Culpable Ignorance

Professor Holly Smith
In this paper, originally published in 1983, I examine whether a person who commits a wrongful act from culpable ignorance is morally blameworthy for her unwitting wrongful act as well as for her earlier culpable benighting act. Three positions on this question have classically been defended: the Conservative position, which holds that culpable ignorance is no excuse; the Moderate position, which holds that culpable ignorance is a partial excuse; and the Liberal position, which holds that culpable ignorance is a full excuse. In attacking the question of which of these positions is correct, I point out that the problem is broader than is commonly understood, since culpable ignorance cases are a special case of more general situations in which an earlier culpable act arguably “taints” the agent’s subsequent act. In many of these cases, the subsequent act is neither unwitting nor wrongful (for example, the agent renders herself physically unable to perform some subsequent ideal act). After exploring various arguments, I conclude that the Conservative and Moderate can only defend their positions by holding that moral luck affects one’s blameworthiness for a subsequent bad upshot of one’s earlier choice. I now believe that appealing to moral luck does not fully support the Conservative and Moderate positions, and that no argument favoring them is available.