moral lives, but substantial blame still lies with our choices – for which we are ultimately responsible.

The philosopher Galen Strawson is not convinced. (Great!) He thinks that luck swallows even our most basic choices, rendering responsibility an impossibility and blame irrational. Strawson’s view is that how we are from a mental standpoint is always the result of factors over which we don’t have even a small amount of control. As a result, we can’t be free in the sense that grounds responsibility and blame because factors over which we have no control always cause us to act as we do. (I beg to differ!)

The Victim’s Perspective

Tamler Sommers has suggested that victims’ facts, attitudes, wishes, and behaviour should play a role in determining blameworthiness and responsibility. In particular, these facts should play a role in deciding what a perpetrator deserves.

On his approach, Alex and Beth, for instance, might be equally guilty due to their shared choice to drink and drive. Whether Alex deserves more blame than Beth depends on facts about the victims of his drunk-driving accident.

In this sense, Sommers wants to embrace moral luck, at least to a degree. In some considerable measure, what we do is the result of luck, but how we deserve to be treated is also, to some degree, a matter of luck. It’s not up to Alex how the family of the pedestrian he killed will respond, but their response is vital in determining just what Alex deserves.

Imagine two ways Alex’s story could play out:

  1. The police track him down. He is put on trial, convicted of homicide, and sentenced to death by firing squad. Sommers notes that this is an unusually harsh penalty, but that’s the point: Alex does not get what he deserves in this scenario. He likely deserved to go to prison, but he didn’t deserve the death penalty (or did he?)
  2. The police are unable to track Alex down, but the father of the young man whom Alex killed is determined to find the driver who killed him. The father uses all of his resources to track Alex down, goes to Alex’s home, and fatally shoots him.

In this scenario, Sommers argues that it’s far more plausible that Alex got what he deserved than in the first. However, the only difference between the two scenarios is that the second considers the victim’s perspective.

This is an extreme case, but Sommers’s point is telling. It seems like the victim’s perspective makes a difference when determining what someone deserves, whether that’s blame or even punishment.

Of course, there are limits here, too. It’s unreasonable to think that someone deserves harsh treatment simply because a victim feels a certain way. The problem is that considerations about luck make it hard to know just where to set the limits of blame.

(Source: The Great Courses – Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature)

Although I get frustrated sometimes, The Great Course always makes me rethink what I thought I already knew! Or I actually learn something new! Both of those makes me happy! Five more lectures to go, then on to Understanding the Brain. Woohoo!

Feature Photo Credit: Holger Detje from Pixabay

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