In this talk a Brown University professor discusses how we mete out punishment in proportion to the outcome, rather than the intent. Does that mean there is such a thing as moral luck?

Two people driving in a state of mild intoxication: one gets charged for drunken driving. Another kills a person because when he falls asleep on the wheel, the car veers to the side where an unfortunate person is standing and he gets killed. “They get radically different amounts of punishment for what amounts to identical behaviour…morality seems to be dependent on luck?... Does some chance variable in the world produce different outcomes based on the same underlying behaviour,” asks Fiery Cushman, leading us to the larger question: is there something called moral luck? Cushman, professor at Brown University, investigates the phenomenon of “moral luck”.

The question of moral luck becomes important because we discover through Cushman’s talk that our punishments are almost always meted out on the basis of outcomes. So it does not seem to matter how morally right you are, what matters is the consequence of your action, and this may be influenced by extraneous factors as well.

Cushman uses philosophies of different ages to understand the source of dilemmas and intuitions that have engaged human thought and action in his of study moral luck. He identifies the point when human thought differentiates between actions and actions. He says the brain is so tuned that even though it sees the similarity in the extent of wrongness of any situation, it prescribes punishment on the basis of the consequence. Cushman corroborated this thought with experiments; some through the internet and some by inviting people into the lab. The idea was similar…to see the relationship between the idea of wrongness and punishment. He found that the yardstick for pronouncing something/ some action as wrong is uniform. But the punishment is always decided by the outcome. So much so that if the action, even though performed with malafide intention, yielded positive results, people tended to ignore the malafide intention behind it. They even rewarded the person for getting positive results.

So people’s judgment of wrongness does not determine punishments. Outcomes alone determine punishment. Cushman says this is the counter-intuitive truth that he is trying to investigate and later in his talk comes up with something very insightful. Quoting Jean Piaget, he says, “The pattern of judgment grows a lot between the ages of four and eight years of age. Four-year-olds are very outcome-based, and by the time a child is eight years old, his or her judgment becomes intent-based, and that continues to play a role for the rest of your life. Developmentally early emerging reflex is based on the thought that one who causes harm deserves punishment. A later emerging capacity is to reflect on intentions and by the time you are an adult the intent-based one is the dominant one, playing a greater role in the way you judge punishments. But beneath that, is still operating the dilemma of reflex, which can push cases around the border, so to say.”

Cushman says it is this early childhood reflex that operates when we decide punishments on the basis of outcomes. He also says, “When you judge the intent, you are basically deciding for yourself whether you will interact with that person in one way or other. When you judge on the basis of outcomes, you are hoping to teach the person…you are hoping to change the behaviour of that person…the way we punish is matched with the way we happen to learn.”

Cushman draws a higher moral lesson from this. “Teachers talk of the teachable moment…it is that moment in the classroom when things align in just the right way for you to convey an important lesson…and you can think of accidents similarly. When your child breaks a tea cup, it is a teachable moment for you to convey what is important to you, and evolution seems to have exploited that to its benefit.”

Of course Cushman hastens to add the story is not all about outcomes, intentions are very important, but for this talk the investigation is restricted to that which creates moral dilemmas and there are so many of them…

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