People often die in car accidents due to their own negligence or incompetence. For example, a cyclist may be fatally struck by a car as a result of failing to stop at a red light. In cases like this, I have often seen observers express the following sentiment: "The cyclist should be denounced. He was the one at fault, and because of his failure the driver must live with the burden of having killed someone. If anything, it was the driver who was wronged by the cyclist, even though the former killed the latter." This seems to me puzzling attitude, and I was wondering if the panel had anything to say about it.

An interesting case! My reaction is that the attitude you describe isn't incoherent or confused, but isn't noble or wise either.

Just to review: in the case you've described, the cyclist is negligent, ends up dead because of that, and someone (the driver) who did nothing wrong becomes the unwitting instrument of the person's death. If the driver had happened along a second earlier, she might have been able to swerve and avoid hitting the cyclist. If a police officer had been there, the cyclist might well have gotten a ticket. We hold people responsible for being negligent, and depending on the consequences of their negligence, the responsibility might be extensive. And so it's not confused to say that the cyclist is to be blamed if anyone is. It's also not confused to say that in addition to his own death, the cyclist's negligence had the effect of leaving an otherwise innocent person with a tremendous psychological burden. But what do we do with all those thoughts?

If the driver was distraught, offering her something like the view you're describing might help relieve her distress and at least in my view, could be an acceptable thing to do. However, the words "something like" are there for a reason. A third party who simply condemns the cyclist has way too little appreciation for the thought that there but for luck or grace go we. If we're honest, most of us will recognize that there have been countless times in our lives when it was luck and not goodness that kept us from being the cause of something awful, even though we had no malign intent. All of us, sometimes, are negligent. All of us, sometimes, cut corners or let our attention lapse in cases that could lead to terrible consequences. To the extent that any of us have never been in anything like the situation of the driver you imagine, we are lucky, at least in part, rather than virtuous. This seems to me to be what's missing in the reaction you describe.

So I'd want to distinguish between what we might say to help someone get past feelings that all of us hope never to have to confront, and how we might view cases like this from the perspective of a thoughtful outsider. The thoughtful outsider will recognize that if one's negligence harms oneself, it can also harm someone else for that very reason. (I think it's correct to say that the psychologically traumatized driver has suffered harm—whether or not we blame the cyclist.) But the thoughtful outsider will not be too quick to condemn. S/he will not forget that none of us is perfectly virtuous and that virtually all of us have more than once been the beneficiaries of sheer moral luck.

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