Getting caught and moral luck

We’re all familiar with the fact that most people who do bad things never get caught. Certainly that’s true if the bad thing is illegal and getting caught means getting prosecuted. Although breaking the law is hardly uncommon, those of us who consider ourselves upstanding members of society do not generally engage in such activities. Well, not since we became proper adults and had jobs, mortgages and kids. (I can now reveal that when I was about 10 I once stole a cricket ball from Woolworths – who can’t really pursue me after their demise, so I should be safe. The additional twist to this story is that I was brazen enough, after the cricket ball had prematurely split, to take it back to the shop and successfully claim a replacement. But enough of my personal criminal past.) So from this largely virtuous viewpoint, we have no difficulty in equating the moral culpability of those who do get caught with those who don’t. Indeed, because getting caught and then being punished might be seen as some degree of reparation, we might consider that the ones who got away with it are in a morally inferior position. Thus I can’t imagine anyone seriously bringing forward the idea that a burglar who gets caught is more heinous than a similar burglar who evades detection.

Radio 4 recently had an fascinating item on making mistakes in politics and how they’re viewed and dealt with compared with the way that making mistakes is seen in elite flying training in the RAF. In politics making mistakes is generally seized on with glee by opponents and the media, whilst in the RAF making mistakes and being honest about them is seen as a positive thing from which much learning can proceed. I mention this interesting disparity only because as part of the discussion, the concept of moral luck was introduced. In the distinction between doing a bad thing and getting caught, and doing the same thing and not getting caught, the commonality is that some bad thing was actually done in both cases. Thus the moral equivalence in how the perpetrators are seen. But with moral luck, the distinction is between a bad consequence happening, and it not happening. For example, if I drive with reckless abandon on a busy motorway, but manage to avoid any collision, well, then no harm’s been done. A friend may drive in exactly the same manner, but has the “misfortune” to cause a multiple pile-up in which he escapes with cuts and bruises, but others are killed. His name will be dragged through the courts, he’ll be castigated by one and all, probably go to prison, and lose his job along with his home and his wife. Now where will the moral line be drawn between us? Logic would surely dictate that my driving is as morally culpable as my friend’s. All that has led to his ruin and my scot-freeness is my good fortune and his bad luck. And yet this isn’t how we tend to view these things. I might if I’m particularly mean-spirited indulge in a serious dose of schadenfreude, but even if I’m not that brutal I probably won’t feel especially guilty. Lucky, yes, but guilty, no.

I suspect that we generally law-abiding citizens that looked with clear-eyed dispassion on the caught and not-caught burglars and saw the equivalence of their moral turpitude do not extend this logical perspective to moral luck. We probably cling onto our self image as law-abiding so long as no-one gets hurt, literally or metaphorically. Who will say they’ve never behaved recklessly, even though they’ve so far been lucky enough to get away with it? This should be borne in mind whenever we feel tempted to see the law as a way of encoding morality. If it were, then the motorist pulled over for reckless driving would face the same penalty as the motorist whose equal recklessness causes the deaths of innocent others. The law and morality are but loosely connected, to say the least.


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