Monday, February 16, 2009


An Examination of Richard Parker’s Principle of Blameworthiness

By Todd Furman

In “Blame, Punishment and the Role of Result,” Richard Parker argues that the actual results of an actor’s conduct should not factor into the assessment of the blameworthiness of the actor –call this idea Parker’s Principle of Blameworthiness, (PPB). In this essay, I shall explain PPB and identify the moral intuition that justifies PPB. I will then explore the consequences of accepting the moral intuition behind PPB. These consequences just might prove to be a reductio of PPB.

The Case for PPB:
Parker begins his case for PPB by considering the following sort of scenario –call it the case of the drunken marksmen. Suppose two drunk party goers, A and B, decide to determine who the better marksman is by firing rifles out of a window at a lamppost across the street. And suppose that the contest ends in a draw inasmuch as both A and B are unable to hit the lamppost. But also suppose, unbeknownst to A and B, a bullet fired by A has ricocheted and killed an innocent bystander.
Parker then asks whether B should feel any less blameworthy than A? The answer, according to Parker, is no. And this seems right. Moreover, this judgment can be reinforced by considering a variation of the above case.
Suppose that a considerable amount of time passes before ballistic tests are able to determine whose gun fired the fatal bullet. In the meantime, should A or B believe that she is possibly less blameworthy than the other pending the results? Again, Parker’s answer –which seems intuitively correct—is no. And finally, Parker’s intuition can be driven all of the way home by supposing that the ballistics test is inconclusive such that the actual killer’s identity remains forever unknown. “If we never discover whose bullet did the fatal damage, is there some hesitancy, some cloudiness of our intuition with repect to how much blame the two … deserve? I think not.”
Parker summarizes the moral of his story as follows.

The view I am urging here is that, properly speaking, only an actor’s conduct can be blameworthy. I do not believe that it makes good sense to blame a person for the consequences that in fact flow from his conduct even if they are within the risk of that conduct. , ,

This is not to say, however, that Parker does not believe that intentions and the agent’s knowledge of the situation are not relevant to determining blameworthiness. Parker writes:

The individual is blameworthy and punishable, on my view, only for the conduct itself, where conduct is construed as a combination of overt action, state of mind (including intention, knowledge, ect.) and circumstances.

And Parker emphasizes his point that intentions and knowledge are relevant to assessing blameworthiness with the following thought experiment –call it the case of the stadium shooters.

Imagine that A takes a rifle to a place overlooking a stadium where he knows an event is underway and recklessly fires the weapon in the direction of the grandstands. Let us suppose the fortunate consequence of the bullet’s striking the bleachers harmlessly after narrowly missing members of the crowd. Compare this with the situation of B, who takes his rifle to the same spot on a day when he knows there is no event scheduled and in fact believes the grandstands to be entirely empty. He too fires toward the seats but with unfortunate results: a lone custodian is present policing the stands and he is struck and killed by B’s bullet. It takes either a considerable stretch of the imagination or adherence to a bad theory, or both, to want to hold B more blameworthy than A. Truly, the harm caused by B’s conduct outweighs that caused by A’s, the latter being negligible. But it is A, on the view I am defending, who is more blameworthy and whose desert is the greater punishment.

Hence, it becomes clear that Parker wants to substitute the risk of harm versus actual harm as the device for determining an actor’s level of blameworthiness and punishment. Moreover, all of Parker’s subsequent judgments seem to be intuitively right. And the import of PPB would be massive if it were incorporated into our current system of jurisprudence. To name just one of many obvious examples, if Parker is right, there should be no difference in the way in which society handles (e.g. punishes) murderers and those that have attempted murder but failed.

The Moral Intuition Behind PPB:
But what, exactly, is the moral intuition behind PPB? Rhetorically, Parker asks “on what rational grounds can we proportion punishment to the results of an actor’s conduct when those results are largely or entirely beyond the actor’s control?” And the implicit answer is that there are no rational grounds to do so given the role that luck plays in determining the actual results. That is, luck –be it good luck or bad luck—should play no role in the determination of an actor’s level of blameworthiness –call this moral intuition Parker’s moral intuition, (PMI). And since luck plays a large role in determining the exact consequences of any actor’s conduct, those consequences must be excluded from the calculations of an actor’s level of blame.

