Moral luck is a theme I’ve touched on frequently and it is the philosophical claim that we can be morally responsible for acts which are beyond our control. Arguments for moral luck usually proceed from particular case studies where it is shown how our moral intuitions in particular cases leads us to morally attribute responsibility for acts beyond our control. It is often said that to be morally responsible two components are necessary: control over the act and knowledge. I wish here to discuss how they interact in interesting ways via the use of case studies, and make some points about how East Asian cultures differ from Western philosophical thought in attributions of moral responsibilities.
There is a frequently used thought experiment used to justify the control principle. The case goes, supposed there is someone who lacks control over his arms, maybe because he’s suffering from a disease which causes his arms to jerk randomly, spastically. Suppose while visiting your home this person’s arm jerked and knocked over your vase, causing it to break. Prime facie, you would not morally attribute wrong doing to such a person because he had no control over his spasms.
I wish to argue that prime facie we should in fact attribute moral blame to this person for knocking over your vase. To motivate this discussion, I would have to make a slight detour to other cases before circling back to this case. But first, let’s start with a sufficient criteria for prime facie attributing moral blame. You are morally responsible for an act or event if you *cause* the act or event. Thus, the spastic person *caused* the vase to break, ergo he is morally responsible for breaking the vase.
Viewed in this materialistic cause-and-effect manner, the conclusion seems pretty straightforward. However, this manner of cause-and-effect thinking in moral responsibility maybe more of an East Asian or Buddhist mindset. There are pretty extreme examples of mothers-in-law who blame their daughters-in-law for miscarriages, but the cause-and-effect judgement is very deeply embedded in East Asian cultures.
To make a slight detour, I’ve discussed the Japanese anime Jigoku Shoujo (Hell Girl) where people who have grievances against another can contact Jigoku Shoujo who can drag the object of their resentment to hell, however the price is that after they die, they too will be dragged to hell. The initial episodes start with vanilla cases of the victims being wronged and contacting Jigoku Shoujo to punish them, but as the show progresses the cases get stranger, a man contacts Jigoku Shoujo to drag another person to hell because he posed before an accident scene where his daughter was killed, a women contacts Jigoku Shoujo to drag a boy to hell because he alone survived a car crash where her own child was killed. When Westerners complain that that’s unfair or unjust, they are missing the point. Jigoku Shoujo is not about “justice” or “fairness”, it is about grudges, grievances, or resentment, it is more subjective. She does not bring justice or right ordering, she “releases” your grudge and relieves you of your resentment. Thus, if someone caused you offense, offended you subjectively, Jigoku Shoujo can send that person to hell, whether or not that makes sense from a Western point of view. This is a sort of warped version of the Buddhist idea that actions have effects, of course in Buddhism suffering, resentment or grudges are the “effects” of “bad” actions, which causes more bad acts and so on and so forth, and the point is to behave ethically to break the causal cycle of resentment and suffering. However in Jigoku Shoujo the cause-and-effect of suffering and resentment do not align always with what we think of “bad” actions, you could just be caught up in the resentment.
So much for this slight detour. But let’s get back to our theory for moral responsibility. Prima facie you can be morally responsible for an act/event if you caused the act/event. I wish here to discuss a scene from the Band of Brothers television show which shows us how in fact it may make sense to blame the spastic person for knocking over the vase. An officer who was talking with another officer was shot accidentally by a patrol. The officer ordered the patrol to find another officer and together they gave the wounded officer a number of morphine shots. When the medic arrived the following exchange ensued:
Medic: You give him morphine?
Officer 1: Yeah.Medic: How much?
Officer 2: I can’t remember, two, three syrettes maybe.
Medic: Three syrettes maybe! Jesus Christ were you trying to kill him?!
Officer 2: I think it was two.
Medic: You don’t think it might be important to let me know how much medication the man has had eh? I do not see one syrette on the man’s jacket!
Officier 2: Sorry doc.
Medic: It’s a good thing he’s a big man, maybe he has a chance.
Officer 1: He was in a lot of pain doc, we didn’t know what to do.
Medic: Well, you oughta! You are officers, you are grownups, you ought to know!
So the medic here angrily berates and morally blames the officers for potentially poisoning the wounded officers by appealing to who they are, officers, and based on that role, they *ought* to have known how much morphine to give. We can apply an analogous reasoning to how we can attribute moral blame to the spastic person for knocking over the vase. He may not specifically know which way his arms would swing, because he doesn’t have control over it, but being a spastic person, he ought to have taken precautions anyway to stay literally at arm’s length from any breakable objects so as not to cause any of them to break by accident. Thus, he ought to have known that he could have broken the vase when he stood so close to it, and he ought to have stayed further away.
From this example we can see the underlying logic of the causal theory of moral responsibility. It generally assumes that you take responsibility for the *entire causal chain* of your life leading up to the event. As long as somewhere within your life history there is a causal link to the immediate event, you’re responsible for the event. The officers failed to learn morphine dosages in their medical emergency lessons, they are responsible for poisoning the man with morphine overdose, the spastic person failed to take precautions upon entering your house to avoid breakable objects, he is morally responsible for breaking the vase, the pregnant women failed to take precautions when walking down the stairs carefully, she is morally responsible for the miscarriage. They may not have control or know what to do in the immediate events, but they are still morally responsible anyway because they *caused* the event, and their entire life history lead up to it.
This maybe extremely harsh to Western ears, who are more focused on the good intent and good will, and that the person without ill-will ought not be morally blamed. However the Western notion of the self, as an inner subjective will or mind, plays a crucial role in moral reasoning. Their argument is that “I” strictly speaking, did not cause the vase to break, it was my arms which is not part of “me”. However, East Asian cultures then to have a more smeared or looser sense of the self, you are the whole person, and that boils down to spastic arms.
Our moral intuitions as such here actually does suggest something more of a life history causal theory of moral reasoning than the very strictly Kantian and rarefied view of pure will. While Western sensibilities may cause us to temper our judgement for events beyond our control, at an abstract level or principle level, in particular day to day cases, we are still used to morally blaming people for causing an act/event, and by tracing that person’s life history to that event.