The Desert Traveller is a Moral Gettier Case

I have previously argued that given the strong similarities between moral and epistemic normatively (first explored by me in my 2012 paper), we must expect to find Gettier cases in the case of moral judgments, i.e., cases where we want to claim that an agent’s actions are morally reprehensible from the internal or intentional perspective, morally reprehensible from the external or consequentialist perspective YET NOT morally reprehensible from a third perspective, different (ex hypothesis) from the intrinsic and extrinsic ones. This third perspective, I have argued, is the perspective from the adequate link between intentions (and preparations and similar internal aspects of action) and outcomes (and consequences and similar external aspects of action). So, just as a Gettier case in epistemology is one where one has a justified true belief which is yet not knowledge because justification and truth are not adequately linked, so a moral Gettier case would be one where one has bad intentions (and other internal aspects of the action), a bad outcome yet we would still find something missing from calling it a bad action in some third sense (not yet adequately explored in morality, I claim) because the outcome is not adequately linked to the intention (and other internal aspects of the action).

Carolina Sartorio has just published an interesting paper on what she calls a “new form” of moral luck. Her case comes from the the!literature!on on the role of causation in law, and it has come to be  known as the “desert traveler” puzzle. Christopher Taylor and Daniel Dennett’s version is the following:

“Everybody in the French Foreign Legion outpost hates Fred and wants him dead. During the night before Fred's trek across the desert, Tom poisons the water in his canteen. Then, Dick, not knowing of Tom's intervention, pours out the (poisoned) water and replaces it with sand. Finally, Harry comes along and pokes holes in the canteen, so that the "water" will slowly run out. Later, Fred awakens and sets out on his trek, provisioned with his canteen. Too late he finds his canteen is nearly empty, but besides, what remains is sand, not water, not even poisoned water. Fred dies of thirst.” (Christopher Taylor and Daniel Dennett 2000)

I claim that this is a Moral Gettier case. What Tom did is evil from an internal perspective (the moral analogue of epistemic justification) meaning that one would say that Tom has done enough from his perspective as to be justified in expecting Fred to die of thirst as a result of his actions. Just as justification is fallible, internal evil does not fully warrant the expected evil outcome. Furthermore, Fred did die of thirst, meaning that Tom’s goal in poisoning Fred’s water actually became the case. Yet, we would not say that Tom managed to kill Fred. In virtue theorist’s vocabulary, Fred’s death was not an achievement of Tom (and mutatis mutandi for Harry) because there was not a proper link between Tom’s actions and the desired result, that is, because Fred did not die of thirst because of Tom’s poisoning his water. It was a matter of GOOD, MORAL LUCK. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is a case of moral luck in Nagel’s sense, but one substantially different from the usual examples in the literature (where an action is internally good but externally bad or vice versa), because here the action is internally bad, externally bad, yet not bad from a third perspective. I am glad that Dr. Sartorio agrees, since I use the possibility of these cases to argue that normatively always comes in three related criteria corresponding, in the epistemic case, to justification, truth and knowledge. In the moral case, if I am right in my interpretation (of Sartorio’s interpretation) of the desert traveller puzzle, Tom’s action is justifiably evil (he acted evil), has an evil outcome but has no adequate link between the evil justification and the evil outcome so it is not full fledged evil, i.e., Tom did not kill Fred.


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