Friday, February 25, 2022

Wronging others

Alice is about to inherit a large some of money and then she hears that she has a long-lost sibling with whom she’d have to share. So she hires an assassin to kill the sibling. Happily, the “assassin” turns out to be a police officer who promptly arrests Alice for attempted murder. Bob happens to be in exactly the same position and acts the same way. However, Bob actually has a long-lost sibling, while Alice has been misinformed.

Legally, it may be that Alice can get off on the grounds of the doctrine of impossible attempts. But morally speaking, Alice and Bob are both just as guilty as if they had successfully committed murder. And, further, they are equally guilty (barring some other differences between the cases).

However, Bob wronged and violated the rights of his long-lost sibling. This is true even though the assassination failed, because one is wronged and has one’s rights violated by an attempt on one’s life.

Alice did not wrong or violate the rights of any long-lost sibling since she does not have any such sibling.

It is correct, as a matter of the description of the situation, that Bob wronged a sibling, and Alice did not. But this fact does not add to the wrongfulness of Bob’s action. This suggests that the patient-centered concept of wronging someone does not actually carry much ethical weight.


But maybe what we should say is this: Bob’s action was indeed more wrong than Alice’s, but Alice is no less culpable than Bob.

If we say this, then we may want to push the reasoning further. Suppose Carl is subjectively in a situation like Alice and Bob, but (a) like Bob, Carl does have a long-lost sibling, and (b) the assassin is real and actually kills the sibling. I used to think that attempted murder was no less wrong than a successful one. But if we are to mae a distinction between Alice and Bob, perhaps we can make a similar distinction between Bob and Carl. What Carl did was more wrong than what Bob did, even though Bob is just as culpable as Carl.

I am not sure, though. Consider this. Imagine that all three malefactors are in their right minds, acting freely, with no excuses available. In that case, each one of them is fully culpable for each wrong they did. But the following principle seems pretty plausible:

  1. If X and Y are fully culpable for wrong actions A and B, respectively, and B is more wrong than A, then Y is more culpable than X in regard to these respective actions.

It follows that if we think that Bob did something more wrong than what Alice did, then Bob is more culpable than Alice.

But maybe (1) is false. Or maybe we can say this. Carl is only culpable for an attempted murder, but isn’t actually culpable for the successful murder, because culpability only attaches to attempts. Neither option seems attractive. So I am back to where I was: Alice’s action is not less wrong than Bob, and Bob’s is no less wrong than Carl’s. The stuff about violating rights and wronging what one owes others, that’s all true, but it doesn’t actually affect the degree of wrongness.

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