Now the stakes have gotten higher as some states have applied the “felony-murder” law to such deaths, while others have enacted specific statues turning the criminal act of providing drugs into a homicide if death results.
“But there is no acceptable moral distinction between two dealers who sell the same product, in the same way, to the same people—and one of their customers, for reasons unrelated to anything the dealers did, happens to die”
It is easy to understand why the public demands homicide prosecutions against drug providers whose product caused the death of a beloved celebrity like Philip Seymour Hoffman. A person lies dead; someone must bear responsibility for his death. It is easy to scapegoat the drug provider. But is it fair to single out the provider whose heroin happened to have killed a celebrity (or anyone else)?
The answer is plainly no. All drug providers are equally culpable—as a matter of morality—regardless of whether their customer happened to live or die. Put another way, the dealer who provided heroin to Hoffman a few weeks ago is just as morally culpable as the one who provided the heroin that turned out to be lethal. To be sure, if the lethal dose had contained especially dangerous additives, and if the provider didn’t tell the customer about the added danger, that would change the moral equation. Or if the provider sold heroin to children or to adults who he or she knew were particularly vulnerable, that, too, might be different. But there is no acceptable moral distinction between two dealers who sell the same product, in the same way, to the same people—and one of their customers, for reasons unrelated to anything the dealers did, happens to die. Nor is there any such distinction between those dealers who sell to celebrities and those who sell to obscure street addicts (except that celebrities have more resources and options to try to break the habit, so dealers who sell to street addicts may perhaps be more culpable, though they are less frequently prosecuted).
Why then does legal culpability not follow moral culpability? Why does the law punish more severely those dealers whose clients happen to die from an overdose? The answer goes beyond the supplier-addict issue. In general, the law punishes equally culpable conduct differently depending on the result, even when the result is completely fortuitous and beyond the intent of the actor. Consider two equally drunken or drugged drivers who become unconscious behind the wheel while driving at the same speed in the same neighborhood. The car of one of them crashes into a school bus resulting in the death of several children, while the car of the other one pins harmlessly against the wall a bank robber escaping with the loot. The first is convicted of multiple homicides, while the second is given a reward, despite their morally indistinguishable conduct. In philosophy this is called “moral luck”—an oxymoron if there ever was one, since luck, which is random, can never be moral, which is purposive.…