Moral Luck Revisited
The tragic sinking of the South Korean ferry raises again the problem of moral luck which Bernard Williams did so much to expose in his famous 1976 article on that topic. The South Korean president has now claimed that the captain of the ferry is a murderer, implying that he is subject to the same degree of blame as any other murderer.But consider another case, of a ferry similar in all respects – including the degrees of incompetence and cowardice among the crew – which, through luck, does not sink. There is no doubt that, if the incompetence of the crew were exposed in some way, they would be blamed — but far less than that the captain of the actual ferry.
This very difference in attitude seems unfair and unreasonable, and Williams’s own solution to the problem is to recommend dropping what he called ‘the morality system’, which insists that blame should be distributed fairly in accordance with a person’s intentional actions and not their outcomes.
This issue is something I have discussed previously on this blog, wondering whether we might avoid the problem of moral luck by seeing morality itself as instrumental to non-moral ends. At an excellent conference on the Moral and Political Legacy of Bernard Williams, organized this week by Lorenzo Greco, at TORCH in Oxford, I outlined another possible solution (not one original to me, I hasten to add): that we follow Kant (and indeed Aristotle) in restricting blame to the voluntary (so both captains would be blamed equally), but permit other assessments of their actions which do not imply moral criticism. So we might say, for example, that the actions of the captain of the actual ferry were extremely unfortunate, regrettable, terrible. We might call his actions shameful, or we might even, as Simon Blackburn suggested in a fascinating paper at the same conference, react to the captain with horror.
But, as emerged in discussion, there are problems with this suggestion. The boundaries of blame are poorly defined, and in practice vague. If we meet the actual captain and tell him he acted shamefully or react with horror (having blamed him fully for his incompetence and cowardice), that is quite likely to encourage him to feel further guilt, or at least to suffer in certain ways, which brings about the kind of unfair moral luck we were trying to avoid. So if we are going to adopt the Aristotelian-Kantian strategy, it may be that we shall also have to recommend a lot more care than we currently take in expressing negative attitudes to the conduct of others even if those attitudes are not paradigmatically blame-involving. It may even be that we should try to avoid taking at least some of those attitudes in the first place.