Moral luck obtains wherever the moral evaluation of an agent is affected by circumstances beyond that agent’s control. But the judgment that the moral evaluation of an agent can be affected by such circumstances seems to conflict with the apparently plausible claim that agents who are ‘internally’ identical, that is, who exhibit like behavior and choices and differ from one another only in respect to circumstances beyond their control, must be morally identical in some very deep sense. Thus we have one judgment which seems to imply that moral luck must exist, and another which seems to imply that it cannot possibly exist; and both judgments seem very plausible. I have begun to think, however, that at least in many cases the problem is only an apparent one. In fact these two undeniable judgments are not, as they appear, inconsistent.

Start with two hypothetical agents, Lucky and Unlucky, both of whom are truck drivers who have failed properly to maintain their brakes. As a result of this negligence, Unlucky has an accident in which a child is killed. Lucky, by contrast, is involved in no such accident. Let us assume that this difference is purely a matter of luck and, moreover, that prior to the accident Lucky was at least as likely to have such an accident as Unlucky (they both drove similar schedules and similar routes, etc.) The problem of moral luck seems to arise here from the fact that we want to assent to the following pair of judgments:

(1) Lucky and Unlucky are equally deserving from a moral point of view.

(2) Unlucky is deserving of blame in a way that Lucky is not.

These two judgments may appear inconsistent. For if one person is deserving of serious blame, and another is not, then it seems false to say that both of them are “equally deserving from the moral point of view.” However, this conclusion depends on our reading (1) as the claim that Lucky and Unlucky are equally deserving in every (morally relevant) respect. As stated, however, (1) is ambiguous between that claim, and the weaker claim that there is some relevant aspect with respect to which the two are equally deserving.

What aspect could this be? Obviously, if (1) is read as the claim that Lucky and Unlucky are equally deserving of blame (the claim, that is, that they are equally blameworthy) the problem of moral luck remains: for the claim of (2) is precisely that they are not equally deserving of blame. However, this reading of (1) cannot be sustained. Lucky and Unlucky cannot possibly be equally deserving of blame, since Lucky cannot possibly be blamed for something that Unlucky clearly can be blamed for: the death of a child. (This in itself is not to say that Lucky cannot be as bad as Unlucky, or as guilty in some sense, since one might hold that the question of moral badness or guilt is not contingent on factual questions involving the outcomes one is responsible for. It is simply to point out that the two cannot be blamed for the same outcomes, simply because the outcomes are not the same.)

But if Lucky and Unlucky are unequal with respect to the desert of blame, then in what respect are they equal? I suggest that they are equal with respect to whether they deserve to deserve blame. They are equal, that is, with respect to second-order desert: the matter of whether one deserves to be (and not simply whether one is) blameworthy. The rationale for this view is, I think, fairly simple to comprehend. Given how things turned out, we cannot hold that Lucky deserves the same blame deserved by Unlucky; for again, Unlucky can be blamed for the death of a child, and Lucky cannot. Suppose, however, that things had worked out the other way round: Unlucky, luckily enough, was spared the accident, but Lucky’s negligence led to a child’s death. It would hardly be open to Lucky to claim, on the basis of fairness, that things should not have worked out that way; that things did not work out that way was, again, entirely a matter of fortune. It was not due to, nor did it reflect, any moral fact regarding Lucky and Unlucky’s relative status. By being negligent, both Lucky and Unlucky put themselves in a position where they deserved to deserve to be blamed for the death of an innocent person. The fact that Lucky managed to avoid the bad outcome she nevertheless deserved, whereas Unlucky did not, is entirely a matter of luck. In other words, the claim is that both Lucky and Unlucky deserve to be blameworthy, although only Unlucky actually is blameworthy. (Again, I take it that to be blameworthy is to deserve, or merit, blame.)

Consider, by contrast, a third driver whom we will name Conscientious. Conscientious takes every reasonable precaution against accident, including keeping her vehicle in perfect condition. Nevertheless, Conscientious is involved, through no fault of her own, in an accident in which a child is killed. Although we would expect Conscientious to feel very bad about this outcome, we would not blame her for the death of this child, and I think that we would not think she ought to blame herself. The reason is that Conscientious did not deserve to deserve such blame. Her conscientious behavior prior to the accident put her in a different moral situation than Lucky and Unlucky with respect to second order desert: in effect, it immunized her against certain forms of blameworthiness.

