Moral Luck Gets Mike Huckabee

Former Arkansas Governor and current talk show host Mike Huckabee, an early leader among GOP presidential contenders in 2012, is the process of being vilified and ridiculed by conservative commentators and talk radio hosts for what appears to be a tragic instance of moral luck. Nine years ago, he issued clemency to a prisoner named Maurice Clemens, a man who had been convicted of larceny and burglary at the age of 16 and had served seven years of a 108 year sentence. Clemens was just killed after going on a two-day rampage in Seattle, Washington  murdering four police officers. Now critics are blaming the deaths on Huckabee, calling him a “bleeding heart” who cares more about criminals than their victims, and demanding that this tragedy permanently end his presidential ambitions.

I wouldn’t vote for Mike Huckabee for president if he was running against the corpse of Chester A. Arthur, but these attacks are absurd. At worst, Huckabee is a classic victim of moral luck. It may also be that he is simply a target of hindsight bias. In cases like this, it is impossible to tell the difference.

Moral luck occurs when an act becomes more or less ethically acceptable as the result of subsequent factors and events over which the actor has little or no control. A drunk driver who safely weaves his way home without incident or getting caught at a sobriety check point is regarded as simply irresponsible. If another drunk driver who is just as inebriated and takes the exact same route has a drug-addled homeless man stumble into his car’s path, that driver is a murderer. The actions of the two drivers were identical, but because of moral luck, it is difficult to rank them as equal.

If a 16 year-old who had served seven years in prison had taken advantage of Huckabee’s decision and gone on to become a law-abiding citizen, nobody would be criticizing Huckabee today. The success of his decision’s beneficiary would seem to validate it—and that conclusion would be just as flawed as the one hounding him today.

If Huckabee’s decision was wrong—unfair, disrespectful of law and his victims, irresponsible—-then Clemens’ violent crimes are moral luck, a subsequent occurrence that crystallizes the unethical nature of what Huckabee almost a decade ago. If it was a reasonable, compassionate, responsible decision then, then criticism of it now is just a nasty strain of hindsight bias, judging conduct as if  the ultimate results were known or should have been known when the original decision was made.

Which was it? To answer that we would have to know whether Maurice Clemens “deserved” to be released when he was released, and we cannot know that. What he did over the past week may have arisen out of experiences and factors that were not present then: what if his final turn to violence was triggered by an emotional breakdown, or a brain tumor? On the other hand, he may have always been a mad dog killer-in-waiting.

Huckabee has written his explanation of the circumstances surrounding Clemens’ release, and it seems reasonable. (Disingenuously, Huckabee also writes that he accepts “full responsibility” for his decision but goes on to imply that others were to blame for Clemens being on the loose in Washington, a bit of Clintonian double-talk.) I have a hard time disagreeing with the general principle that locking up a teenager for life when he has not physically hurt anyone is excessive punishment. Those seeking fault with the Clemens decision need to start and finish their analysis in 2003, when the decision was made. Any other approach, like moral luck and hindsight bias, is unfair.

Huckabee’s column concludes with his saying that he regrets the decision because of its results, but would probably make the same decision under similar circumstances. That is logical, and exactly how leaders are supposed to think. His critics are in the wrong, not him.

2 thoughts on “Moral Luck Gets Mike Huckabee

  1. Pingback: Shin-Soo Choo and the Duke’s Dilemma « Ethics Alarms

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