Suppose Bob has immaculate knowledge of the future...

Bob knows if he graciously gives John $100, John will buy a gun and rob a bank so he can buy heroin.

Bob also knows that after John robs the bank, he will be chased by police.

As John is running, he will get nervous and conveniently throw his money bag in front of a children's hospital where hundreds of children are dying.

A hospital worker will find the money, and thinking it's an anonymous donation, use the money to save the children's lives.

John will eventually be caught and sent to prison, where he will overcome his addiction and spend the rest of his life teaching others about the dangers of addiction and crime.

Eventually, news will spread that the hospital unwittingly obtained this money from the robbery, and through various donations, the money will be returned to the bank.

Could someone please provide common arguments for the opinion that Bob's initial cause is equivalent to Bob committing the immoral act?

(Note: I want to offer an alternative scenario, but please don't consider it another possibility. This is actually irrelevant to my question, but let's say Bob knows if he refuses to give John $100, John will steal an elderly lady's purse for heroin money, overdose, and die. The hospital will not receive any money and hundreds of children will die.)

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    If someone is guilty of 'immorality' is only objectively answerable if you specify a framework / philosophical school from which you're working. So, I suggest you rephrase the question to either ask for common positions and their arguments, or mention a specific framework from which you would like the question answered. The question in the body of your post (Was Bob's initial cause ...) is a different question, but can also only be answered from within a framework. Thanks!
    – user2953
    Sep 23, 2016 at 7:18
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    It is true that this seems rather unlogical. Perhaps instead of 'immaculate knowledge of the future', 'perfect knowledge of the consequences of his actions'? Your main question is still rather broad (basically, any argument is welcome). If that is your intention, that's fine. You can also ask for how a specific philosopher/school would look at this issue, but this is fine too. Oh, and I edited the title to make it a little more descriptive. If this changes too much, feel free to roll back.
    – user2953
    Sep 23, 2016 at 12:57
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    For Bob to have "immaculate knowledge of the future" his and others' actions in his world would have to be predetermined. In that case they can not be either moral or immoral on most theories of morality.
    – Conifold
    Sep 23, 2016 at 15:57
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    @Conifold I would have to disagree that a predetermined world means humans are not morally responsible. We are simply predetermined to have the morals by which we judge the world. If there is no causual effect, what would be the means of punishment and rewards? In other words, what would be the point of trying to correct certain behaviors? Maybe that's been asked here before. I'll check later because I have to go to bed now.
    – Cannabijoy
    Sep 23, 2016 at 16:16
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    There is a difference between predetermined and influenced, we are influenced by morals we are born into, we still have the ability to make choices independently. And choices, along with uncertainty and randomness, remove the possibility of knowing the future. Much of the subtlety of moral theories, be they deontological or consequentialist, lies in the fact that we have to choose with (very) imperfect knowledge of the future, it is from that that many controversies stem. By taking that away your scenario turns a genuine question of ethics into a detached from reality contrivance.
    – Conifold
    Sep 23, 2016 at 18:18

2 Answers 2


I will take this up from a Kantian point of view

Bob simply cannot morally know the necessary outcome of John's actions, but more relevantly, John is a moral agent, still completely capable of not pursuing any prediction that can be made by Bob. If you cannot be defied, you have stripped other agents of their autonomy, in a way that no human wants to be limited.

Even if my future is knowable, for it to be known, is immoral. To have free access to prediction universally, the prospect of the delight of surprise would be removed entirely from the universe, and we would not will that: it is not compatible with how humans need the world to be. So whatever thaumaturgy might determine John's fate is not moral, and even if we have done it somehow by accident, we should not act on it.

(Kant wants morality independent of species, and this sometimes clarifies arguments. For Kantians who share the religious context of his upbringing, this is the argument against angels, who live outside time and carry the agenda of limiting sin, simply fixing history so the world is perfect. To do so, whatever sin it might prevent, would crush human will.)

So, if Bob knows John's future and acts on what he knows, he is already in the wrong. But that puts Bob in the position of acting inauthentically while trying not to lie. He needs some boundary around what would be expected of him.

Even in the case with no magic, relying on your guesses about someone else's behavior based on observation too much is prejudice, and becomes immoral quickly. John must be treated as a moral agent with autonomy. If we do not allow in every way for the possibility of basic moral change, John can no longer participate in a 'Kingdom of ends', his autonomy is reduced to logic and he becomes a mechanical part of the universe, a mere means.

John then needs to be treated in a way that intends to work out for the best even if he deviated from any prediction we can make, at any point. The only point where Bob can safely control the possibility that John will change the script, and obviate the predicted good outcomes, is in deciding to give or not to give John the money to start with, and that is the only act with predicted consequences that can be judged for moral content.

Giving is a good thing. But it is sometimes not a good idea to just give people money at random. If I gift the policeman who pulls me over with $100, this is not to his ultimate benefit, especially if his camera is on. It proposes moral hazard. So automatic generosity in complete generality is not universalizable.

Any rule about giving needs to incorporate the proviso that it should not cause undue foreseen risks for the recipient that outweigh the gain of the gift. But with this addendum, the idea that giving away resources that you do not need does seem universalizable. So this condition is a natural part of the proper maxim. Kant's "Kingdom of Ends" is a community of ends, and mutual protection at a respectful and sustainable level is part of the package.

John is at risk here, and Bob, knowing of that risk, should provide a level of protection from it that we can generally expect from others, but he should not force John's hand. If John is someone to whom Bob would ordinarily give help, that help should take a less risky form than cash.

