Moral Luck: the Cases

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This is the 45th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post finished up the compatibilist account of freedom, and this post moves on to a perplexing problem related to freedom and moral responsibility, one that philosophers have called moral luck.

Immanuel Kant thought it obvious that we're not responsible for things not under our control. Why hold people responsible for the workings of fate? Shouldn't we be responsible just for what we intend to do, or at least what we can reasonably, foreseeably expect given what we intend? It's irrational to evaluate each other based on things not under our control. Yet Thomas Nagel points out that we do it, and we will continue to do it, since it's part of our way of thinking about morality. It seems fine to us until we think more deeply about it. Nagel argues that we can be morally responsible in circumstances we have no control over. His cases involve moral evaluations that depend on things outside our control. He calls this phenomenon moral luck (I think it was actually Sir Bernard Williams who came up with the term). These are cases in which something outside my control affects our moral judgment of my actions, usually by affecting the action or its consequences.

Some of Nagel's cases might fit into different of these categories, depending on how you think of it, so keep in mind that these are loose categories. Also, Nagel has four categories, but I think the difference between two of them is not worth the time it takes to distinguish them, at least for the purpose of these notes, which come from my lecture notes for an introductory philosophy class.

1. constitutive luck: my inclinations, capacities, and temperament aren't fully in my control. Significant aspects of who I am are from genetics, experiences, etc. Yet I often act in certain ways because of these. I may have a genetic tendency to be more violent, or maybe I'm good largely because of a good upbringing. This doesn't stop moral evaluation. We still blame the violent person or praise the good person, and it seems right to do so. (Note: determinists admit this. What's important is that libertarians have to admit a large amount of constitutive luck, which on their view means freedom is a lot more limited than you might have wished.

[Sidebar: An interesting complication is that we're not consistent on evaluating behavior based on constitutive luck. For instance, recent debates over homosexual behavior involve whether a homosexual orientation is "natural", i.e. whether it is genetic and therefore supposedly unchangeable. The issues we've looked at give enough reason to rethink many of the assumptions used in these arguments. For one thing, something with a genetic origin might be changeable, and something without a genetic origin might not be.

More to the point, if we evaluate people for being irritable jerks because of a genetic predisposition, then a genetic basis for homosexual tendencies is irrelevant. The real issue is moral. If any behavior is wrong, then it's wrong, and a genetic predisposition is no excuse unless it absolutely forces that behavior against the person's will. On the other hand, if there's nothing wrong with the behavior, then there's no need to find an excuse for the perfectly ok behavior. How someone got to be a certain way doesn't seem relevant to whether it's ok to act a certain way as a result. Excusing homosexuality on the basis of genetics is misguided (and offensive to gay people if there's really nothing wrong with it). At the same time, those who disagree with homosexual behavior have no reason to worry about genetic origins, since those are irrelevant.

It's worth thinking about how Kant would see this. Maybe we just inconsistently apply our criteria, and we're wrong in one of the two places. If Kant's right, we're wrong to do what Nagel notices, and these arguments regarding homosexuality are ok. If Nagel is right, however, those arguments need to be questioned. Nagel's argument is in some ways a response to Kant, though he thinks Kant must have been on to something, even if that might not mean he was exactly right.]

2. circumstantial luck: I may be the kind of person to behave cowardly (or heroically) in desperate situations, but if those situations never arise no one will ever know. My moral record won't show this about me. A man who grew up in Argentina was born in Germany and almost was raised to become a Nazi and torture Jews and others in concentration camps. How we evaluate him (not so bad a guy) depends only on his luck in where he was raised, while his brother who was raised in Germany didn't get so lucky and became an awful man. As Nagel puts it, "we judge people for what they actually do or fail to do, not just for what they would have done if circumstances were different."

[Note: some might place the twin case under constitutive luck, since it's based on how they happen to be at the time, even though how they are at the time was caused by different circumstances. It depends on how you're thinking of the case.]