The Implications of PMI:
As I indicated above, adopting PPB, or more precisely, the moral principle upon which it stands, PMI, would radically makeover our system of jurisprudence. Presently, I would like to explore some further consequences of accepting PMI. These will be consequences far more radical than those already identified. In fact, these consequences may serve as good reasons for rejecting PMI.
Parker believes that blameworthiness is a function of an actor’s overt action, state of mind (including intentions and knowledge, etc.) and circumstances, but not the actual consequences of her overt act, since the actual consequences are a function of luck. But what Parker fails to realize is that the actual execution or non-execution of an overt action is also a function of luck. Hence, according to PMI, the actual overt action is not relevant to calculating an actor’s blameworthiness.
Consider the following case –call it the case of the campus shooters. Suppose that identical twins A and B have a grudge against the university that they attend. As such, they plan vengeance by climbing twin towers and simultaneously opening fire on all of the faculty, staff, and students they possibly can. Suppose that at the appointed time A and B open fire. However, on pulling the trigger for the first time A’s gun jams so that she is unable to fire even a single shot. B, on the other hand, is able to fire hundreds of rounds, wounding and killing several before authorities capture her and her sister.
On the face of it, A and B have committed different overt acts –B actually fired a gun at innocent people killing and wounding several people, while A merely tried to fire a gun at innocent people. Hence, according to PMI, an actor’s overt act should not play a role in determining blameworthiness, since whether or not an actor is able to execute an intended act is a function of luck, as the case clearly illustrates. Hence, following Parker, A and B should be ascribed the same level of blameworthiness. And this judgment seems right on target here –no pun intended.
But let me push harder on PMI and see what happens. Consider the case of the campus shooters again but with the following change. Suppose that A is never able to attempt to fire a shot since A is unable to gain access to her tower’s roof top; her bolt cutters –identical to those of B—break on the lock securing the roof access –a lock identical to the one on B’s tower. In this case, whether the agent is able to commit a given overt act is clearly a function luck. Hence, according to PMI, the actual overt acts should not play a role in determining A and B’s blameworthiness. Inasmuch as this is the case, there should be no difference in the way in which society handles (e.g. punishes) A and B in the above.
And even this conclusion –although it runs counter to actual practice—might seem agreeable, since the supposition is that in all of the close possible worlds in which A’s bolt cutters did not fail her, she proceeded as planned and rained down carnage similar to B’s. But the route to a reductio should be coming into focus now.
Suppose the case of the campus shooters again but with the following changes. Suppose that A doesn’t even make it to campus to begin the rampage. She is pulled over for a faulty tail-light and taken into custody based on an outstanding warrant that was issued solely as a result of a clerical error.
In this case, whether the agent is able to commit a given overt act is clearly a function of luck. Hence, according to PMI, the actual overt acts should not play a role in determining A and B’s blameworthiness. Inasmuch as this is the case, there should be no difference in the way in which society handles (e.g. punishes) A and B in the above.
But think about what is being said now. A, being as blameworthy as B, is to be punished as severely as B even though A caused no harm; even though A wasn’t even able to attempt to cause harm. It seems then that A and B’s blameworthiness is reduced to a function of their intent. And this result begins to strain believability.
It would seem that PMI taken to its extreme would justify some sort of thought police. If an actor intends some immoral/criminal offense, then there should be no difference in the way in which society handles (e.g. punishes) said actor from the way in which society handles an actor that actually attempts and/or executes the offense.

I am inclined to think that one’s moral character –one’s overall blameworthiness—is reducible to her desires, whether they are ever acted on or not. Hence, I believe that PMI is more or less right. However, I can see no practical means by which this insight –one’s moral character is reducible to her desires—could be put into practice (by mere mortals). Moreover, any attempt to institute any public policies based on this insight is bound to be soundly rejected by the body politic.

