Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Attempts at wrongdoing

It is a common intuition, especially among Christians, that attempts at immoral actions—say, attempted murder or attempted adultery—are just as bad as the completion of the actions.

But in practice the situation is rather more complicated. Suppose Samantha is about to murder Fred. She is sitting on the rooftop with her rifle, has measured the windspeed, has made the corrections to her sights, is putting Fred in her cross-hairs and is getting ready to squeeze the trigger at an opportune moment. Then suddenly a police officer comes up and grabs Samantha’s rifle before she can do anything.

Samantha has performed actions whose end was Fred’s death. She is an attempted murderer. But I think there is an immoral act that she has been saved from. For imagine three versions of how the story could end:

  1. The police officer comes up and grabs her rifle at time t1 before she squeezes the trigger.

  2. At time t1, Samantha decides not to squeeze the trigger and not commit the murder.

  3. At time t1, Samantha decides to squeeze the trigger.

In all three cases, by the time of t1, Samantha is already an attempted murderer. But in version 2, Samantha has done at least one less bad thing than in version 3. As of t1, Samantha still has a decision to make: to go through with the action or not. In case 3, she decides that wrongly. In case 2, she decides that rightly.

In case 1, the police officer prevents her from making that decision. It seems clear that Samantha’s moral state in case 1 is less bad in than in case 3. For in case 3, Samantha makes a morally wrong decision that has no parallel in case 1. So the police officer has not only saved Fred’s life, but he has decreased the number of wrongs done by Samantha.

Of course, timing and details matter here. Suppose that the police officer grabs Samantha’s rifle at a moment when the bullet is already traveling through the barrel, making the shot go wide. Then Samantha is an attempted murderer, but the amount of wickedness on her conscience is the same as in case 3.

So there is a moral distinction to be made between Samantha in cases 1 and 3, but the distinction isn’t the distinction between attempt and success. Rather, the issue is that a typical wrong action involves multiple acts of will, many of which may well come with the possibility of stopping. Each time one does not will to stop, while being capable of willing to stop, one does another wrong. If one is prevented from completion of the act after the last of these acts of will, then one is not better off in terms of one’s moral guilt state. (Though one is better off in terms of how much restitution one owes and similar considerations.) But if one is stopped earlier, then one is better off.

This means that counting counts of sin is tricky. Suppose Fred had decided on committing adultery with Samantha’s sister Patricia. He texted Patricia offering to meet with her in a hotel room. He is already an attempted adulterer. But then he makes a number of decisions each of which could be a stopping point. He decides to get in his car. To drive to the hotel. To enter the room. Etc. At each of these points, Fred could have stopped, I assume. But at each point he chose adultery instead. So by the time he is in the room, he has committed adultery in his will many times.

But when we count wrongs, we don’t count like that. We count the number of murders, the number of adulteries or the number of thefts—not the number of times that one could have stopped along the way. We act as if the person who murdered five is worse than the person who murdered one, even if the person who murdered the one had to drive ten times as far.

Maybe the reason we count as we do is just a pragmatic matter. We don’t know just how many times one’s will is capable of stopping one, and how much a person just acts on auto-pilot, having set a course of action.

Or maybe the responsibility for the choose-not-to-stop decisions is much lower than for the initial decision?

I don’t know.

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