This is a risk of which John himself would be aware, so accounting for it, and purposely treating him differently, is not a prediction of the future, or a stereotyping of John into a box we assume he cannot get out of. It is acting on a motive that John should have and would approve of, were his functioning not impaired.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user2953
    Sep 26, 2016 at 9:23

[Argument 1: Supporting Bob's action to be considered Moral] One way to look at this problem is to consider the NET effects of Bob's decision. As you described the scenario, you are attempting to establish a net positive end; referring to John's reform, the children's benefit, and the restitution of the Banks loss. With the certainty that this will be the series of the events intuition would push us towards accepting the outcome as moral.

[Argument 2: Against Bob's actions to be considered Moral] However, we may also want to balance this perspective with the question of whether the ends justify the means. Popular opinion stands that this rationality to justify a immoral act is not acceptable despite the beneficial results. This position is established by considering the universality of application problem. Morality is considered to be a universally applicable set of guiding principles; both in a variety of situations as well as in magnitude. If we accept that the ends justify the means, then if the NET effect is positive we should act. This logic would also support less positive biased scenarios.

This means, we must look at the scenario, not based on the specifics that describe the victims and benefactors. Instead we investigate the set of facts that describe the action itself. When we shift our focus in this way, we limit the scope of the original question to two important facts:

1) Robbing a bank is immoral.

2) Bob knows exactly what John will do in the immediate future with the $100.00.

Given these two facts - as explicitly provided in the scenario - we would say that providing the $100.00 to John is tantamount to participating in the crime.

We should also discuss Argument 2 in terms of the vulnerability of consequentialism to lead us to unintended disaster. The product of consequentialism often results in the diminution of individual rights for conceived maximum benefit of society. Is it right to accept the pain suffered by the bank teller held at gun point as the price of benefitting all these other groups? If we removed some of the minor positive effects, and said for instance "John died of drug withdrawal in prison". Are we still justified in saying it's a minor lose for a greater benefit? I would argue the Lockean consideration of natural rights, which are inalienable for all mankind, as the preeminent consideration for social justice and morality. You may be familiar with this concept as adopted by Thomas Jefferson and expounded in the United States Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. It is with these considerations that we must not allow the ends to excuse the means. Since there is no consent by the Bank or the Teller, even after restitution, the original act is not morally justified.

[Argument 3: Against Bob's actions to be considered Moral] Next, we should consider what moral responsibility we truly own given someone else's actions. It is not that giving $100.00 to another is implicitly immoral. Therefore, it is precarious that we should consider that act immoral given the before-mentioned consideration of establishing a certain degree of universality in our ethical definitions. It is the fact that Bob knows what John plans to do, and in this scenario can even know that John definitely will commit this crime in this series of events. Given Bob's perfect knowledge of the future, he is wholly accountable for those series of events he has set in motion. Even without this perfect knowledge, if John were to declare his intentions, Bob's moral responsibility would be to withhold the money. This also explains why the same moral responsibility is not applied to gun dealer, who had no knowledge of John's plan.

[Argument 4: Morality is ambiguous in a world of predestined events] Lastly, we have a innate contradiction in the scenario: Given a perfect knowledge of future events, is it reasonable to consider there to be free will? Without free will, how can we consider anything moral or immoral? We don't consider that a tree that has fallen on your house, to be an immoral tree. Nor do we consider a tree that, in it's pursuit for nutrient, breaks into our foundation or suffocates underbrush, immoral. The tree is morally ambiguous because it doesn't exhibit free will, or make decisions in a conscientious way. It "acts"; it grows and interacts with its environment, but only passively. Given that this is a hypothetical question, we may be justified in saying that morality doesn't come into play in a series of inevitable events. Unless we add that Bob exclusively has free will to change the course of events that he predicts, Bob is either supposed to give the money or not, and that he would know which he was required to do. It may be regrettable, but it is not a question of morality.

  • I accidentally switch the name John to Jim at some point. If you see a reference to Jim, please correct to John. Sep 23, 2016 at 20:46
  • Thank you for the answer. I'm not sure if this is an overview of common arguments against this scenario or not. Perhaps you could provide some sources? If it truely is an overview, then I hope you don't mind if I wait until others come forth to agree. Otherwise this seems to be an argument against my question, which could be accepted as an answer, but then I'll have to nitpick everything.
    – Cannabijoy
    Sep 24, 2016 at 4:41
  • Argument 2 and 3 seem to be irrelevant. For 2, although "the end justifies the means" is indeed a false statement, in this case the end really has justified the means. If Bob had the smallest doubt whatsoever that his prediction could fail, then I would agree. But Bob is what we would consider the 'ideal observer', as well as an acting character in the story. So basically he is a personal god.
    – Cannabijoy
    Sep 24, 2016 at 4:42
  • For 3, it is true that Bob is accountable for his actions, but are his actions immoral? Bob never denies he is responsible for everything he caused, but is his cause the equivalent of robber or the equivalent of savior? Argument 4 supposes that the characters have freewill, which they don't.
    – Cannabijoy
    Sep 24, 2016 at 5:30
  • Then, it is assumed that without freewill, nobody is either moral or immoral. You might find this interesting westminstercollege.edu/myriad/… I would argue that without determinism, it is impossible for us to consider any act moral or immoral. We just act randomly for no reason whatsoever.
    – Cannabijoy
    Sep 24, 2016 at 5:31

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