Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame, by Diana Hsieh. Sedalia, CO: Philosophy in Action, 2013. 214 pp. $19.99 (paperback).
Imagine people in three different scenarios:
1. Abe and Bill both get blinding drunk at a bar, leave at the same time, and drive home at the same rate of speed. Both run a (different) red light at the same time on the way home. By bad luck, a single mother with her two children is driving through the intersection along Abe’s course, and Abe rams his car into hers, killing her and her two children. Bill, on the other hand, makes it home without injuring anyone.
2. Alan and Betty walk along different piers at the same lake. Both are equally brave, but Betty sees a drowning boy in the lake and dives in and saves him. Alan does not see anyone in distress.
3. Adriana and Benjamin are born in very different circumstances. Adriana’s parents are wealthy, and she grows up with a good education and many opportunities to improve herself. She becomes a successful neurosurgeon. Benjamin’s parents neglect and abuse him and teach him how to steal for them. He becomes an armed robber who winds up in prison.
Why do we blame or praise one individual in each scenario more, given that so much of what they do and what they accomplish depends on luck? Why do we send Abe to prison and sing Betty’s praises, but not do the same for their counterparts? Such issues are the subject of Diana Hsieh’s book, Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame.
As Hsieh makes clear, one’s answers to questions about moral responsibility radically affect one’s approach to moral judgment, to criminal justice, and to political policy.
Decisions made in the criminal justice system depend substantially on moral judgments. Hsieh opens her book with the example of a Colorado man who, in 2005, while driving drunk at speeds exceeding one hundred miles per hour, struck and killed another driver. The judge, noting that the man had previously injured someone else while driving drunk and that he had dropped out of an alcohol rehabilitation program, sentenced him “to the maximum penalty of twelve years in prison.” Hsieh points out, “According to ordinary moral and legal standards of culpability, [the man] deserved to be blamed and punished for his reckless driving” (p. 1). Yet, according to certain theories with which Hsieh contends in her book, the man was instead himself “a victim of bad luck” (p. 2).
Moral judgments also play a key role in public policy. To draw on an earlier example, if a neurosurgeon is not fundamentally responsible for her success, then how can she deserve her large income? Why should she not be taxed in order to subsidize someone working in fast food? Indeed, if no one deserves his financial successes or failures—if such success or failure is fundamentally a matter of luck (in Barack Obama’s terms, “you didn’t build that”)—then it would seem that the best system is “an egalitarian political order” (p. 9). . . .