Monday, March 28, 2011

Moral Luck

I am out of town at the moment and posts may be even more sporadic than usual.

Listed as a bias by Wikipedia, and criticized widely by philosophers, conceptualizes the idea that human beings have a tendency, given two actors who behaved in similar ways but had different outcomes, of blaming disproportionately the person with the negative outcome.

The problem with this criticism of moral luck is simple - it starts with a presumption that has no relation to the real world.  In no case in the real world can we find two actors who behaved in precisely similar ways.

The Wikipedia example is of two motorists - both run red lights.  They both behave in precisely the same way, except that in one case, a person was crossing the road, and got hit.

A fine example.  But completely worthless.  Ask yourself, after reading the example, if -you- feel inclined to blame one person rather than the other.

The difference is not the juxtaposition, nor the explication of the bias around the example - the difference is that we are given privy to information which doesn't exist in the real world, namely, that the two individuals behaved in precisely similar ways.  It's stated as part of the formation of the example that if the old woman had walked in front of the other car she also would have been hit.

What is missing is the simple element of uncertainty which exists in the real world.  -Would- she have been hit had she walked in front of the other car?  Did the other driver glance up and check the environment before reading a text message, or whatever example we use as the distraction?

I never get speeding tickets; I've known people who get more than one a month.  We both speed; is this luck?  Or does the fact that I pay such close attention to the road while I'm driving that I notice cops long before they'd notice me figure into it?

Superficially similar behaviors can have wildly different outcomes based on variables which may not be stated as part of the problem set.

Which is to say, the variables are not constrained, and irresponsible behavior tends to have negative outcomes; comparatively responsible behavior does not and cannot eliminate negative outcomes, but there is still significance in the event, we are not remiss in attaching some significance to the outcome in terms of the moral agent.

Now, before I finish, it is appropriate to state that, in spite of everything I have written, this is still a bias.  Which brings up an important concept:  A bias is not necessarily wrong.  Most bias can be characterized as being generally right, but (for a given value of wrong) for the wrong reasons.  It might be better defined as heuristic than bias; both terms are correct, but the word "bias" carries baggage which it does not fully deserve, which is in large part why we have the word "heuristic" to begin with.  (Heuristics are fundamentally a form of bias.)

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