Should you morally blame people for things outside their control?


Imagine you are driving near a primary school and going slightly over the speed limit when you feel something small go under the wheels. Luckily, the worst has not happened. When you step out of the car, you realise that your victim is a rabid dog that had wandered into the road, not a helpless little child. If you heard that someone you knew had been speeding but had not hurt anyone, you would probably judge them a little. If instead you heard that a driver went over the speed limit and killed a child, you would probably judge them a lot. However, can we really say that a driver who goes too fast and does not kill anyone has done something less morally reprehensible than a driver who goes just as fast but kills a child? 

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. We often assign moral blame or praise based on outcomes in a lot of areas of life. In one study, participants were told to assess an investment decision without knowing how well it did. They were then asked to assess the investment after being told how it performed. The study found that participants saw unprofitable investments as morally blameworthy, even when they had had a different assessment before knowing the outcome. However, just because something is widespread does not mean it is right or fair. Philosophers such as Kant argue against assigning moral blame or praise based on the outcome of decisions. 

To illustrate why, imagine I just spilled a cup of hot chocolate over you. If I did it on purpose, you can rightfully say that I am morally blameworthy (as well as more insulting things). If I tripped, you would still be annoyed, but would probably judge me less harshly. This intuition that people should only be held morally responsible for things they can control, or for things they intend, is known as the control principle. However, as we saw with the driver example, the intuition behind the control principle does not always hold in practice. We often assign moral blame based on factors which are outside anyone’s control, such as blind luck. This is called moral luck, a principle first established by the philosopher Bernard Williams, and developed upon by Thomas Nagel. 

According to Nagel, there are various types of moral luck. The examples we’ve seen so far are called resultant luck, which is luck in the way things turn out. External factors, like whether or not a child happened to be crossing the road while we were speeding, are not under our control at all. Yet they affect the outcomes of our actions in ways which lead to more or less moral blame being assigned. Another type of luck is called circumstantial luck. My mother always says that you cannot know whether or not you would do something heroic in a difficult situation until you are put in it. Similarly, you cannot know if you would do something awful in different circumstances. The kind of situations and choices you are faced with are purely a matter of chance, and yet they also affect moral blame and praise. 

The worst part about moral luck is that even if we could somehow control our external circumstances, it still would not disappear. We all have our own personalities, due both to nature and nurture. Can you really blame a psychopath for making morally questionable decisions? What about a previously kind person who turned violent as a result of a brain tumour? Moral luck does not only play a role in extreme cases like these. Studies suggest that as much as 60% of our temperaments could be determined by genetics. Additionally, nobody controls what their parents are like, or whether they grow up in a healthy environment or not, so even the part of our personalities which is determined by nurture is influenced by factors outside of our control.

It seems that we cannot eliminate moral luck, as our choices are always influenced by factors outside our control. However, this does not mean we cannot argue in favour of keeping the control principle anyway. Firstly, abandoning it means we would not morally assess people on what they could control anymore. In other words, we would not assess people based on their choices. This is not only counter-intuitive, but arguably also reduces a sense of accountability, which could encourage immoral actions. While we could just switch to another standard of evaluating moral praise or blame, available alternatives can seem very arbitrary to many people. 

Consequentialism, a theory that states that the moral worth of an action depends on its outcomes, would be a fairly natural alternative to assessing people based on matters within their control. Critics argue that moral consequentialism could justify sacrificing the well-being or rights of a few individuals for the greater good, hence compromising principles of justice and fairness. Another critique centres around the challenge of predicting all potential consequences accurately. Real-world scenarios often lead to unintended and unforeseeable outcomes. How can a consequentialist even know whether the overall impact of their actions will be positive or negative?

Yet despite these concerns, the control principle just does not work very well. The idea that we should only be morally responsible for things we can control leads to a shrinking sphere of things we can be morally responsible for. It is immediately obvious that how things turn out depends on external factors. An assassin could choose to shoot at someone, but whether the bullet kills their target is, to some extent, a matter of luck. As a result, we cannot be morally blamed for killing, but only for making the choice to attempt murder. Some people can accept this. However, strictly applying the control principle forces us to go further. We cannot control our genetics or the circumstances of our upbringing, both of which make us who we are, and which influence the choices we make. So how can we be blamed for those either? The concerns around abandoning the control principle are valid and reasonable, but concluding that we cannot be held morally responsible for even our choices is surely worse.

Featured image by Pixabay

Sabina Narvaez
Sabina Narvaez
Originally from Mexico, but mostly grew up abroad and has Spanish nationality. Studies Philosophy, Politics, Law and Economics and mostly writes about these topics. Also interested in sustainability.

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