Sunday, January 30, 2011

Moral choices

During some random surfing today, I stumbled across this:

You’re driving down the road and, in a moment of inattention, you run a red light. In one universe a cop pulls you over and gives you a ticket. In another universe you hit a little old lady and kill her.

In the first universe you’re just an ordinary motorist. In the second you’re a shameful monster. But you had no control over the presence of the little old lady; the same (small) list of controllable actions were available to you in both universes.

If our moral responsibility extends only to our voluntary actions, then in both universes your only transgression lies in running the red light. Why then do we assign additional blame for hitting the lady, an outcome over which you had no control?

It made me think, and I believe I have an answer. I think whoever wrote this isn’t drawing and distinction between an action and the consequences for that action. The ‘action’ is fixed, the consequences are not. I also feel he has it backwards. The driver isn’t being assigned ‘additional blame’ in the second instance… he just managing to avoid the consequences of his actions (and the blame that comes with it) in the first instance.

The example asks: “Why do we assign additional blame for hitting the lady, an outcome over which you had no control?”

My answer is that the driver did indeed have control over this outcome. He could have been paying attention and not ran the red light in the first place. In both instances he committed an offense that could easily have resulted in someone’s injury or death. It’s not that he got ‘more’ blame in the second instance…it’s that he got lucky and avoided blame in the first.

The issue is a muddied in the above example because the idea that the driver is momentarily distracted implies that the whole thing was an accident, so let’s illustrate this with a clearer example:

Let’s say that one night I get drunk off my ass and decide to drive across town despite the fact I know I’m in no condition to drive. In one instance I get where I’m going without any problems, in the second I run a red light and kill that little old lady.

If we use the logic of the first example, I’m just a drunk driver and I have no control over that little old lady. In both cases, my only transgression is getting behind the wheel while drunk…so why should I be assigned extra blame for hitting the little old lady?

The answer is simple: I’m not being assigned ‘extra blame’…I just got away with it in the first instance. My choice, my voluntary action to get behind the wheel while drunk lead directly to the little old lady’s death… and getting across town without incident in the first instance doesn’t make my actions any less wrong or irresponsible.

Basically the responsibility comes from the choices we make. Just because we can’t always foresee the eventual outcome of these choices doesn’t make us any less responsible for them.

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