Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Inculpably acting through culpable ignorance

It is widely held that:

  1. Doing the wrong thing while inculpably ignorant that it's wrong is itself inculpable.
  2. Doing the wrong thing while culpably ignorant that it's is culpable, assuming the other conditions for culpability are met (freedom, etc.).
I think (1) is true but (2) is false. I think that not only does inculpable ignorance excuse, but so does culpable ignorance. (Assuming, of course, that it's real ignorance: one can lie to oneself that one is ignorant when in fact one knows.)

Start with this case. Sally was inculpably ignorant of the wrongness of targeting civilians in just wars. Like many Americans, she was raised to think that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were morally permissible, since the bombings saved many lives by ending the war early. One morning, while an undergraduate, she culpably spent an extra five minutes on Facebook before going to her ethics class. As a result, she culpably showed up five minutes late (being late to class isn't always morally wrong, but being late without sufficiently good reason disturbs others' learning and is morally wrong, and I assume this is a case like that). Consequently, she missed the discussion of double effect and the distinction between strategic and terror bombing. Had she heard the discussion, she would have known that it's wrong to target civilians. Since she is culpable for lateness to her ethics class, her ignorance of the wrongness of the kind of terror bombing that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were subjected to is wrong. Years later, incurring no further culpability, she is still ignorant. But then one day there is a just war, and she is a drone pilot asked to target civilians in a situation relevantly similar to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She does so, believing that it's her duty to do so.

Had Sally refused to follow orders, she would have been culpable for violating her conscience--and indeed, very seriously culpable since her bombing saved many lives by ending the war early (I am assuming that this was the case in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). But in fact, Sally acted wrongly: she committed mass murder. She did so in ignorance, but her ignorance was culpable, since she was culpable for being late to the class that would have cured her of her ignorance.

Given (1), had double effect not been discussed in class that morning when she spent too much time on Facebook, she would have been entirely inculpable for mass murder. It seems implausible that whether Sally is culpable for mass murder depends on what in fact went on in a class that she missed. Furthermore, culpability shouldn't depend on arcane counterfactuals. But it could be quite an arcane counterfactual whether Sally would have learned that it's wrong to target civilians in a just war. It might have depended on fine details of just how persuasive the professor was, what effect Sally's presence in the class would have had on the mode of presentation, etc.

Moreover, it seems implausible that Sally is culpable for mass murder because of her culpability for the peccadillo of being five minutes late to class. The intuition behind (1) is that you don't get culpability out of inculpability. You likewise shouldn't get mass-murder-level culpability out of a peccadillo. But this last argument is a little fast. For while "Sally is culpable for mass-murder" misleadingly suggests that Sally has great culpability. If we accept (1), we should accept a parallel principle that the degree to which one is culpable for a wrong act done in ignorance is no greater than one's degree of culpability for the ignorance. As a result, we might say that Sally is culpable for mass-murder, but the degree of guilt is at a level corresponding to being five minutes late to class (without, I assume, any reasonable expectation that those five minutes would result in ignorance about mass murder).

Very well. Let's suppose that five milliturps are the level of guilt corresponding to the lateness to class. Maybe the level of guilt for the mass murder would have been a gigaturp per victim, if Sally had known that such bombing is wrong. So the suggestion we are now exploring for saving (2) is that Sally's level of guilt for an ignorant bombing run is capped at five milliturps, no matter how many victims there are. (There is something odd about having slight guilt for something so big, but I don't think we should worry about the oddity.) Very well. Consider now two scenarios. In the first one, Sally goes on a single bombing run that she knows will claim 10,000 civilian victims. In the second, she goes on two bombing runs, which will claim 5,000 civilian victims each. On the capping suggestion, in the first scenario, Sally acquires five milliturps of guilt for her bombing run. In the second scenario, she acquires five milliturps of guilt for the first bombing run, too. That's already a little strange: we would expect less culpability with fewer victims. But it gets worse. In the second bombing run, the capping view will also assign five milliturps. As a result, in the second scenario, Sally incurs a total of ten milliturps of guilt. And that seems just wrong: it shouldn't matter that much how the victims are divided up. Furthermore, the intuition being the principle that culpability for an ignorant act can't exceed the culpability for the ignorance is, I think, violated when a multiplicity of ignorant acts exceeds in total culpability the culpability for the ignorance.

