Friday, July 11, 2008

Crime, attempt and guilt

A lot of people think that someone who has succeeded in committing a murder has thereby done something morally worse than someone who unsuccessfully attempted a murder, and is guilty of a greater offense. Specifically, they believe:

  1. Ceteris paribus, one is more guilty in successfully committing an evil than in attempting to commit the same evil.
This doctrine has always seemed self-evidently false. I wonder a bit whether some proponents may not be confusing guilt with responsibility (if one successfully commits the evil, one is responsibility for the occurrence of the evil), or maybe with legal questions as to what punishment should be levied (we have good reason to levy lower penalties on unsuccessful attempts so as to create an incentive not to try again[note 1]) or perhaps issues of torts or restitution.

Here is a quick argument against (1). What one is guilty of now should not depend on what happens after one is dead. But whether a crime is successful can depend on what happens after one is dead (think of someone who sets a bomb on a timer, places it in the desired location, and then is run over by a car before the bomb explodes).

Here is a more complicated, but perhaps stronger, argument. If Jennifer wants to kill her husband George, but her shot misses and kills a bystander, her action is clearly unsuccessful. Now it seems very plausible that Jennifer is no less guilty when she kills the bystander by missing her husband than were she to successfully kill her husband. Therefore in cases where the unsuccessful crime results in the same kind of evil that the successful crime would have resulted in, one is no more guilty in the successful case.

It might be responded that Jennifer is successful, because it is her intention to kill someone, and she has killed someone. But that equivocates on "intention to kill someone". One way to intend to kill someone is for there to be a particular person, x, whom one intends to kill. The other way is to indiscriminately try to kill someone or other. The second intention is had by some crazed killers, but that is not Jennifer's intention. Her intention is of the first kind, an intention to kill her husband. Killing someone other than her husband is not success at all (to make this absolutely clear, suppose that she accidentally shoots and kills herself while trying to shoot her husband; then she has killed someone, but plainly her action is a failure).

This is not yet a counterexample to (1), because of (1)'s ceteris paribus clause. But suppose that we accept (1) and also accept the judgment that Jennifer is no less guilty when she misses her husband and kills a bystander than when she kills her husband. I think that to justifiedly accept both of these claims, we will need to say something like this: "Yes, Jennifer failed at her crime. However, her evil action resulted in an unintended evil, and when one sets out to do an evil, one is guilty for all the evils that result, regardless of whether one intended them or not." There is a German proverb, Hegel says, that a stone thrown is the devil's—the consequences of an evil action are all one's fault. To accept both (1) and that Jennifer is no less guilty when she kills a bystander seems to require a strong version of the devil's stone doctrine—not only is one guilty for all the evil consequences of an evil action, but one is no more guilty for the intended ones than for the unintended ones.

But this strong version of the devil's stone doctrine is false. Suppose Patrick litters by tossing a candy wrapper out the window, and that wrapper then is eaten by a bird who chokes on it and dies, and the dead bird is several days later eaten by a bear, who then gets tummy ache because the bird was dead too long before the bear ate it, and as a result of suffering from the tummy ache the bear trips near the top of a mountain, thereby triggering an avalanche that kills a hundred skiers. Now even if one thinks there is something to the devil's stone doctrine, one would surely not say that Patrick is just as guilty in this case as he would be were he to have put a bomb in the ski lodge, thereby intentionally killing the same skiers.

Perhaps, though, there is a weaker version of the devil's stone doctrine available. Maybe:

  1. One is guilty of an amount E of evil that results from an evil action up to a maximum level set by the total evil that was foreseen (or, maybe, could reasonably have been foreseen) by the agent.
Thus, Jennifer is guilty of the death of the bystander, because the evil in that death is less than or equal to the evil involved in the expect death of her husband. But Patrick is not guilty of the skiers' deaths, because that evil went far beyond what could have been reasonably expected—at most the death of the bird could have been reasonably expected.

It seems to me now that the best way for the defender of (1) to accept that Jennifer is just as guilty when she kills a bystander as when she succeeds in killing her husband is to accept (2). However, I think (2) should be rejected, and this is a reason to reject (1).

Why should we reject (2)? One reason is that we do not have a good account of causation that will answer when an evil counts as "resulting" from an evil action and where that answer will make (2) match our intuitions. Counterexamples to (2) given particular accounts of causation are very easy to manufacture. Suppose, for instance, that we take a counterfactual story, on which B results from A provided that B would not have happened had A not happened. Then, for instance, we do not account Jennifer a murderer if she successfully shoots her husband when there was someone else standing by who would have shot him if she did not.

Of course one could respond that there is indeterminacy in causation, and that there is a matching indeterminacy in guilt. Here the argument will have to rest at this point. I think guilt is an objective property (perhaps reducible to others), and I don't believe in indeterminate or vague properties.


larryniven said...

I've been meaning to ask, regarding this, do you also disagree that, (1') all other things being equal, one is more morally upright in successfully committing a good act than in attempting to commit the same good? This would be of interest religiously as well as in general ethical theory, because it would at least point to the idea that one should not have to accept any particular version of metaphysics (e.g., Catholic theism) in order to attain the good of successfully seeking metaphysical truth (if we take truth-seeking to be an attempt at a good). But then that would do strange things to the only-through-Jesus doctrine of salvation.

I guess there could be ways around this (though not many, I shouldn't think). You could just choose asymmetry between 1 and 1', too, but I think that'd require its own justification.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Great question.

Yes, I take the same view on the positive side as on the negative. In fact, I think the view is self-evident on the positive side, and that fact is a strong argument for its truth on the negative side. It seems quite clear that if you jump in to pull me out because I'm drowning, but you fail because at the last moment of your pulling me out my enemy shoots you, you deserve at least as much praise as you would had my enemy missed you and you were successful in pulling me out.

Personally, I am quite happy with the idea (which goes a little further than some suggestions in Vatican II) that everyone who sincerely and firmly seeks to find the truth and who has a disposition of following the truth is saved. Since all salvation is through Christ, such a sincere search and the disposition must be a fruit of divine grace. I also have a story about implicit faith (I blogged about it somewhere once) that suggests that in such cases one really implicitly believes in Christ.

That said, there is a complicating factor. Sometimes, success or failure at one moral action puts one in a new moral state that affords opportunities for new tryings. For instance, trying to get married and actually marrying have the same merit (assuming in the particular case they have merit), but if you succeed in getting married, you have opportunities for developing and practicing virtues that you didn't have before you got married.

Likewise, accepting Christ makes it possible to practice the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and love.

larryniven said...

I have to admit, that story makes this view much more intuitive - the one you originally posted was a little too roundabout to really get me at a gut level. The reason I asked about the religious implications was that it always made more sense to me that a praiseworthy God should reward honest but unsuccessful effort comparably well with honest and successful effort, and salvation does not really correspond comparably with damnation. So I'm somewhat relieved that you extend the argument to this area as well. Now to convince William Lane Craig to do the same...