The All Pervasiveness of Luck:
To be completely fair, Parker claimed that blameworthiness was a function of the combination of overt action, state of mind (including intention and knowledge) and circumstances. And I have only shown that overt actions should be excluded from the matrix of calculating blameworthiness given PMI. And from this I reduced blameworthiness to a function of intention or desires. That is, I have neglected the roles that knowledge and circumstances play in calculating blameworthiness.
I believe, however, it does not take much imagination to concoct cases in which an actor’s knowledge and circumstances are clearly a function of luck. In this case, given PMI, they should be excluded from the matrix of calculating an actor’s blameworthiness. In the end, then, blameworthiness would reduce to a function of intent or desires.
The problem is, however, with a bit more imagination I believe that one can construct a case in which an actor’s desires are clearly a function of luck. Give this fact, and PMI, an actor’s desires must be excluded from the matrix of calculating her blameworthiness. In itself, this result is no big deal. But the overall situation arrived at is a big deal. Namely, there is nothing left by which an actor’s blameworthiness may be calculated and this cannot be right.

Given the unacceptable conclusion that I have reached using PMI –that there are no grounds by which an actor may be judged blameworthy. I believe PMI must be re-evaluated to determine whether it remains accurate as is. Until then Parker’s thesis remains dubious. My hunch is that this re-evaluation might profit from an analysis of luck.


Feinberg, Joel and Gross, Hyman. (1991) Philosophy of Law (Fourth Edition). Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, California.

Parker, Richard. (1984a) “Blame, Punishment, and the Role of Result,” in Philosophy of Law (Fourth Edition) edited by Joel Feinberg and Hyman Gross. © 1991 by Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, California.

Parker, Richard. (1984b) “Blame, Punishment, and the Role of Result,” in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 21, no. 3 (1984), pp. 1-11.


Steve Gimbel said...

What is great about these kinds of cases is that our armchair intuitions and our real-life experiences diverge. From the armchair we think the consequences irrelevant, but when we end up in a situation where we caused real harm we are tortured by it, we rethink it through (if only I had taken a different route, if only I had not stopped for Jujy Fruits on the way out of the theater,...) and we feel additional culpability.

This is likely confuting causal responsibility with ethical responsibility in some sense making our more clear-headed armchair intuitions better (and sitting more happily with Todd's Kantian impulses), but there does seem to be something more there.

When grievous harm occurs, we are responsible for rectification in some way. More harm, more responsibility to make it right. When we almost end up on the Darwin Awards, the lesson may be learned, but there is a sense in which the lack consequences does let us off the hook. This seems to be the jurisprudence situation, but I think you are right that the need for justice in this case means a lack of applicability of the insight.

At the same time, I think the ethical is different from the legal and we do want to say that while we may never have complete access to motives, we still can provisionally judge in the way you want to but won't allow. Why do we need a Cartesian certainty for such judgments?

ce said...

Let us say person A and person B go on the shooting rampage. But, person B, having fired the first round, sees her first victim fall. Witnessing the reality of the siataution she finally sees throgh the haze of her anger, and frustration. Sure, she thought she wanted them to die. Certainly, she wants them to suffer. But when faced with actual murder, she stops, and runs to the authorities.

People squelch on associates all the time, and the unveiliing of the desires--that she wanted them to suffer, but did not actually want them to die, as it turns out--does not occur until faced with the reality of her actions, and the consequences which follow from them.

We have--on rare occasion--seen this with rapists. When face-to-face with a past victim, they see the pain, humiliation, suffering, and trauma they caused. And the response is, "Well, I never thought of it that way", or "Well, I didn't want that to happen". The person who shows genuine remose, and a desire to change, to not repeat those past wrongs, etc., certainly seems to be of greater character than those who are unphased and unchanged. But we can't know this until the consequences are already apparent.

You can do something deliberately, but not do it intentionally. But it might not be obvious that the results and your intentions don't align, until the consequences are revealed. Otherwise, any commentary on your intentions, motives, character etc., from a third party perspective is simply going to be inconclusive.

