Rob Wheeler continues to think about Misfortune (part 2)

This is a rejoinder to Smitch's response to my previous posting. I am publishing as a separate piece owing to its length.

***

If I understand your previous posting correctly, Smitch, you are saying that you want to make a distinction between those incidents that happen accidentally and those that happen by design. The former should strictly speaking be called 'misfortunes' while the latter should be called 'crimes', or perhaps 'malicious acts' if they do not break the law as such. It seems you think that while a person could be the unconscious victim of a crime (or malicious act) it makes no sense to describe someone as 'suffering' a misfortune (an accidental outcome) of which they are unaware.

In the case I gave in my precious posting, about the man failing to get the job, it is clear that he was victim of a deliberate act and not an accident. In practice I think people frequently use the term 'misfortune' to cover both accidental and intentional 'bad things' happening to them. It would make perfect sense to say "we had the misfortune of being burgled three times last year" even tho burglaries are not accidental. However, I accept that this is a loose use of the term 'misfortune' and you are right to draw attention to the distinction for, when I think about it, all the cases I have been considering so far involve someone being the victim of someone else's unjust or criminal actions. The challenge, therefore, is to see if we can describe a situation in which an accident, unknown to the subject, can be described as a 'bad thing' for that person even if the subject does not consciously suffer pain or distress.

Consider the following scenario:

Old Mrs Jones has only one living relative, her son Alan, who rarely visits his mother. Luckily Mrs Jones has a really caring neighbour, Mary Smith, who is always popping in to help her. Mrs Jones appreciates Mary's generosity and care and is very sad at how it contrasts with her neglectful son's attitude. Unknown to Mary, Mrs Jones has considerable savings and has decided to leave all of her assets to Mary instead of to her worthless son. She therefore makes a new will which she promptly files away in a drawer and forgets to tell anyone about.

When Mrs Jones dies, her son is called in to clear the house. He finds the will and, realising that he is going to be cut out, he destroys it. As it is the only copy and no one else knows about it, Mrs Jones is declared intestate and, as next of kin, Alan inherits all of old Mrs Jones' assets.

Now, from what you said in your previous response, I think you would agree that a crime has been committed. Alan has certainly broken the law and should he be found out he will undoubtedly be prosecuted. But the reason that destroying a will is made illegal in the first place is because it does a harm to someone: it perpetrates an injustice upon them. Mary has been deprived of something that she would have enjoyed had Alan not acted in the way he did. The fact that Mary was unaware of the injustice and 'feels' nothing is neither here nor there. She may not experience the injustice but that does not alter the fact that an injustice has been committed. I would also want to say that an injustice, a harm, has been done to Mrs Jones -- and there is no way she can experience it as she does not even exist any more!.

Now imagine a second version of this scenario where Alan does not find the will. It just gets lost in the general clearing out. In this scenario Alan may have believed that his mother had written a will and he makes every effort to find it. His aim is to faithfully carry out his mother's intentions but unfortunately the will is never discovered. As in the first scenario, Alan inherits and Mary gets nothing. However, in this case it is not intentional. No crime has been committed. It is just an accident. I would argue that Mary's failing to receive the benefit she would otherwise have received is a 'misfortune'.

If we believe that failure of the will to be carried out was a 'bad thing' in the first scenario then it must surely be a 'bad thing' in the second too, even tho it was unintentional. Can a distinction be made between the two?

In the first scenario, the intentionality of the offence could be said to be bad in itself. It is surely unpleasant to think that you might be the subject of someone's malice but it can hardly be judged as very bad if that person fails in their intention. If Alan had torn up the will but unbeknown to him there was a duplicate with a solicitor, no harm would have been done. If it were later discovered that Alan had destroyed the first copy of the will, he could perhaps be prosecuted for some sort of conspiracy to defraud but his punishment would be nothing like as severe as if he actually succeeded in his plan. We make things illegal on the basis of both the intention and the outcome. In this case the 'bad thing' that happens is that Mary has been deprived of a benefit she would otherwise have enjoyed not merely Alan's conspiracy against her, whether on not it is successful.

If you think that Mary's accidental loss of the benefit of the will cannot be described as a 'bad thing', ie, it doesn't matter, then it is difficult to see why you would be worried about Alan's deliberately defrauding Mary of what is rightfully hers. As long as she doesn't know about it, surely no harm has been done -- for, as you seem to be arguing, a harm must be experienced to amount to a harm. And, as we have already seen, the mere attempt to defraud, does not amount to much of a harm in itself.

I think one of your worries is that I appear to be making a claim to some sort of 'objectivity' regarding the harm done to Mary and you baulk against this. When Alan tears up the will it is obviously an objective fact that he has broken the law. Whether anyone is aware of his action at the time is neither here nor there. It does not become an illegal act simply at the moment it is reported to the police. It was always illegal from the moment of commission. In the case of the accidental loss of the will I am not suggesting that there is an 'omniscient narrator' perspective from which the loss of the will is objectively a 'bad thing'. Rather, I am putting myself in Mary's place and asking what her response would have been had she known about the loss. I imagine asking her, in advance and hypothetically, what she would feel if old Mrs Jones were rich and she had left everything to Mary and then the will was lost. I also imagine what Mary would feel if she finds out years later, perhaps on her deathbed, that she has lost out on inheriting a fortune. The judgement that Mary has suffered misfortune is not made from an objective point of view but from Mary's hypothetical viewpoint.

Of course, you are not necessarily compelled to judge that Mary has suffered a misfortune in this or any other case. Other factors in the scenario may lead you to a different conclusion when you consider them. In each case, however, you are to put yourself in Mary's position and ask what she would have thought and felt had she known the facts. For instance, following old Mrs Jones' death and the accidental loss of the will, Mary marries a very wealthy man such that the money left in the will would be paltry beside her husband's wealth. In this case we imagine Mary, in later life, coming to learn about the lost will and judging that the loss does not matter as she is wealthy in her own right and does not need the money. She may be touched to know that Mrs Jones left her the money, as it shows how much she was appreciated; she may feel sad that Mrs Jones' will was frustrated; she may feel annoyed that the worthless son inherited Mrs Jones' savings, which was against Mrs Jones' intentions; but she will not feel personal loss or a sense of misfortune because she did not need the money as it turned out. A judgement of misfortune is always a hypothetical judgement from the perspective of the subject but may nonetheless be valid even though it is hypothetical.

The other thing that seems to concern you is that if we accept the premise that it is possible to suffer a misfortune without being aware of it, then we will all start ruminating on imagined losses and become very anxious and dissatisfied in our lives. However, I don't think this follows at all. It's one thing to acknowledge the possibility of unexperienced misfortune and quite another to decide how you will deal with such a possibility. I agree with your implied position that it would be absurd to worry about 'bad things' happening to me of which I am, and may always be, unaware, but that does not change the fact that such things can happen.

Rob Wheeler

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