By Marcus Teo
Consider the following scenario:
Burglary: A burglar plots to break into an old woman’s house on a Sunday morning, a time when he knows she’s always at church. One Sunday he creeps up to her back window and smashes it with a hammer. After he looks inside, he sees that the old woman is not at church – she is in there, lying face down on the floor. The sight of the body scares the burglar and he runs away; he wanted to commit a burglary, but being arrested for murder was not a part of his plan. But what the burglar did not know was that the old woman was not dead, she was unconscious, having passed out because of a carbon monoxide leak that would have killed her. When the burglar broke the window, he let out some of the toxic gas and let in fresh air which allowed her to regain consciousness. (Adapted from CrashCourse, “Metaethics: Crash Course Philosophy #32”)
Such is a standard case of moral luck – an unforeseen consequence that arises from circumstances outside of the moral agent’s control. In this case, the burglar plots to do something morally abhorrent – to break into an old woman’s home – but finds that he accidentally saves her life instead. Here, the question remains: did the burglar do the right thing by wanting to break into the old woman’s home?
Moral luck remains an elusive phenomenon for moral theory. It seems that in crying permissibility or impermissibility of the action, the moral agent is always left in an uncomfortable position. In this case, the moral agent who purports that the burglar did the right thing must justify against the intention to do something obviously wrong, whereas the moral agent who purports that the burglar did something wrong must justify against the obvious good that is saving the old woman’s life. True to form, different moral theories provide different answers for such questions. The purpose of this essay, however, is not to weigh between different moral verdicts derivative of different theories, but rather to check if these theories are nomologically sound in producing moral verdicts that we, as moral agents, can intuitively accept. In order to do this, a reversal of the burglary situation may be useful.
Now consider the following scenario:
Friendly Neighbour: Imagine the same premises as the above scenario, but in this case the “burglar” is just a friendly neighbour who makes it a point to say hello to the old woman every morning. Seeing the old woman’s body on the ground that Sunday, he breaks in to try to resuscitate her while help is on its way. In his panic, he accidentally applies too much force and crushes her ribs, causing multiple internal haemorrhages and, eventually, death. What he did not know was that the woman had passed out due to a carbon monoxide leak, and would have been fine had he left her alone and waited for the fire department to arrive.
A reversal of the burglar case, the antagonistic friendly neighbour presents a case that is useful to consistency-check moral theories. This is because most moral theories – at least those within the realm of moral realism – require that moral agents follow a code of conduct, a moral agent who subscribes to a moral theory must respond consistently across both cases. Both cases of moral luck thus present obvious prima facie discomforts for most moral theories. For example, utilitarianism (which argues that moral agents have a duty to maximise utility/pleasure while minimising disutility/pain) fails to satisfy our prima facie discomforts in the above cases. Here, the utilitarian must argue that the burglar did a good thing while the friendly neighbour’s act was abhorrent, even though the intentions of both individuals were antagonistic to their consequences. In Kantianism, a major deontological theory, moral agents must ensure that (1) their actions may be willed to be universal law without self-defeating consequences, and (2) that they treat other moral agents never as a means to an end, but rather an ends-in-themselves. In this context, then, the Kantian finds himself in the same position as the utilitarian. If the burglar’s actions were impermissible because it was intended to treat the old woman as a mere means to an end, then the friendly neighbour must have done the right thing – even at the cost of the old woman’s life.
Virtue ethics, on the other hand, holds that ethics stems from a moral agent’s character. While different theorists argue for the importance of different virtues, the common denominator within ethical theories of this species is the independence of moral verdicts from the consequences they bear. In the present context, this grants virtue ethics amnesty from having to consider the consequences of both cases. The virtue ethicist may thus cry permissibility or impermissibility at both cases, in any combination, based on the virtues that he subscribes to. Contra to the necessity for consistency in moral verdicts, the virtue ethicist has a duty only to uphold a specific virtue, or a set of virtues, that he personally endorses. This accords him the flexibility of possibly arguing for the permissibility or impermissibility of both cases, with the parameters of his following justifications comfortably narrowed to the virtue(s) he argues for.
Ultimately, it seems that the virtue ethicist finds himself in a more comfortable position when it comes to his response to both the burglar and the friendly neighbour cases together; he is far less at the mercy of the prima facie discomforts from having to uphold nomological consistency in his moral verdicts. While it is entirely possible for a virtue ethicist to fall into the same traps as those presented above, it remains to reason that a virtue ethicist may just as easily avoid doing so. If a virtue ethicist argues that one’s good intentions are all that matters, he must argue that the burglar’s action was impermissible while the friendly neighbour’s was permissible, falling into the trap of prima facie discomforts of ignoring the blatantly antagonistic consequences that their respective actions have brought about. However, there remains the possibility of virtue ethicists who argue for the likes of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, which reinforces the importance of treading the fine line between deficiency and excess of any given virtue (or vice). Here, the virtue ethicist could argue that the burglar was in the wrong due to his intention, but the friendly neighbour was also wrong because he inadvertently ended a life with his own careless action.
In considering the burglar and the friendly neighbour together, the latter serving as a reversal for the former, it seems that we unearth numerous potential potholes for major ethical theories. I aimed to bring to mind a useful manner through which one may contemplate the nomological consistency of any ethical theory, considering arguably important nuances in these theories. While definitely not exhaustive or conclusive, it seems that virtue ethics finds itself promising to face this reversal test with less prima facie discomforts.
Image Credits: Wallpapercave, Washington.edu, Wikiart