It is widely held that:
- Doing the wrong thing while inculpably ignorant that it's wrong is itself inculpable.
- Doing the wrong thing while culpably ignorant that it's is culpable, assuming the other conditions for culpability are met (freedom, etc.).
Start with this case. Sally was inculpably ignorant of the wrongness of targeting civilians in just wars. Like many Americans, she was raised to think that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were morally permissible, since the bombings saved many lives by ending the war early. One morning, while an undergraduate, she culpably spent an extra five minutes on Facebook before going to her ethics class. As a result, she culpably showed up five minutes late (being late to class isn't always morally wrong, but being late without sufficiently good reason disturbs others' learning and is morally wrong, and I assume this is a case like that). Consequently, she missed the discussion of double effect and the distinction between strategic and terror bombing. Had she heard the discussion, she would have known that it's wrong to target civilians. Since she is culpable for lateness to her ethics class, her ignorance of the wrongness of the kind of terror bombing that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were subjected to is wrong. Years later, incurring no further culpability, she is still ignorant. But then one day there is a just war, and she is a drone pilot asked to target civilians in a situation relevantly similar to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She does so, believing that it's her duty to do so.
Had Sally refused to follow orders, she would have been culpable for violating her conscience--and indeed, very seriously culpable since her bombing saved many lives by ending the war early (I am assuming that this was the case in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). But in fact, Sally acted wrongly: she committed mass murder. She did so in ignorance, but her ignorance was culpable, since she was culpable for being late to the class that would have cured her of her ignorance.
Given (1), had double effect not been discussed in class that morning when she spent too much time on Facebook, she would have been entirely inculpable for mass murder. It seems implausible that whether Sally is culpable for mass murder depends on what in fact went on in a class that she missed. Furthermore, culpability shouldn't depend on arcane counterfactuals. But it could be quite an arcane counterfactual whether Sally would have learned that it's wrong to target civilians in a just war. It might have depended on fine details of just how persuasive the professor was, what effect Sally's presence in the class would have had on the mode of presentation, etc.
Moreover, it seems implausible that Sally is culpable for mass murder because of her culpability for the peccadillo of being five minutes late to class. The intuition behind (1) is that you don't get culpability out of inculpability. You likewise shouldn't get mass-murder-level culpability out of a peccadillo. But this last argument is a little fast. For while "Sally is culpable for mass-murder" misleadingly suggests that Sally has great culpability. If we accept (1), we should accept a parallel principle that the degree to which one is culpable for a wrong act done in ignorance is no greater than one's degree of culpability for the ignorance. As a result, we might say that Sally is culpable for mass-murder, but the degree of guilt is at a level corresponding to being five minutes late to class (without, I assume, any reasonable expectation that those five minutes would result in ignorance about mass murder).
Very well. Let's suppose that five milliturps are the level of guilt corresponding to the lateness to class. Maybe the level of guilt for the mass murder would have been a gigaturp per victim, if Sally had known that such bombing is wrong. So the suggestion we are now exploring for saving (2) is that Sally's level of guilt for an ignorant bombing run is capped at five milliturps, no matter how many victims there are. (There is something odd about having slight guilt for something so big, but I don't think we should worry about the oddity.) Very well. Consider now two scenarios. In the first one, Sally goes on a single bombing run that she knows will claim 10,000 civilian victims. In the second, she goes on two bombing runs, which will claim 5,000 civilian victims each. On the capping suggestion, in the first scenario, Sally acquires five milliturps of guilt for her bombing run. In the second scenario, she acquires five milliturps of guilt for the first bombing run, too. That's already a little strange: we would expect less culpability with fewer victims. But it gets worse. In the second bombing run, the capping view will also assign five milliturps. As a result, in the second scenario, Sally incurs a total of ten milliturps of guilt. And that seems just wrong: it shouldn't matter that much how the victims are divided up. Furthermore, the intuition being the principle that culpability for an ignorant act can't exceed the culpability for the ignorance is, I think, violated when a multiplicity of ignorant acts exceeds in total culpability the culpability for the ignorance.
We might try a modified capping principle: The culpability for all acts coming from culpable ignorance is capped in total. This has the odd result, however, that in the second scenario, Sally is five-milliturps-guilty for the first run, but not at all guilty for the second, having already reached her culpability cap. At this point it seems much more reasonable simply to suppose that all of Sally's guilt is the initial five milliturps for being late to class. She doesn't acquire a second five milliturps for her bombing runs.
It may seem to be an insult to the memory of the victims that Sally manages to murder them without incurring any guilt. But, for what it's worth, it seems to me to be less of an insult to suppose that she is innocent of the murder than to suppose that she is pecadillo-level guilty for it, as on the capping views.