Suppose that a person is diligently paranoid. In other words, imagine a person who, by conventional standards, worries excessively about risks that involve low probabilities but high stakes. Imagine this person’s applying the precautionary principle in ways most people find problematically risk-averse. And imagine her actively planning for exigencies or emergencies in ways that consume emotional and material resources, thereby undercutting her capacity for ordinary enjoyment. Where most people would simply overlook these remote but apparently scary risks, the diligent paranoid expects them, planning and drilling for them, rehearsing what she would do when (not if) they come to pass. Indeed, diligent paranoids seem to feel a certain gratification when disaster occurs, since it confirms their irrational belief that life is a series of disasters. They appear to lead a problematically joyless existence, focused on mere survival rather than on a richer conception of human flourishing–the classic case of the person who lives her life by fear rather than some more wholesome motivation.
Now suppose that a low probability event actually takes place in the paranoid person’s life, one that appears to vindicate her paranoia. She is, let’s say, driving through a storm when her car is pulled into floodwaters. Where most people might panic or be baffled about what to do, our diligent paranoid knows exactly what to do because she has (irrationally) expected this event all her life. Suppose she does exactly what survival requires, and survives. Does she deserve to survive? Do the nearby people who (for lack of planning and execution) perish therefore deserve to die?
The expected consequence account seems to me to offer an equivocal answer here. On the one hand, to the extent that the diligent paranoid’s worries were genuinely irrational or paranoid, the event in question wasn’t expected, and neither were its consequences. Given this, it seems wrong to describe her planning for an unexpected event as a case of realizing the expected consequences of the event. And so, it seems wrong to say that she deserved those consequences. If the event wasn’t expected, the response to it seems not to be, either.
On the other hand, given the occurrence of the event, the person’s pre-planning seems to get all the expected consequences exactly right–in fact, better than average. On this description, she particularly seems to deserve the consequences. She gets right what most people get wrong.
Bottom line: the expected consequence account gives different answers, depending on how we describe the cases. But we might wonder whether so much should turn on how we describe the target action.
We might also interpret the diligent paranoid’s pre-planning as diligent behavior, hence deserving by the conscientious effort account of desert. On Sher’s account, conscientious effort properly understood deserves the object of the conscientious action. In this case, the diligent paranoid’s planning and execution seems to entail that she deserves survival. But insofar as her diligence is an expression of paranoia, presumably a vice, we might think that the paranoia serves to defeat her claims to desert.
That said, it seems odd to say that a paranoid doesn’t deserve to survive the ordeal that she predicted, even on the grounds that she was irrationally paranoid to predict it. But it seems right to say that someone doesn’t deserve something brought about through a vice: if paranoia is an epistemic vice, it seems problematic for its expression to be rewarded, even in the case (or maybe especially in the case) where it fortuitously brings about a good consequence. Once again, a great deal seems to turn on our choice of descriptions.
I suspect that the key to this conundrum lies with the difficulty of drawing a non-arbitrary line between prudence and paranoia when it comes to low probability/high stakes risks. Because it’s unclear how to draw the line, it’s unclear how to judge those who exemplify traits that straddle the implicit lines we draw (or half draw, or think we draw). Paranoid people are kind of crazy, but sometimes right. It’s hard to know what to make of that fact, and in consequence, hard to know what they deserve. They’re a problem for everyone, including theorists of desert.