Blameworthiness, Desert, and Luck

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Philosophers disagree about whether outcome luck can affect an agent’s “moral responsibility.” Focusing on responsibility’s “negative side,” some maintain, and others deny, that an action’s results bear constitutively on how “blameworthy” the actor is, and on how much blame or punishment they “deserve.” Crucially, both sides to the debate assume that an actor’s blameworthiness and negative desert are equally affected—or unaffected—by an action’s results. This article challenges that previously overlooked assumption, arguing that blameworthiness and desert are distinct moral notions that serve distinct normative functions: blameworthiness serves a liability function (removing a bar to otherwise impermissible treatments), whereas desert serves a favoring function (contributing new value to states of affairs, or providing new reasons for responsive treatments). Having distinguished (negative) desert from blameworthiness, the article proposes a novel resolution to the outcome-luck debate: that results do not affect an agent’s liability to blame, but do affect the amount and severity of blame to which the agent is justly liable, including by affecting the severity of blame that the agent deserves.


Law & philosophy, criminal justice, blame, desert, punishment, culpability, moral luck, outcome luck, responsibility, liability, harm, intent, moral agency, blameworthiness

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Noûs, forthcoming