Systematic Moral Responsibility

*Important notes from the author of this blog post, see below.

Let’s say there are two people: Ale and Ali. Both of these people are babysitters. Now let us also say that they are both negligent individuals. Picture them: Ale and Ali, negligent babysitters.

Now, picture Ale in a situation where they need to drive a child home while in their care. Before beginning to drive, they forget to put the seatbelt on the child. Now, unfortunately, luck was not on their side, and they get in an unavoidable car accident, and this accident results in severe harm to the child.

Ale is then severely punished, a consequence that most of us would conclude is justifiable.

Now, picture Ali in a similar situation: they need to drive a child home. Before they sit down and ignite the engine, they forget to put the seatbelt on the child. But, unlike Ale, let’s say Ali makes it home and luck was on their side.

Does Ale deserve more guilt than Ali? Does Ali deserve to be punished less than Ale? I mean, the consequences in both scenarios were based on luck and not choice. Ale did not choose to get into a car accident.

In the field of philosophy, this is known as the problem of moral luck. It appears that some people obtain more guilt (or even moral praise) for events that were largely out of their own control.

There are various examples of this case occurring and various proposed solutions to the problem, but I would like to make a point about our intuitions about morality, and perhaps make a greater point about our values that stem from these intuitions…as these values have a profound impact on our human systems.

So, anyways, there are various examples of this. Think of two drunk drivers, where only one of them, by chance, gets in an accident. Is the other one less blameful? Or two people who would commit the same crime, but only one has the circumstances in which to do so. Is the person who actually commits the crime guiltier than the one who does not, even though the only reason why the person who did not commit a crime only did not because of circumstances?

What about the arguments that stem from the reasoning that most (or perhaps, even all) of our character traits, desires, and motivations are largely due to environmental and biological factors outside of our control?

Sure, our circumstances do severely impact our moral and ethical decision making, that is very true. But it does not limit moral responsibility. No, I would argue that it then makes all of us as individuals in some ways morally responsible.

Consider this example. Let’s say two individuals, Sammie and Sammy, are married individuals who would commit a violent crime of passion for, say, catching their spouses cheating. But, let’s say only Sammie commits such a crime, because only Sammie’s spouse cheated. Is Sammy less blameful? Is Sammie more blameful for an action that is the result of factors out of their control? Some may argue yes, Sammie is most certainly more blameful, and some may actually argue no, they are just as blameful as Sammy, even though Sammie is the only one to actually committed a violent crime.

It was here in a recent discussion about this topic that I felt it was important to point out that Sammie is not the only person in the system. There were plenty of people in this system that allowed this outcome to occur.** In a lot of ways, the circumstances that led to Sammie’s behavior were perhaps beyond their control, but they were not beyond everyone’s control. We might perhaps have a responsibility to lower the chance of harm in our fellow human beings by minimizing the circumstances that lead to such harmful events.

Now, I am well aware of what some people might then uncomfortably argue at this conclusion…namely that, if some human beings are predisposed to criminal behavior by genetics, and we as a societal system have the moral responsibility to limit such circumstances that would lead to such behavior, that we then should modify the genetics of our fellow humans, or disallow such genes from propagating, or that if such genes are found in a living person, that we should lock up such an unfortunate soul.

But, I do not believe this is the end result of such a conclusion on moral responsibility. No, I think the final conclusions from a collective systematic view of human morality is the result of one’s optimistic or pessimistic view on humanity. Are we optimistic…or are we pessimistic? Is not the idea that was just stated in the above paragraph concluding that human beings have absolutely no plasticity? Is it not implying that, if a human being has such a predisposition towards negative behavior, that this human being is fated regardless of circumstance to fall into such behaviors? Is it not a way of implying that we humans are just so completely inherently evil? I mean, is that even true?

My family history has a predisposition towards alcoholism. Does this now mean I am to suffer such a fate regardless of my awareness of such a predisposition?

And would I not want to be myself? I mean, alcoholism is tied to anxiety and depression. I see the predisposition towards anxiety in my family and oh so most certainly in myself. But, I also see how such over-thinking personalities have led my family and I to be the wonderful quirky people that we are. I know there are negatives, but I see positives in my careful, attentive reasoning that I also see in my siblings and parents. Is this not what many models of personality, like the enneagram, conclude: that our traits have positives and negatives?

Is not the self-awareness and the mindfulness that I employ when making decisions a form of risk minimization of moral failure in my day to day behavior? Is not enough that I am aware of it, that my family has made me aware, and that I am working to face such potential risks as an individual in a system?

And so, if other individuals have certain predispositions towards negative behaviors, is it not morally responsible to assist in limiting the environmental factors that could lead such individuals down a dark road? Do we not all, as individuals in human systems, have a responsibility to help those who are struggling, and minimize the circumstances that lead to immoral or harmful behaviors? I am confident that a better car braking design could have saved Ale’s circumstances. I am pretty sure there are a large number of factors that led to Sammie’s action that could have been prevented, or perhaps the circumstances could have deeply been improved.

I am not entirely sure if this is actually a functional way of perhaps minimizing the problem of moral luck.*** But, I am going to keep such ideas in mind deeply as I continue to make decisions in the day to day life as a student at BU, a leader in the community, and an intern at the Chapel. I am well aware that I cannot think too deeply about the systematic consequences of my every action on every individual in the system at all times – that would drive me crazy – but I will most certainly hold some awareness of how I may have very profound effects on those around me, and I perhaps am responsible for what I input into our systems.

I also hope I can hold on to this optimism and hope that every wonderful, beautiful, imperfect person can embrace their own messiness and find identity and hopeful meaning in our world, and that I can do whatever I can in my power to influence the circumstances of others in positive ways so that perhaps there are more Ales than Alis, and Sammys than Sammies, and hopefully I can hold to the hope of being a positive influence to those around me, even when my optimism is challenged.

*Note from Author of this Blog post: The examples that I used are modified forms of examples to portray the problem of moral luck in contemporary philosophy. My examples were modified to remove the hetero-normative tendencies the unchanged examples had. I am not in any way attempting to endorse any form of hetero-normativity.

**Further Note: Other than the other example of potential problematic consequences of such a moral view(the unethical ideas of genetic modification), this moral view, as especially portrayed earlier in this blog post, could lead someone to believe that victim-blaming was okay. I do not, under any circumstances, endorse any form of victim-blaming, and do not, in any way, mean to imply that a victim is at fault in many modern contemporary cases of social law where such mentalities are still often considered okay(It is never the victim’s fault in a case of sexual assault). An interpretation of this view in such cases may actually then imply limitations to the moral view of systematic moral responsibility.

***I do hold to some sort of collectivist or systematic form of moral responsibility, but as mentioned in the previous note, I do not affirm any form of victim blaming. This moral code is more aligned with my final paragraph in a previous blog post, Granos de Mostaza, and the ideals in my other blog post, The Importance of Community. I strongly believe in idealistic pro-social bystander behaviors, and strong support systems and communities, and I hope that we all, as individuals who have some sort of agency, try to do our best to help those in need around us and improve our little communities and tapestries in society in ways that can benefit all and allow everyone to experience a little bit of Heaven on Earth.

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