We can imagine another, simpler scenario. Man A plans to meet a "lady friend" at a hotel while his wife is busy having her friends over. In scenario 1, he does manage to meet up with her, but he does not follow through with the liason. In scenario 2, he gets stuck in traffic, and his cell dies on him, so he can't call ahead. She gets tired of waiting, and leaves. She's gone by the time he arrives.

Man B makes the meeting in scenario 1, and chicka-chicka-bow-bow. In scenario 2, he got caught up in traffic, etc.

Are man A and man B equally blameworthy? It would be very odd to say that they are.

You don't know if you can pull the trigger, until you're actually faced with pulling the trigger. And afterwards, very different characters can be revealed by how you respond to the consequences.

To be succinct:
1. Character is not merely reducible to desires. That's incomplete, insufficient, and a little purerile, honestly.
2. Your examples are inadequate. Those scenarios could go any number of ways. We can't know that they would continue shooting after the first shot, and we aren't being shown how they respond afterwards.

Afterwards, A and B, I would conclude, are equally blameworthy, since that seems to be the focus. But we can't know that until they actually follow through with their actions. It's conceivable that person B would have stopped herself, and no luck need have been involved. And character can be revealed even after the wrong was committed. Thus, even having the same desires, same intentions, same actions, upon witnessing the reality of the situation, the person who is prompted to reevaluate, make changes, and/or attempts to "make it right", seems to be revealing far better character than the one who is nonplus.

Anonymous said...

To be succinct, the article was not about character. Moreover, the examples were Parker's not my own. I simply sought to show that Parker's position was subject to a reductio. However, Parker's examples were cast at an appropriate level of specificity to afford a controlled thought experiment concerning blameworthiness --not character.


ce said...

"Your [presented] examples are inadequate".

More to be posted specifically on blameworthiness later.

ce said...


Persons A and persons B, both follow through on gunning down passerby on campus. We shall say they have the same intentions, desires, etc., all. However, in the aftermath, person A still believes she was totally justified, and is unapologetic. Person B, on the other hand, reevaluates her previous actions, and comes to regret her decisions leading up to and including the killings. She concludes that she was in error.

Now, up to and including the killing spree, their desires, intentions, plans, execution of actions, etc., are all the same. Afterward we might say that person B is demonstrating different character. If we want to make character reducible to desire, that's all well and good. We can simply alter our language, and say that person B has demonstrated superior agency. She is able and willing to reevaluate her actions, and rightly deems them inappropriate and unacceptable.

Now, if we don't take this into consideration, we might say they are both equally blameworthy. But this seems inconsistent. A child who throws a tantrum to get her way we forgive, for she's a child, and we might say something like, "She doesn't know any better". An adult who does the same is not given such leeway, and rightly so. We assume that she does know better, and is being juvenile. Throwing a tantrum is not how you get things done, and this is no longer permissible behavior.

A discrepancy is also present with persons A and B. They are both adults, but we expect more from a person possessed of superior agency. To put it in other terms: sinners sin. But even if sinning is unacceptable, it's still to some degree understandable from sinners. However, it is certainly not acceptable from saints. We expect saints to be saintly. We expect more from them.

Certainly, most persons fall somewhere in between. They are not always going to act morally, nor always immorally, however, when superior agency is demonstrated, we expect such agency to be utilized. You were wiser. You were capable of making better choices, yet you did not. Fools act foolishly, but we do not expect this, and do not accept such from those possessed of greater wisdom.

In short: person B is more blameworthy than person A. Why? Because person B is more capable of making better, more informed, and wiser moral choices. She knew better. She knows better. She just didn't do anything about it at the time. Person A is still caught up in the fog of her own ignorance. She's not amoral, for that was not part of the premise, and so she is certainly still blameworthy. She's just not as blameworthy.

This seems right, but it makes little sense on Parker's grounds.

The problem is, however, with a bit more imagination I believe that one can construct a case in which an actor’s desires are clearly a function of luck.

Can you give an example?