Thursday, October 22, 2015

Russian roulette

Intuitively, imposing a game of Russian roulette on an innocent victim is constitutive of twice as much moral depravity when there are two bullets in the six-shooter as when there is only one. If so, then a one-bullet game of Russian roulette will carry about a sixth of the moral depravity of a six-bullet game, and hence about a sixth of the depravity of plain murder.

I am not so sure, though. The person imposing the game of Russian roulette is, I shall suppose, intending a conditional:

  1. If the bullet ends up in the barrel, the victim will die.
And then the above intuition suggests that the moral depravity in intending such a conditional is proportional to the probability of the antencedent. But consider other impositions of conditionals. Take, for instance, the mob boss who orders:
  1. If you can't pay the mayor off, get rid of him.
The amount of moral depravity that this order constitutes does not appear to be proportional to the probability of the mayor's rectitude (either in actual fact or as judged by the boss). If the underling is unable to bribe the mayor and kills him, the mob boss seems to be guilty of murder. But moral depravity should not depend on what happens after one's action--that would give too much scope for moral luck. So the depravity in giving the order is tantamount to murder, plus an additional dollop of depravity in corrupting public officials.

Perhaps, though, this judgment about the moral depravity of issuing order (2) is based on the thought that the kind of person who issues this order doesn't care much if the probability of integrity is 0.001 or 0.1 or 1. But the person who intends (1) may well care about the probability that the bullet ends up in the barrel. So perhaps the mob boss response doesn't quite do the job.

Here's another thought. It is gravely wrong to play Russian roulette with a single-bullet and a revolver with six thousand chambers. It doesn't seem that the moral depravity of this is a thousandth of the moral depravity of "standard" Russian roulette. And it sure doesn't sound like the moral depravity goes down by a factor of ten as the number of chambers goes up by a factor of ten.

Here, then, is an alternate suggestion. The person playing Russian roulette, like the mob boss, sets her heart on the death of an innocent person under certain circumstances. This setting of one's heart on someone's death is constitutive of a grave moral depravity, regardless of how likely the circumstances are. It could even be that this is wrong even when I know the circumstances won't obtain. For instance, it would be morally depraved to set one's heart on killing the Tooth Fairy if she turns out to exist, even when one knows that she doesn't exist. There is then an additional dollop of depravity proportional to the subjective probability that the circumstances obtain. That additional dollop comes from the risk one takes that someone will die and the risk one takes that one will become an actual murder. As a result, very roughly (in the end, the numerical evaluations are very much a toy model), the moral depravity in willing a conditional like (1) and (2) is something like:

  • A + pB
where p is the probability of the antecedent, and both A and B are large.


Dagmara Lizlovs said...

This reminds me of risk factors and what constitutes an acceptable risk. We use a block diagram to evaluate risk. One axis of this grid is the consequences of the failure from nuisance to catastrophic. The other axis is the frequency from extremely rare to frequent. This together with failure modes effects and criticality analysis (FMECA)determine what is an acceptable risk. The point being that for aircraft flight or for getting into a car and driving somewhere, one never gets rid of all risk entirely. If each revolver cylinder could hold 6 shots and we have 6000 cylinders and only 1 bullet, the chance of being shot is 1 in 36,000. Consider this in relation to getting into a car to go to work or to the store every day, or getting on a plane. Here in the case of a fatality, the moral depravity would be called negligence. For more on FMECA:,_effects,_and_criticality_analysis

Alexander R Pruss said...

Your comment points out that I misused the word "cylinder". I meant "chamber". I fixed this.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Actually what you said earlier using "cylinder" rather than "chamber" is more correct, because there are some revolvers out there that have removable cylinders. Here is a patent for one such item:

Here is an older Civil War era revolver with detachable cylinder:

The advantage of the removable cylinder revolver was that it made it easy to quickly reload by changing cylinders.

When it comes to chambers in a cylinder, there have been cylinders made to hold up to 30 bullets:

It is obvious that at this point things begin to get very cumbersome. A revolver with a cylinder having 6000 chambers would be totally useless except for hypothetical arguments.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

While reading this post, I find myself looking at critical parts lives in aerospace usage. What I'm writing here is all hypothetical thought experiment to illustrate risk assessment. Let's take a hypothetical engine "X". A one in six chance that the engine will fail when take off power is applied is unacceptable. It is pretty much Russian roulette odds. A one in one hundred chance is also unacceptable since aircraft in commercial/military usage easily rack up a hundred take-offs. One in a thousand chance of failure here are also considered unacceptable for aeronautical use. This now brings us to one in ten thousand. Is that acceptable? Typically a turbofan aircraft comes with two engines. We have for arguments sake, a thousand aircraft around the world in different fleets that use engine "X". With two engines per aircraft that is two thousand engines installed, with an certain number of extra engines as spares. To remain in operation with the fewest interruptions we remove an engine for any needed repair and install the spare. After we have repaired the removed engine, it now goes on the shelf as a spare. Now what does that do to our one in ten thousand chance of engine failure when take off power is applied. We can say that we should go to one in one hundred thousand odds as that would make a potentially catastrophic situation very remote; however there is a cost redesign associated with it. The manufacturer insists if the engine is overhauled after every thousand hours of operation we should be OK. Keep in mind that time since overhaul and time since new are two different things as far as some engine parts lives are concerned. Now if we stick with one in ten thousand odds of the engine failing at take off and the 1000 hour over haul with two thousand such engines in operation and partially used spares on the shelf, are we playing Russian Roulette with the people on the planes?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think this case is different, in that one doesn't intend a risk of failure, but one only tolerates it. If the risk is small enough, the Principle of Double Effect could allow non-intentionally but knowingly producing it.
But in Russian Roulette the risk is the point of the game.