Can you be punished for your bad luck?

The Big Idea

By Elena Butti

Your friend Ben and you are approaching the cashier in Dining Hall with your trays on which a big bowl of soup miraculously is in equilibrium. Since you just came out from WeedCo borrel, your senses are not exactly sharp. As you trudge towards the cashier together with Ben you slip on a banana skin, with the tragic consequence that the soup spills on the uniform of the Sodexo manager, who happens to be passing in front of you at that precise moment.

As the Sodexo manager has unlimited power, and is outraged by your behaviour, he irrevocably decides to expel you from all committees and condemns you to life-long meditation in the meditation room.

Miserable and wretched, you reflect upon your misfortune, and start wondering: what have I done wrong, that Ben hasn’t done, too?

You might have oversmoked at the WeedCo borrel and overfilled your bowl: but so has Ben. Certainly it wasn’t your fault if the banana skin was in your way rather than on Ben’s.

What have you done worse than Ben?

The answer is: nothing. The behaviours of the two of you were exactly the same. It is due to pure chance that it was you, rather than Ben, who spilled your soup. In other words, you are paying for absolutely nothing more than your bad luck, which you could not control. Is this just?

Your miserable situation is an illustration of the philosophical and legal debate on the concept of moral guilt (see Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams among others). Is guilt to be judged on one’s (lack of) intention to cause harm, or on the effects produced by one’s actions?

If we reckon intention to be the determining factor, then Ben and you should be judged in the same way, and get the exact same punishment, if any. After all, individuals should not pay for what is beyond their control (such as the banana skin). This might sound like common sense, but it’s not really what happens in most legal systems, which consider the effects of one’s actions to be essential. A very common example is driving in a state of inebriation. If one is caught drunk while driving, he will get a relatively minor punishment. If the same person, in the exact same condition, only with less luck, happens to run over and kill another person, he/she will probably spend most of his/her life in jail. Once again, the only difference is luck. So can bad luck really constitute a moral guilt?

Even if we believe that intentions are what determines guilt, this is not unproblematic. Our intentions are after all shaped by our character, which is far from being a matter of our choice. It is a matter of on-going debate between philosophers whether we are really free to make moral choices, or whether any choice we make is predetermined by our personality, which is the result of a combination genes, nurture and chance beyond our control. These three elements combine together in each individual in such a way that in any moment of our life we could not act any differently from how we actually act (this is the philosophical doctrine of determinism, as opposed to that of freedom of choice).

Even if you had actively chosen to spill your soup, and thus you could be said to be absolutely responsible for your actions, a determinist would argue that you could not have possibly chosen otherwise, given the circumstances that brought you in that particular situation.

The consequences of extreme determinism are, however, far-reaching. It means that no individual would be in the end punishable for any misdeeds, since he could not have possibly chosen otherwise. But would we really go as far as saying that a person wilfully premeditating to kill another is ultimately innocent?

This is some food for thought. You’ll need to fill up your time anyways, seen that, for the time being, you’re shut in the meditation room.

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