The Secular Conscience

Ethics from below

Cognitive Bias and the Blame for Benghazi

What is behind our assignments of responsibility?

Following the statement by the Director of National Intelligence that the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya were “deliberate and organized,” new questions are being raised about the narrative, adopted by administration officials, of a spontaneous outburst of rage ignited by a now-infamous video. This narrative, of course, was a perfect fit with the familiar media tropes that trip off of the fingers of producers and commentators as if by auto-complete: “Free Speech: Has It Gone Too Far?” and “Arabs/Muslims: Why Do They [Blank] Us?”

However, there are good reasons to think that it is not mere political expedience or journalistic indolence that leads the public imagination to fasten onto the actions of some Sam Bacile or another when seeking to make sense of a horrific turn of events. This may also reflect our own intuitive and unreflective thinking.

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If you’re like most people, you’ve probably checked or sent a text message while driving at least once. And if your experience was like most people’s you probably did not cause an accident, let alone a death, as a result of that moment of inattention. Now consider a driver who is guilty of precisely that same moment of inattention but happens to be at an intersection where a pedestrian crosses into the path of the car and is struck and killed. It is easy to imagine that if the driving-while-texting were come to light, the driver would face withering blame, public shaming, guilt and perhaps even legal repercussions. Meanwhile, countless equally-distracted drivers would arrive home in safety and impunity.

When contemplating cases like these, many people find themselves with conflicting intuitions about the assignment of moral responsibility. On the one hand, it seems entirely appropriate that driver who causes a death should be treated differently than those who do not. Surely, we would be shocked and revolted if such a driver were to insist that he has nothing more to answer for than his more fortunate counterparts on the road. On the other hand, many people think that one can be held morally responsible only for those events that are under one’s control. And the presence of the pedestrian at just the wrong moment surely was not under the driver’s control.

The intellectual and practical conundrum created by these conflicting intuitions is the problem of moral luck, to use the term introduced into English-speaking academic philosophy over three decades ago by Bernard Williams, Thomas Nagel, and Martha Nussbaum. To what extent should moral luck influence our judgments of blame and our attitudes of indignation, resentment, anger, guilt, and shame?

To return to recent events: How much blame is deserved by the morally unlucky producers of incendiary material that sparks violence given that the internet and the rest of the world is littered with loads of comparable material that, as it happens, does not? Will the world ever forget the name of Hans Neuenfels? If you’ve never heard of him, that’s because when his production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” which featured a cameo by the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad—a touch added to the libretto by Neuenfels—was eventually staged despite police warnings by Berlin’s Deutsche Opera in December 2006, it was without incident.

In an extraordinary 2004 article in The Journal of Philosophy audaciously subtitled “Finally Solving the Problem of Moral Luck,” Darren Domsky argues that our intuitions about moral luck are best explained by three well-known cognitive biases. Hindsight bias is our tendency to overestimate, in hindsight, the predictability of outcomes that are now known. The illusion of control, common on the casino floor, is the tendency to believe that through skill or effort we can control chance outcomes that in fact we cannot possibly control. Optimistic bias is our tendency unrealistically to underestimate our risk of experiencing unlucky outcomes, relative to our peers.

These biases, Domsky argues, conspire to give people a tendency intuitively to believe that when good moral luck blesses them, the outcome was brought about by their competence or mastery at something that was under their control and hence, to their credit, whereas when bad moral luck befalls others, it must have been due to some failure of competence or mastery on their part, and therefore, to their detriment.

There is still room for philosophical dispute about where exactly this leaves our practices of moral praise and blame. But if something like Domsky’s solution is correct, then we are either too quick to heap scorn on those blasphemies that end in tragedy or too slow to heap scorn on those that do not. What is beyond dispute, in my view, is that these cognitive biases yield a belief that could not be more congenial to the inciters of violence, the belief that the blame-making difference must lie in the heart of the blasphemer.

Austin Dacey is the author of The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights.

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