We might try a modified capping principle: The culpability for all acts coming from culpable ignorance is capped in total. This has the odd result, however, that in the second scenario, Sally is five-milliturps-guilty for the first run, but not at all guilty for the second, having already reached her culpability cap. At this point it seems much more reasonable simply to suppose that all of Sally's guilt is the initial five milliturps for being late to class. She doesn't acquire a second five milliturps for her bombing runs.

It may seem to be an insult to the memory of the victims that Sally manages to murder them without incurring any guilt. But, for what it's worth, it seems to me to be less of an insult to suppose that she is innocent of the murder than to suppose that she is pecadillo-level guilty for it, as on the capping views.


Callan McGill said...

The discussion of total culpability reminds me of (presumably very old) arguments against naive utilitarianism. Namely, that utility (particularly negative utility) cannot be additive. We can say this in two ways. Firstly we can imagine a scenario in which a person murders someone and then later saves (for the sake of argument) a person with identical moral worth. At that point naive additivity suggests that these two acts cancel and the person is morally neutral. Similarly we find it hard to believe that if a murder counts for -100 utility points and a minor indiscretion counts for -0.01 that 10 000 minor indiscretions should really be as morally impermissible as murder. I'm not sure how one ultimately disallows for such things within any framework of utility functions* (for the second I once thought that it would be best to imagine that murder is simply a limit ordinal away from a minor indiscretion but I don't know how one makes a sensible theory out of that).

*I have heard people borrow terminology from game theory like maxmin but I don't seriously know what that means in this context.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Catholic tradition has the idea that no quantity of venial sins will add up to a mortal one. (But a *plan* to engage in a large quantity of venial sins might itself be a mortal sin. For instance, a plan to steal a dollar--a venial sin--from each of a million people will probably be a mortal sin.)

So, one shouldn't take what I say about turps too literally: a murder isn't just equivalent to a million million one-minute latenesses to class, as the giga/milliturp wording suggests. There is a qualitative difference.

The argument is formulated with a toy model of culpability. But I think nothing in the argument depends on the inadequate aspects of the model. What I need are things like this: two instances of a sin are worse than one; murder is way, way worse than tardiness; killing more people is worse than killing fewer; etc. The numbers just make the reasoning vivid.

It's not hard to use infinite/infinitesimal utility to model the idea that no amount of tardinesses adds up to a murder. But one can't just plug that into a consequentialist decision theory. Even though no quantity of thefts of a dollar adds up to a murder in terms of how morally bad it is, nonetheless a government initiative that would eliminate a billion instances of the theft of a dollar could be permissible even if one foreknew (but did not intend) that it would drive someone to murder. This stuff is really messy and hard!

Heath White said...

It's probably at least in part to deal with issues like these that the Catholic natural law tradition has held that we have natural knowledge of (many parts of) the moral law, where the force of "natural knowledge" is "no such thing as inculpable ignorance." I doubt whether your traditional moralist would excuse (or even acknowledge) ignorance of the principle of double effect on the basis that one had not been taught it in ethics class, because it's not supposed to be the kind of thing you have to be taught.

However, maybe it is the kind of thing you have to be taught. Certainly my students don't all see it immediately.

Fun incommensurability fact: in judo, there are four scores you can get: koku, yuko, waza-ari, and ippon. No amount of kokus counts as much as a yuko; no amount of yukos counts as much as a waza-ari, but two waza-aris are as good as an ippon, which ends the match.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think that at least in our fallen state, people do need to be taught it. There are a lot of people who would analyze the atom bombings as follows: "By refraining from bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one would be prolonging the war and thereby killing lots more civilians. So it was a lesser evil to bomb." To see how intent figures in, and hence why this reasoning is fallacious, is not a trivial task.

Even if there is natural knowledge of double effect and the like, that natural knowledge can surely be swamped by nurture.