Philosophy Friday

Moral Luck

Last week we talked about normative ethics and different theories regarding how to determine if an action is something we ought to do or ought not to do. Whenever we try to make a moral choice, however, there is an underlying assumption that our choice matters. If we want to be moral people, we will make moral choices. And that’s the end of it, right?

Some might say that luck plays a significant role in our morality.

An example often given of this is the pair of drivers who both choose to drive drunk, and who both swerve on the road and end up on a curb. Only, for one of those drivers, there happens to be someone on the curb – Gwyneth Paltrow carrying the world’s last copy of Sliding Doors on DVD. Something irreplaceable has been lost. The other driver hits nothing and causes no damage. Is the first driver guilty of a greater crime than the second? Would we think justice had been done if the law treated both drivers the same?

We seem to have the same problem with the person who attempts a crime purposefully but ends up failing to do so. Maybe they get a flat tire on the way to the art heist; or maybe the power goes out as they are hacking into the mainframe; or maybe they trip, and the axe gets embedded in the trunk of their own car, and as they frantically pull at the handle the victim gets away. All three individuals wanted to do something that most of us might agree to be wrong – but none were successful. Are they guilty of art theft, industrial espionage, and… whatever that other guy was trying to do? If they aren’t, well – why not? They all fully intended to commit their acts, and if they had succeeded we would have judged them accordingly.

So does luck make a difference in our morality? Should we be held responsible for things beyond our control? Or can we deny that luck really does play a role?

That’s my thought for the day.


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