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.
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
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.