You find a ticking bomb which will go off in five seconds. There is a pad on it, and if you enter the right five digit number in the time remaining you will defuse the bomb. You frantically enter "12345", "54321" and "91101", and none of these work. The bomb goes off. As it happens, had you entered 88479, a number that didn't occur to you, the bomb would have been defused. You surely could have entered 88479. Are you responsible for failing to defuse the bomb?
Of course not. But why not? You were in some sense able to.
In cases like this, a natural suggestion is one made by Gerald Harrison: you were unable to do it "because ... doing so is contingent upon something highly improbable happening, namely ... entering the right combination."
But I don't think this has much to do with improbability as such. Suppose I'm a habitual criminal and I come across a sure opportunity to steal a million dollars with almost no chance of being caught, and sure enough I avail myself of the opportunity. The probability that I refrain from this was nonzero, but it was very small—perhaps no bigger than the probability of entering the right combination in the above case. Yet despite the low probability, I am responsible.
Or vary the bomb case. There is time to enter only one combination. And you know it's either 12345 or 54321. You try 12345, and fail. You are not responsible for the failure to defuse, even though your defusing the bomb was not "contingent upon something highly improbable happening".
So why aren't you responsible in the two bomb cases? It sounds right to me to say that both in the original case and the bomb case you did your best, while in the criminal case, I failed to do my best. And neither the probabilities of success (low in the first bomb case and in the theft case, but moderate in the second bomb case) nor those of trying to do one best (high in the bomb cases but low in the theft case) seem to settle any of the cases either way.
This suggests the following principle:
- If you always tried to do the best you could as hard as you could, you are not culpable for the bad outcomes of any of your actions.