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Intent, Probability, and Morality

In a recent philosophy meetup, the seeming paradox was posed: if a person is driving drunk and makes it home without accident, we judge their act differently than if they are driving similarly drunk and happen to strike and kill someone; same negligence, same intent, only difference being luck. How can our intuitions on morality depend on luck?

Socially speaking, I see the purpose of moral condemnation as providing social pressures to ensure reasonable behaviour. Moral condemnation is not always coherent (either in this sense or in the sense of not potentially giving an ok to both sides of some conflicts) or complete (providing guidance for all circumstances-of-conflict). Sometimes it will do things that amount to mistakes on the small scale but reasonable choices on the medium-scale (errors of judgement that are reasonable that might be eliminated at a higher risk-aversion at a risk of effective paralysis on what are statistically wise bets). It's a messy tool, but a worthwhile one; there doesn't even need to be a completely defined notion of what a reasonable person looks like; providing adequate reminders of the importance of consideration of risk and side-effects of actions to balance the (easier) desires of the self for those who don't engage in moral philosophy enough to work these things out internally is sufficient.

Why is probabilistic morality important? I offer two problems:

  • Non-probabilistic morality, if it is to cover negligence, must use hard borders for acceptable-versus-not if it is to cover the topic of negligence. By allowing condemnation to extend more harshly into the realm of where bad results actually occur, we provide a means to bridge errors in estimation of risk with actual risk profiles. Likewise, the demonstrative nature of public condemnation allows an entire community to learn from this (at the risk of overlearning).
  • Probabilistic morality allows people to take reasonable risk "onto their heads", knowing the results and perhaps taking small steps to minimise it within the scope of the situation; knowing they will be held more culpable by the community if their risk bears bad fruit keeps the moral incentive correct in ways that might not otherwise be readily demonstrated to the community.
Risk-aversion is not something desirable to take to extremes; such a concern would ruin lives just as a desire for self-expression might easily be stifled by a fear of condemnation that extends beyond intent (see also: Intent is quite important in judging speech and works and any criticism that extends beyond that is probably unreasonable). The content of reasonable risk is not one that can easily be specified, which is why for this topic we are left with a muddy concept of reasonability.

What we are left with then are two concepts that roughly speaking cover the needed ground; I borrow them from Common Law, but take them out of that context for a more broad philosophical consideration (just as we might borrow from similar traditions: Sharia and Halakah):

  • Mens rea - the guilty mind
  • Actus reus - the guilty act
In moral judgement, either might be sufficient, but they contribute differently to the idea of an actionable harm. Where there is an Actus Reus and no Mens Rea, we may yet consider there to be a condemnable act either in the form of negligence (where a reasonable person would have taken mitigative steps to lower the chance or damage of an act and this was not taken) or recklessness (where the actus reus was not directly intended but was seen as an acceptable downside of an intended act). Likewise, where there is Mens Rea but no Actus Rea we might criticise someone for an intended-but-not-actualised-harm (parallel to crimes of attempted-this-or-that). Generally we condemn more heavily the guilty mind in moral philosophy, although if someone expresses intent to a harmful act but changes their mind, we might also more readily forgive them than the law does; there being no damages to recompense, the concern of moral judgement with future acts focuses more strongly on future acts than cleaning up the mess with present ones.

The content of what is reasonable is a philosophical landmine and an area where we can expect some social tension over the correct application of moral judgement. While providing an exhaustive notion of reasonability is not likely, I would hope that people consider, when thinking about activism for any cause, many concerns needed for the well-being of society rather than just those for their cause, and also attempt to accomodate reasonable pluralism in perspectives; activism that focuses on the basics of whatever values are at stake, even at the cost of accepting some kinds of harm as inevitable, is likely to fit with the various notions of justice, comfort, autonomy, and cosmopolitanism than one which does not balance its concerns against even very abstract others. Reasonable risk is likewise contentious. When a bad result is unlikely enough, or so unlikely as not to be foreseeable, we generally absolve people entirely of that result should it happen (again based on some notion of whether a reasonable person would anticipate it); the reasonable person with regards to probability and the reasonable person with regards to morality are two different theoretical concepts, although a top-notch system will have to consider both.