High School TSS

Moral Luck: The Intersection of Philosophy and Psychology

We do we blame people for things that are out of their control? It's a combination of philosophy and psychology. Read to find out more!

We often think of psychology and philosophy as distinct and separate fields that address completely different questions. However, psychology and philosophy are so closely related that they can sometimes even be the same thing. In Buddhism, psychology and philosophy are interwoven, as there cannot be one without the other. In moral luck the two are not as connected, but they both play a large role.

Picture this scenario: two people go to a bar and drink, maybe a little too much. Both people make the bad decision of driving home while they are drunk. Person #1 manages to get home safely without any incidents; meanwhile, person #2 hits a child, killing her. Who is more to blame? Who deserves more punishment? This is the paradox of moral luck. We like to think that we only punish and praise people based on things that they can control. But both of the drivers made the same decision: to drive while intoxicated, but only one of them is held responsible for the death of a child. Now we say that the 1st person was morally lucky, because even though they made the same decision, they got off free (1). This is the philosophy behind moral luck, but the psychology involves something more intricate: cognitive biases.

When addressing questions concerning moral luck, most people view both action at the same level of wrongness. Even though people say that both drunks are equally to blame because both of them performed a dangerous action, the difference comes when we look at punishment. People tend to give harsher punishments to the person who ended up injuring or hurting someone else. Person #1 not only arrived home with a safe conscience, they also received less punishment! But why is it that we treat the two people differently even though we say they are both equally to blame?

We usually judge people based on two characteristics: intent and outcome (2). When someone is trying to help us, we appreciate them and praise them. When someone hurts us, we blame them and get angry at them. But what happens if someone tries to help us, but hurts us instead? Our instincts have evolved over long periods of time, and we have become good at tuning in on what is happening around us and reacting to it. When considering instinct, outcome has always come before intent. However, in the modern world, we have grown to learn how to judge people based on what they are trying to do (3). This is a solely learned instinct, as babies only focus on outcome, but as we grow older we become more in tune with insight. After we have reached adulthood intent becomes the primary method of judgment. From time to time, the evolutionary instinct of focusing on outcome kicks in, and it causes us to experience the moral luck bias. When someone tries to pour us water and spills it on us, we get angry because we focus on the spilled water rather than the intent. When things happen quickly, our brain goes into autopilot, and our rational mind stops being able to control our reactions (4).

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that babies learn better from outcomes rather than intent. When a child breaks a plate, we punish them so that they learn that breaking plates is not good. It doesn’t matter what they were trying to do, because the plate ended up broken. When thinking back upon mistakes, we don’t think “I must’ve been trying to do the wrong thing”, we think “What did I do wrong?”. Since our brain is so good at making these kinds of mistakes, it is up to us to correct them. Instead of instantly getting mad at someone when something goes awry, we need to be able to control ourselves and approach the situation rationally. What was the other person trying to do? What went wrong? Since it is not wired into our brains as human instinct, we need to train our instinct to judge based on intent rather than outcome.


References and Footnotes:

(1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpDSPVv8lUE

(2) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027708000590

(3) https://www.jstor.org/stable/4106826?casa_token=zVreYG0k22sAAAAA:Mawwb_KkMCwHW0S2ZiFKLtv–Ql-2iZjCl0a3-PXA_RfMKxvZ9FE3NfV1gbgHagkpxwgldLWOs3tjmUTFMxyaoIBnO1gA3kFj371dLsNRD6Gin-oADw&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents 

(4) http://philosophybites.com/2012/06/fiery-cushman-on-moral-luck.html 

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