My general suggestion, then, is that considerations lying beyond the control of the agent are relevant to determinations of first-order desert (that is, whether a person deserves blame, gratitude, etc.), but not to determinations of second-order desert (that is, whether a person deserves to deserve blame, gratitude, etc.)

This suggestion allows us to have our cake and eat it to, with respect to the question of moral luck. For (1) and (2) turn out to be consistent after all. (1) refers to second-order desert – that is, the question of whether an agent deserves to deserve blame; whereas (2) refers directly to the question of whether an agent deserves blame. Lucky and Unlucky differ only in that Unlucky, due to the way things turned out, ended up deserving blame for a very bad outcome: the death of a child; whereas Lucky deserves no such blame. But in terms of whether they deserved to be blameworthy in this way, Lucky and Unlucky are exactly alike. We can thus acknowledge all of our intuitions on this subject: those that tell us that moral luck exists, and those that tell us that people who have behaved identically must be, in a significant sense, equally deserving.

3 Replies to “Second Order Desert and Moral Luck

  1. A few comments:
    1. If Lucky deserves to deserve to be blamed, as you suggest, then, in order for him to get what he deserves, it seems that he would need to run over a child (or do something similarly blameworthy). But it’s odd to say that Lucky deserves to run over a child. For one thing, it’s often regarded as a good thing that people get what they deserve; but Lucky’s running over a child surely would not be a good thing.
    2. On your proposal, as I understand it, we satisfy our intuitions regarding moral luck by saying that Lucky and Unlucky are equally deserving of being blameworthy. But then we have a choice: either we say that both deserve to be blameworthy, or we say that neither deserves to be blameworthy. So how do we decide between these?
    3. I don’t understand your discussion of Conscientious. You say:

    Although we would expect Conscientious to feel very bad about this outcome, we would not blame her for the death of this child, and I think that we would not think she ought to blame herself. The reason is that Conscientious did not deserve to deserve such blame.

    But why is that the reason? It seems more natural to say that the reason is simply that Conscientious doesn’t deserve to be blamed. Why do we need to go to the second-order level here?

  2. On reflection, I’m not sure that I accept your claim:

    (2) Unlucky is deserving of blame in a way that Lucky is not.

    Here’s your argument for (2):

    Lucky and Unlucky cannot possibly be equally deserving of blame, since Lucky cannot possibly be blamed for something that Unlucky clearly can be blamed for: the death of a child.

    But what if we respond as follows? We can blame or praise people only for the choices they have made. But Unlucky did not choose to kill the child. And Lucky did not choose to avoid killing a child. Thus, just as Lucky cannot be praised for not killing a child, so Unlucky cannot be blamed for killing a child. However, both Lucky and Unlucky did make a blameworthy choice: they both chose to take a significant, and unacceptable, risk of killing a child. So they are equally deserving of blame.
    More generally, the idea is that blame and praise should depend on the expected consequences of people’s actions, rather than the actual consequences. The actions of Lucky and Unlucky differ in their actual consequences; Unlucky’s action results in the death of a child, whereas Lucky’s action does not. But they do not differ in their expected consequenes (or so we may suppose); both actions were likely to result in the death of child. So, again, they’re equally blameworthy.

  3. Interesting idea, but what about this simpler one, which if I remember correctly is part of Michael Zimmerman’s view from a paper in J Phil: Just deny that the degree to which a person is blameworthy is determined by the number of things for which he is to blame (or the “extent” of his blameworthiness). Lucky and Unlucky have the same degree of blameworthiness – they deserve an equal amount of blame – even though Unlucky is blameworthy for more things. This still requires some account of what determines someone’s degree of blameworthiness, but maybe to resolve the apparent inconsistency you’re worried about it’s enough to say that the number of things for which one can be blamed won’t be part of the true account.

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