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Philosophy professor examines ramifications of moral luck

  • Moral luck:
    Moral luck:  Philip Swenson, first-year assistant professor of philosophy at William & Mary, is researching and discussing the intricacies of the topic with students in a new class this semester.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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How much should mere chance play in our views of praise or blame?

That’s the question that Philip Swenson, first-year assistant professor of philosophy at William & Mary, is researching and discussing with students in a new class this semester.

Moral luck is something outside of your control affecting how praise-worthy you are or how blame-worthy you are, or how deserving of good things you are or how deserving of bad things you are,” Swenson said.

A classic example is there are two people trying to commit a murder. They both shoot, but a bird flies in front of one and stops the bullet. So only one of them kills their intended victim.

“You might think the person whose bullet was blocked had good moral luck, because they end up deserving less punishment than the person who did kill their victim,” Swenson said.

“So it was just a matter of luck that one of them succeeded in doing the bad thing and that one of them failed. But we end up blaming the person who succeeded more than the person who didn’t succeed.”

Growing interest

The topic grabbed Swenson after he read a couple of articles about it in graduate school mostly, he said, because of the question of fairness. While everyone will agree the world is unfair, morality itself shouldn’t be unfair, he said.

“There’s unfairness in whether you get what you deserve, but there shouldn’t be unfairness in what you deserve in the first place,” Swenson said. “And that’s what moral luck threatens — the idea that morality is fair. It makes it look like there’s unfairness even in whether I deserve good things or not.”

Clearly relishing the debates that ensue, Swenson is teaching a new senior seminar this semester titled Moral Responsibility and Moral Luck. The class includes material on moral luck, as well as looking at general questions about what it takes to be morally responsible for what one does.

“One question is what do you have to know to be morally responsible?” he said. “So some people think you’re only morally responsible if at some point you knew that you were doing the wrong thing.

“And so that’s one question we’re looking at: Do you have to know that you’re doing the wrong thing to be morally responsible? Or could it just be that you should have known but didn’t realize?”

He gave an example of promising to stop and pick up milk on the way home, but it never occurring to him during the drive. Was he still morally responsible for forgetting to bring home the milk, even though at the time he had no idea he was supposed to do it?

Swenson began research on the topic of moral luck over the past year and has submitted one paper to a journal and has a couple of others in the works. There are different kinds of moral luck, but his work is specifically in the area of circumstantial luck.

For example, suppose two people — Bob and Sally — would both steal if they had the opportunity, but only Sally had the chance. Bob, who didn’t try to steal because he didn’t have the opportunity, looks good even though he didn’t make any choice at all. One might think it was just luck that one person had the opportunity and the other didn’t.

“My theory is inspired by the idea that to whom much is given, much is required,” Swenson said. “If you’re in good circumstances where it’s easy to do the right thing, you get less credit for doing the right thing because more is expected of you in easy circumstances.

“Where if I’m in really difficult life circumstances — where it’s really hard to do the right thing — then I get more credit for doing the right thing and less blame if I do the wrong thing.”

The idea is to compensate for good or bad luck by giving more praise or a reward to the people who in difficult circumstances do the right thing, and less blame if they do the wrong thing in difficult circumstances.

While the word “moral” is used, Swenson said that moral luck is not dependent on one’s decision-making or control.

“I think it’s something that you can’t affect because if you could affect it, then it wouldn’t be luck; it would be your choice,” he said. “The worry about it is that you’re at the whim of fate or chance or something. All you can do is pull the trigger and then see what happens.

“That’s the frightening thing about moral luck — it’s outside your control.”

Teaching his research

In a recent class, students got very adamant about their opinions after reading a paper in which the author argued that since the person would have stolen, they’re just as blameworthy as the one who actually did. The author went on to argue that what type of character one has is mere luck, making one who of good character who doesn’t steal just as blameworthy as one who does.

“They didn’t like that idea, but they got excited about arguing about it,” Swenson said.

He stokes the classroom dialogue by requiring each student to come to class ready to give a comment on each week’s reading, followed by questions to push the debate along.

“It’s exciting to get to teach right in my research area,” Swenson said.

He has a couple of areas of research planned for the future. One is whether God could be morally responsible given what Swenson wants to say about moral luck.

“You might think of God as the ultimately morally lucky being because you think of God as an essentially good being,” Swenson said. “He has always existed with the inability to do wrong; he’s just essentially good. Well, then it just looks like he has awesome moral luck because he just can’t avoid doing really good things.

“So if you don’t like moral luck, then there’s a worry about whether God could be praise-worthy for what God does.”

One potential practical implication is the idea that society should be very sensitive to an individual’s life story and how hard it might be for that person to do the right thing.

“One possible result of this theory that I’m developing is that we should be really sensitive to people’s life circumstances in determining how much to reward or punish them, or how much to praise or blame them,” Swenson said. “Because in my view, if you’re in circumstances where it’s really hard to do the right thing, you’re much less blame-worthy if you do the wrong thing. We already do this in, say, sentencing convicted criminals.

“But maybe, if my theory is true, we should take life circumstances into account even more than we currently do.”