Moral Luck, Guaranteed Income (GI), and Basic Income (BI)

Michael Lewis

Recently, my spouse and I were talking about the cases of Carolyn Bryant Donham and Amy Cooper. Donham is the White woman whose lie, back in 1955, helped lead to the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old, Chicago born, boy who, while visiting family in Mississippi, was brutally murdered by two White men. One of the murderers was the husband of Donham. Cooper is the White woman who, while in Central Park, called the police on Christian Cooper. He was a Black man who was asking Amy Cooper to follow park rules and leash her dog. She decided to call the police on him in order to tell them that he was threatening her. Yet the video footage of their exchange, probably seen all over the world, showed no evidence of threats of any kind other than hers to call the police and tell them that a Black man was threatening her.

During our discussion, my wife and I focused on the fact that Donham’s lie led to a murder, while Cooper’s did not. We then stayed up much too late discussing/debating whether the moral assessment of what each of them did should differ based on this difference in outcomes. Being someone who dabbles way too much in philosophy, given that I’m not a professional philosopher, I wondered whether they’d had anything to say about this sort of thing. So, I searched around online a bit and found that, low and behold, my wife and I had stumbled upon the debate in philosophy around the concept of moral luck.

I learned that the moral luck debate had been ignited by two seminal papers by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, although I only ended up reading the one by Nagel. I think this debate has important implications for both guaranteed income (GI) and basic income (BI), but in order to say what these are, I have to go a bit into the details of the debate. And to do that, I need to say what moral luck is.

Moral luck is the idea that people can be held morally accountable for things beyond their control. Here’s a classic type of example. Maria intends to kill Jose by shooting him, and she’s successful at doing so because he ends up dying from the wound. Lorie intends to kill Jack by shooting him, but he survives the wound and doesn’t die. Let’s assume that Maria and Lorie shoot their victims for exactly the same reason, use exactly the same type of gun, and wound them in exactly the same place. If we assume that neither Maria nor Lorie has any control over whether the wound they’ve inflicted kills their victim but that, because Jose died, Maria is more morally blameworthy than Lorie is, we’d believe in moral luck.

I suspect many readers might conclude that Maria deserves more blame, morally speaking, than does Lorie; after all, Maria did kill a man. In fact, to the extent that legal rules reflect moral ones, our legal system appears to reach this conclusion, when it punishes murder more harshly than it does attempted murder.

Yet, a number of philosophers find something very wrong with moral luck because it violates what they call the control condition. This is the claim that people should only be held morally blameworthy for things over which they have control. That is, having control over something is a necessary condition for one to be morally blamed for that something. I should add that everything I’ve said about moral blame also applies to moral praise. In other words, in order to be morally praised for something, one has to have control over that something.

The control condition seems to have intuitive appeal. Why would it be right to blame someone for something they have no control over? But according to some philosophers, Thomas Nagel being one of them, people have less control over things than we might think. And once we realize this, we may not be able to hold them morally accountable for much, if anything, at all. How does this, I suspect to many, disturbing conclusion come about?

The key, according to Nagel, is in understanding the nature of luck. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on three different types of luck he discusses: 1) luck regarding the consequences of our behaviors 2) luck regarding the circumstances we face and 3) luck regarding our temperament, inclinations, etc. I’ve already given an example of the first type of luck. Both Maria and Lorie shot their victims but only Maria was unlucky enough to have her victim die from the wound. Nagel would argue that Maria had no control over this outcome, yet many, violating the control condition, would blame her more than they would Lorie.

A common example philosophers use to get at circumstantial luck is the case of Nazi Germany. Some Germans, by luck, just happened to be born at a time where they were faced with the choice of supporting the Nazi agenda or not, while others were lucky enough to be someplace else where they weren’t faced with that decision. Many of us, again violating the control condition, would morally condemn the German who supported Hitler even though someone in NYC at the time might have made exactly the same choice had they been unlucky enough to be in Germany then.

We can consider an example of the third type of luck simply by thinking about how we become the kind of people we are. Our inclinations, temperaments, desires, etc. largely result from some complicated, not well understood interactions among the environments we encounter and our genes. Yet the environments we encounter, especially in our formative years, and the genes we end up with are beyond our control. So are the ways that genes and environments interact, helping to “produce” the kinds of people we end up being.

Let’s go back to that idea that we might not be morally accountable for anything. If we accept the control condition which, again, tells us that we shouldn’t hold people morally accountable for things they have no control over and accept the claims that we have little or no control over the consequences of our actions, the circumstances we face, or the kind of people we become, then there’s very little, and perhaps nothing, that we can be held morally accountable for.

So, you might be asking, why is a post about moral luck on a basic income blog? There have been many reasons offered in support of both GI and BI: the promotion of racial justice, the freedom to say no, the promotion of real freedom, the promotion of gender equity, a response to the negative employment effects of automation, the enhancement of workers’ bargaining power, and a host of others. The defining feature of both GI and BI is that they’d guarantee some minimum level of income and would do so unconditionally, in the sense that there would be no work or other behavioral requirements, although in the case of GI there would be an income test. Why is this relevant to the moral luck debate?

By granting people a minimum income unconditionally, neither GI nor BI takes us into familiar disputes in social welfare history about who deserves benefits and who doesn’t. Since both GI and BI would need to be financed in some way, likely some type or combination of taxes, it’s also important to think about whether people deserve any income or wealth they accumulate. Ideas about dessert in these sorts of debates seem to be tinged with a healthy amount or moralizing: why should hard working taxpayers have their money taken away from them to be given to people too lazy and shiftless to work for themselves? It’s as if those being taxed are to be morally praised for their industriousness, while the lazy and shiftless should be morally condemned, even to the point, perhaps, of “food insecurity” and “houselessness.”

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that those with incomes to be taxed are more industrious than those who’re net recipients of social welfare benefits. If Nagel is right, neither lazy recipients can be morally blamed nor industrious taxpayers morally praised, because neither group controlled the consequences of their actions, the circumstances they faced, or the type of people they’ve become. Both GI and BI, by focusing on unconditionally granting people a minimum income, mesh well with the control condition when it’s applied in the context of social welfare policy.

At this point, readers may have a question: if people aren’t morally responsible for the money or wealth they’ve accumulated or the fact that they’re in need of receiving social welfare benefits, why not “level down” by taxing people enough to equalize all incomes and wealth? There’s an obvious answer to this question: incentives. Even if people can’t be held morally accountable for things, that doesn’t mean they don’t respond to incentives.

Incentives make up some of the circumstances we face as well as, arguably, some of what makes us the kinds of people we are. This means that types of taxes, tax rates, amounts received in social welfare benefits, how some social welfare benefits interact with other ones, all affect behaviors regarding labor supply, investment decisions, household composition, and a host of others. Any social welfare program needs to consider these things. The key is doing so without simultaneously morally condemning the lazy while morally praising the industrious. Either GI or BI could go a long way toward doing this.

Michael Lewis is a professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.

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