Prank Calls and Moral Luck
An outburst of blame, vituperation, and indignation, including death threats from all over the world, has followed the sad suicide of a nurse who fell for a ‘prank call’ from two Australian DJs and unwittingly released confidential information about a member of the British royal family.
Some criticism might well be made of any person who engages in such deception for the purposes of entertainment, and the fact that the DJs’ actions were therefore not entirely ‘innocent’ has perhaps fuelled the flames of protest. But there is little doubt that they are being subjected to significantly more blame than many others who engage in similar stunts.
This is an example of moral luck – in this case, bad moral luck. The two DJs are being held to account for something over which they did not have control, and many find this deeply troubling. Surely morality, if anything, must be fair? If the two DJs have acted no differently from those who make prank calls which do not lead to terrible results, then it cannot be right to blame them to any greater extent. And yet it would seem bizarre if the outburst of blame were extended to everyone who does anything like make a prank call.
One option is to say that there is no unfairness here: this is just how things are, and if you act in some foolish way and somebody dies then you have to accept the penalty. This would probably have been the response of Aristotle, and indeed the majority of pre-Christian, and especially pre-Kantian, thinkers. But to many modern thinkers, this hard-nosed approach brings a kind of injustice analogous to punishing the innocent too close to the heart of morality.
Another strategy is to see our lived or positive morality as nothing other than a set of sanctions and other means of social coercion, in which we should expect to find no internal coherence. So the Greeks were right: there is no unfairness here. But there is no fairness either. Morality is, like law, a method of influencing people’s actions, and any justification for it must be external. One obvious such justification will be a broadly consequentialist one. We cannot reasonably blame everyone who puts others at some risk of serious harm. But what we can do is hold to account those who do cause serious harm, and this is likely to deter people from taking risky actions at all or at least seeking to minimize the risks. Death threats are going too far. But blaming those who do cause harm – even though it is, by the lights of morality itself, unfair to some degree – is a practice we would probably be much worse off without.