3. luck in outcome: A truck driver doesn't check his brakes and accidentally backs into a small child because the brakes fail to hold. He was a little negligent, but he didn't expect this. A drunk driver who runs into a fire hydrant gets lucky in comparison to one who ends up killing someone. The driver has no control over what happens to be in the way. If I try to kill someone who happens to have a bullet-proof vest and lives, my penalty is less severe than if the person died. If the American Revolution had failed, all the great heroes would be blamed for the greater "oppression" (as they saw it) from the English government that would have resulted. In each case the person being blamed has little control over the events that affect what we say about the person's action. Some of the arguments against the 2003 invasion of Iraq involve evaluating an action based on how it turns out -- for instance, some said it would be wrong because it might lead to an outbreak of terrorist attacks against the United States. [This may not be the best argument given how unpredictable the consequences of these things really are, but it reveals something about how our moral intuitions work.]

[Note: some may place cases like the drunk driving example under circumstantial luck, since what's not under your control is whether there's, say, a fire hydrant or a person in your way.]

This should give you a sufficient number of cases and kinds of moral luck to have some sense of what's going on. The important thing is that moral luck involves someone being held responsible for something, and it seems right to hold them responsible for it, and yet there's some key element of the situation that involves something completely outside the person's control, where if that element had been different we'd get a very different result when we evaluate the person (whether because they would have acted differently or had different motivations or character, or because the consequences of the action would have been different enough to affect how we respond).

In the next post, I'll look at some ways to try to evaluate the idea of moral luck and what it means for our moral responsibility.


Curious...Thinking aloud here, it seems there are differing levels of applicability based on whether you are thinking of deontological ethics (as kant was), or consequentialism or virtue ethics.

Personally, I find point 1 largely irrelevant or wrong. It is almost like you have to assume there is no choice for constitutional luck to apply. For instance, a person may have a genetic tendency for more aggression, but this does not mean his has a tendency for more violence (or perhaps it is better put that there are a lot of good moral uses for high levels of aggression.) Whether that aggression turns into hatred and unjust violence could also be seen as a progression of moral/free will decisions that over time.

From a Christian perspective, the argument would be that every possible genetic trait (aggression or passivity) carries it's own tendency towards immoral activity due to fallen nature....

Points 2 and 3 really don't apply in virtue ethics or deontology, as neither is really outcomes based.

Of course, as with more discussion of morality....simply because we "all" think about it in someway does not make it right. Using our 'moral intuitions' to attempt to validate some particular way of thinking about morality seems to assume a priori that our moral intuitions are reliable....

The point with constitutional luck is that some people have a harder time resisting certain evil tendencies, but we evaluate people according to what they are like most of the time, rather than how much effort they spent overcoming negative tendencies to get there. We treat nice people as morally better than mean people, even if the mean people had to work very hard to get as nice as they are, and the nice people just are nice naturally. I don't think this assumes no free will. On the contrary, free will is assumed. It's just that what you do freely isn't what you're evaluated for. Kant would say that's an unethical way to evaluate people.

Kant also did deny that outcomes are important in any way, and this was largely because he rejects the phenomenon of moral luck. But his deontological view isn't the only one, and it's not remotely the most plausible one, in my view. I think W.D. Ross has a much better deontological view, where consequences can matter but only if the consequences are so important that the ordinarily important deontological considerations can be minimized. I have links to a number of places wherre I've discussed this here.

Virtue theory is independent of whether consequences matter, because consequences can come in at an earlier theoretical level on a virtue theory. It depends on how you figure out which character traits are the virtues. Aristotle sought to figure out which traits best fit with our nature in terms of doing what's best for us, and that gets explained in terms of our teleology or purpose as human beings. There's a kind of consequence there grounding the virtues. Virtue consequentialists just expand that to include character traits that lead to the best results overall. This isn't the dominant virtue view, but it's virtue theory, and consequences very much matter.

I don't think Nagel assumes that our moral intuitions are right. Wait until I get to Nagel's evaluation of the difficulty before making that sort of claim. There may be places to criticize him, but I don't think that's fair to his own analysis of the issue. Since I haven't presented that it's not fair to expect you to know it either. He does think our moral intuitions are all we have to go on, but he thinks they conflict with each other. Kant's assumption is just as much a moral intuition as the ones that lead to the practices of treating people as being responsible when their actions were affected significantly by factors completely outside their control. The question is what you do then, since there's no other source of this level of moral thinking.

(Even with revelation by a divine being, you don't generally get this level of moral thinking. You get specific commands, moral exemplars, and principles that might be used to guide behavior. There is that strange statement by Jesus about Sodom and Gomorrah repenting if they had seen what Jesus did, though, which is a lot like some of Nagel's examples.)

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