Some distinctions… and why recklessness can be evil

John Bowling
7 min readMay 12, 2020

It seems that some of the disagreement occurring over the Ahmaud Arbery case is due to different distinctions people are drawing or not drawing. (The reckless and evil distinction is # 5 for those who want to skip the rest.)

1. One of the distinctions is legal vs. moral or legal vs. reasonable. Something can be illegal but moral or legal and immoral. Likewise, we might think some action is rationally justifiable but legally unjustifiable. It seems some people are letting the legal case be the basis of their moral judgment while others, probably precisely because they lack the legal background knowledge, are imagining themselves in a similar situation and/or taking the testimony of the McMichaels at their word and making a moral judgment.

Those who are outraged by this situation may want to argue that even if they were to set aside the legal knowledge, they could still make the case that “imagining themselves in a similar situation and/or taking the testimony of the McMichaels at their word” should lead to the same exact moral outrage.

Because of hindsight bias, I’m skeptical of that. People are probably fooling themselves when, within the context of their knowledge of this story (including the legal aspects), they think they can honestly tell us how they would have reacted in a similar situation. The fact is, if you divide people into two groups and give each group the same story but change the ending for each group — where for one group the story ends tragically and for the other group it ends well — the people in the group where it ends tragically are more likely to think that ending is obvious. And they’re more likely to believe that, had they been in such a scenario, they would have foresaw the tragic consequences and done things differently.

It would be interesting to run this experiment on two groups who are ignorant of the Arbery case and of the law generally. Give one group the Arbery case as it played out up until the point of the shooting and ask them something like “Which best represents your assessment of the McMichaels actions? ‘Good’ ‘Reckless’ ‘Evil’” Then give the other group the Arbery case as it played out up until the point of the chase, but change the ending so that Arbery cuts through the trees and escapes. Ask the same question.

2. Since it seems clear that the McMichaels had no legal justification, given what we know so far, those who are making the legal case the basis of their moral judgment tend to view the entire event with outrage. Those who are asking themselves whether it “makes sense” to chase after a suspected bugler — sans the law — are probably less outraged.

There’s an interesting point here about how our moral judgments are influenced by law. If the citizen’s arrest law in Georgia was favorable to the McMichaels, there would be less outrage because more people would allow their moral intuition to be calibrated to the law. (That’s not to say there would be no outrage. I think there would still be outrage over the suspicion of racism.)

Allowing one’s moral judgment to be guided by the law can be a good thing. If the law is a result of reflecting deeply on morally complicated issues and arrives at the correct judgment, then that’s useful to the general public who won’t have taken the time or developed the skill to think deeply about such issues. (There’s something to be said for postliberalism here.)

To quote Hume:

The various circumstances of society; the various consequences of any practice; the various interests which may be proposed; these, on many occasions, are doubtful, and subject to great discussion and inquiry. The object of municipal laws is to fix all the questions with regard to justice: the debates of civilians; the reflections of politicians; the precedents of history and public records, are all directed to the same purpose. And a very accurate reason or judgement is often requisite, to give the true determination, amidst such intricate doubts arising from obscure or opposite utilities.

An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, Appendix 1.

3. Viewing the event as a block v. looking at the event as a chain and assessing the individual links is also a contributing factor leading to different moral judgments. Taking the event as a single block, some people are outraged because the later actions (non-arrest and behavior of the Georgia DA) are strongly coloring the entire block. That makes sense, because a justice system that covers for possible murder or, at least, manslaughter, is more dangerous to the fabric of society than two foolish citizens or two evil citizens who commit murder or manslaughter.

However, looking at the links of the chain chronologically, it’s easier to see how the first links in the chain might only cause one to think that the McMichaels acted foolishly and the situation got out of their control and ended in tragedy. To illustrate this, go back to my thought experiment where Arbery ends up escaping and suppose that’s where the chain of events ends. It’s plausible that a lot of people would say that the McMichaels acted foolishly to arm themselves and engage in a chase, but I doubt many would say they were evil (setting aside suspicions of racism).

