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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.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. Not sure how much blame there is in this case. Given this prank involved getting some medical information it should never have been attempted and certainly it should not have been broadcast without the permission of the Duchess of Cambridge. The two DJs and the radio station can be blamed for this and could perhaps be prosecuted, but I do not think they can be blamed for the suicide. This does appear to be a case of moral luck.

  2. Interesting post, as usual, Roger, but I think that whilst it is evident that the Australian journalists INITIATED the hoax, I don’t agree that they were necessarily the cause of the suicide. Had the (mainly) British press not presented this (admittedly rather stupid) hoax as a grave abuse of the sanctity of the royal family, there would not have been the public shaming of the nurse concerned. I suspect that it was the fact that she was thus pilloried as naïve and unprofessional that caused her to feel so humiliated that she took her own life.
    To come to your question of ethics, my intuition on the culpability of the journalists is to ask «could they reasonably have foreseen the distress they caused?”
    To which my provisional answer would be : the initiators, probably not, the prurient sensational British journalists and editors, probably yes.

    1. Anthony

      I do not follow press reports about the royals, but, as far as I am aware, the ‘(mainly) British press’ did not give any coverage to hoax until after the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha. Your suggestion that the ‘prurient sensational British journalists and editors’ are to blamed for her suicide is incorrect.

      1. A quick check reveals that on the 5/12 the Daily Mail, the Telegraph & the Grauniad carried the report . I haven’t checked the others.
        I may of course have missed it, but I havan’t seen any evidence that they have since shown any regret for the humiliating publicity given to the hospital staff.

  3. For the first time ever I have been on the Daily Mail website and have read the 5th Dec. report. I see no reason why the Mail should apologise for this report. They quite objectively describes what happened, Jacintha Saldanha was not named and they blamed the ‘hospital’ for lax security procedures. On the 7th the Mail ran another story that was again quite measured and did not attempt to directly blame the staff. It did outline the procedures if there was a formal complaint about their conduct. The report in the Telegraph gave an account by Jonh Lofthouse, CE King Edward VII Hospital, who said that all such calls should have come through a secure line to the patient‘s room (presumably this would pass through the nurses‘ station at night etc.). He did not blame his staff and nor did the paper.

    I assume you accept that the security procedures at the hospital failed and that the staff who took the call from the DJs might have to take some of the responsibility for this lapse. But there was no ‘humiliating publicity given to the hospital staff’, so I still think your finger-wagging at the press is ill judged.

  4. I followed thia case and thought that DJs do make prank calls for entertainment but never do think of the consequences of their actions. In this case I do agree that it was bad moral luck and to be more specific it was bad option luck .

  5. Patrick Timothy Gallagher

    The analysis of any prank call should examine, at some level, why the call was made in the first place: was it simply to stimulate laughter for those in attendance, or was it done to further an agenda; e.g., the careers of the callers? The callers were, seemingly, guided by their wish to gain renown. They cared not for any repercussion that might befall the duped. It should have occurred to them that the dupe would not be rewarded with an advancement of her career; indeed, she may be penalised. Nonetheless, they continued. I allow the denouement was extreme; however, little wriggle room was left for the duped to continue her life as before.

    When one advances his career at the expense of another the greatest good is ill served.

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