Desert is often thought to be impartial. When agents deserve a certain fate, it should just happen to them. Like Kant’s murderer on the island—in order to avoid a “public violation of justice,” the murderer must die, period. It doesn’t matter who kills him as a long as he gets the fate that he deserves. I’m interested in the possibility that an agent might deserve a certain fate, but only if it comes about in a certain way. And only if a particular person or group of people make it happen. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Consider the following story. John goes to a football game and gets very drunk. His plan was to leave his car at the stadium and get a ride with someone else but that falls through. In general John is opposed to driving drunk and almost never does. But there’s virtually no way to get a cab, so John reluctantly drives home in his intoxicated state. Just before he reaches his house, he gets into an accident killing a child who was playing on the sidewalk. . Panicked, still drunk, not thinking clearly, he leaves the scene and goes home.
Now the story goes two ways.
First Scenario: The police find John, arrest him, and put him on trial. The D.A. manages to convict him for homicide and the judge gives him the death penalty. Since this takes place in Utah, John dies at the hands of a firing squad.
Now, most people (I imagine) would call this an unjust verdict. While many would believe he deserves a harsh sentence, few would say that John deserves to die for what he did. He certainly had no intention of killing anyone. True, he made the decision to drive drunk but there were probably hundreds of people drunker than John who drove home from the game without incident. Many people drive drunk all the time and don’t think twice about it. John almost never does. In this sense, it’s a case of terrible moral luck that he hit the child. Yes, he left the scene of the crime, but that was the result of panic and a very foggy head. He would have turned himself in but he’s terrified of going to jail with his boyish good looks. John feels extremely remorseful and may never forgive himself for what happened. For these reasons, even if the D.A. could pull it off, I imagine that people would call the death penalty an unjust verdict—John deserves to go to jail, to suffer something, but not to die.
Second Scenario: The police are unable to find out who caused the accident. The parents of the child are grief stricken, completely distraught. Their child meant everything to them. Since the police are stuck, they vow to find the culprit themselves. They cash out all their retirement funds and sell their house to hire the best private investigators. Eventually discover that it was John who caused the death of their child.. The father goes to John’s house and takes his gun. When he sees John, he’s overwhelmed with anger and grief. He sees his child’s image in his mind. The father takes out his gun and shoots John in the heart, killing him.
So here’s the question. In both scenarios, John is shot and killed. In the first scenario, my sense was that John did not get what he deserved at all. But in the second scenario, the case doesn’t seem so clear cut to me. Maybe I’m crazy (very possible) but in the second scenario, it seems a lot more plausible to me that John got what he deserved. Put it this way: if “John got what he deserved” was on a likert scale, my answer would be significantly closer to ‘agree’ in the second scenario.
But John’s crimes and fates are the same—the only difference is that in one case, John was shot by strangers and in the other, that John was shot by the victim’s father. This indicates to me that there might be something about desert that’s partial. (It also might cast some light on familiar moral luck puzzles—but I have to think more about that.)
Does anyone agree about the different desert judgments? Or is it just that I’m crazy…