4. But now, let’s maintain that acted-foolishly assessment given our limited links in the chain, and add in one more link: Arbery doesn’t escape, he gets shot. There seems to be division over this point, but it’s all mixed in with the prior divisions. The fact is, Arbery doesn’t do all he could to escape the McMichaels. Instead of cutting across the grass and through the trees, he runs along the road. As best as we can tell given the video evidence, Arbery charges the person holding the shotgun.

Let’s actually isolate just that link for a moment. Suppose all we had was the video footage of Arbery being shot — we don’t have the 911 calls or the testimony of the McMichaels. How would we assess the event?

If we place ourselves in Arbery’s shoes it seems obvious that we would say that whether Arbery was rationally warranted in charging the man with the shotgun depends on whether he was rationally warranted in believing that he was absolutely going to die if he didn’t take his chances charing the man with the shotgun.

If we place ourselves in the shoes of the person holding the shotgun, it seems obvious that we would say that once Arbery charged him, the only rational thing to do was to try to shoot Arbery.

Now let’s place that link back in with the prior links of the chain. It’s easy to see, I think, why some people are saying that the person holding the shotgun was “justified” in shooting Arbery, once Arbery attempted to gain control of the gun. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that Arbery wasn’t also justified in charing the person with the shotgun. And the type of justification people are thinking in terms of is, primarily, rational justification that they are then projecting onto a legal justification.

(Personally, it’s hard for me to see why I would be rationally warranted in believing, at that point, that I was going to be killed either way and, thus, should take my chances charging the man with the shotgun. But maybe there is something in Arbery’s background knowledge or experience that does rationally warrant this belief.)

If you think I’m being crazy to say it was rationally justifiable for the person holding the shotgun to shoot once he was charged, listen to the episode of Advisory Opinions from a few days ago titled “Justin Amash vs. the Death Star.” There is a point in that podcast, towards the end, where Sarah Isgur seems to think McMichael would have had a legal defense once Arbery went for the gun — though this is quickly corrected by David French. (Possibly I’ve misunderstood what Sarah is saying at this point.)

Or imagine a different scenario. Suppose that Smith lives in Georgia and wakes up at 4 a.m. to find a burglar, Jones, in his house. Smith takes out his gun and try to stop Jones, but Jones escapes out the front door. As Jones has run out the door, Smith loses sight of him for a few seconds. During this time, Jones runs east along the road.

Coincidentally, Jones’ twin brother, Dave, who is an outstanding, virtuous citizen, happens to be going for an early morning jog west along the road. Smith, believing himself justified under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, sees Dave and believes it’s Jones. He chases Dave down and holds him at gunpoint. Dave, not knowing what’s going on and believing he will die if he does nothing or tries to run, decides to go for the gun.

Let’s say that somehow, amidst the struggle for the gun, Smith realizes his mistake and that he’s caught an innocent man. As the struggle continues, Smith tries to tell Dave the mistake and convince him to stop struggling for the gun, but Dave thinks it’s a trick and continues to fight.

I think Smith is rationally justified in fighting for his life and so is Dave, assuming Dave is rationally justified in believing Smith has evil intentions.

But what if Smith’s initial reason for trying to execute a citizen’s arrest on Dave wasn’t warranted? This gets to the last distinction I wan to talk about here.

5. Some think the McMichaels actions were foolish, but not evil. Personally, I had drawn this distinction myself while commenting on the issue in the context of the racism charge. The idea is that if the McMichaels were acting out of racism then their actions — from start to finish — were evil. But if they were merely acting in an overzealous, authoritarian fashion then their actions were dumb and reckless, but not evil.

But racially motivated actions aren’t the only type of actions that are evil. Reckless actions that endanger the lives of others can also be evil. In some cases, where the chance that the recklessness will endanger another’s life is extremely implausible, it may merely be dumb and not evil. But this doesn’t apply to cases of recklessness where there is a non-negligible chance that one’s recklessness will endanger the lives of others. If I set up a private firing range in my backyard, and I have a neighbor on the other side of my backyard fence, then I’m engaging in the sort of reckless behavior that is evil. (This actually happened in Florida a few years ago, the neighbor was killed.)

Thus, if the McMichaels’ behavior was dumb and reckless then it was evil, because it is the sort of recklessness that has a non-negligible chance of endangering the life of an innocent person… and, unfortunately, that appears to be exactly what happened.



John Bowling

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.