Moral Luck: Responses

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This is the 46th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post presented a problem related to freedom and moral responsibility, one that philosophers have called moral luck. According to Immanuel Kant, you not be responsible for things you have no control over, and yet we constantly evaluate people according to things they have no control over, as the many cases in the last post show. Now I'll turn to some ways people have responded to the difficulties raised by such cases.

Some try to keep a view like Kant's by giving responses to Nagel's arguments, and some of the responses seem ok when you focus in on only one kind of case. Once you look at another case, the response doesn't help. For example, you might insist that your genetic tendencies only make it likely that you do certain things. You still have control. This is what you would expect from a libertarian. Nagel will still insist that there are people who wouldn't have done what they did if they had had less of a tendency. This means their genetic tendency did make the difference. This may not be true for everyone, but it does seem to be true sometimes. That's all Nagel needs, since then you have a case when we hold someone responsible for something outside their control. Similarly, the twin in Argentina may have been able to resist what his brother didn't resist. But the point is more that there are cases when people do things simply because they're placed in the environment that allows it. If Hitler had never had the opportunity to do what he did, he wouldn't have been responsible for all the evil things he did. Then we wouldn't consider him a monster. So he got unlucky in one sense. Maybe he would have been a hero if he'd been in situations that prevented him from being the way he was.

Even more important is that this kind of response doesn't help with cases like hitting someone (or not) while driving under the influence or with the consequences of starting a war. You can choose not to drive or drink, and you can choose not to go to war, but you can't choose everything that happens as a result of your choices. Yet we still praise and blame based on what happens after your choice is made, not always for things you could have predicted.

Even someone's actions when drunk are under one's indirect control, since, as Aristotle points out, you can choose to start drinking. Kant may be fine with that, yet some of Nagel's cases don't even seem to be as much under our control as someone who is drunk. Do his cases show that Kant is wrong? If so, what do we say about the argument for free will based on moral responsibility and having control over what we do? Or should we affirm Kant's view and insist that we shouldn't hold each other responsible for these sorts of things? That would require serious revision in our moral thinking. Or is there some other response? Is our moral thinking just confused? Do we have conflicting moral beliefs? Nagel just says it's a mystery. Peter van Inwagen says something similar about free will. He says any view anyone takes on freedom will involve some mystery, and the goal is to find the view with the least mystery (which he thinks is libertarianism on the issue of free will). What would that be in this case?

You might think of this issue in terms of three claims:

1. It's right to evaluate people according to things not entirely in our control.
2. It's wrong to evaluate people to the extent that things outside their control affect their actions.
3. If something outside your control affects how your action is seen, then you're not to blame for the difference in how people see it.

Kant affirmed the second claim, and he probably would have wanted to say the third as wel.l He would deny the first. Libertarians about free will would agree. Compatibilists deny the second claim already, since determinism means all our actions are caused by things outside our control, just not directly. Since they still say we're free, they need to say it's ok to evaluate people, even if our actions are caused by things outside our control.

Nagel seems to want to say both the first two claims. That means he has to deny the third. He wants to say it's wrong to hold people responsible for things not in their control, but he also wants to say things outside your control can affect what you're responsible for. As long as they don't directly cause your actions, it may be ok. Some find him to be inconsistent on this, but maybe this really just is a tension between two truths and not an inconsistency. Sometimes you are to blame for how people see it, even if that's outside your control, even though you're not to blame for the way things outside your control affect your own actions. That seems consistent, though it seems strange. Is this a way to try to reconcile these conflicting intuitions we have, or should we just reject one of the two intuitions?

Finally, Nagel brings it back clearly to free will. Genuine libertarian freedom seems to shrink to nothing when we insist on figuring out what's in our control and what isn't. Very little seems to be in our direct control at any moment, and lots of things seem to affect my actions but aren't now in my control at all. Compatibilists are happy with this, since the term 'free' for them has a meaning perfectly consistent with being fully predetermined.

But the problem Nagel identifies seems deeper than the debate over what 'free' means. If I am to be in control, making the choices, then it's pretty important to figure out who I am. Nagel's point is that I seem to disappear once I take into account all the reasons that go into what I do. If my action is an event and I'm just a collection of events, then free choice starts to disappear. There are all these events going on in my brain, and that's why I do things. Where am I in all that? He thinks it's clear that actions are just events when you see what really goes into human action, and it's also clear that people really are just things, i.e. collections of events, for the same reason. As Nagel says, "nothing remains which can be ascribed to the responsible self, and we are left with nothing but a portion of the larger sequence of events, which can be deplored or celebrated but not blamed or praised." He doesn't want to accept this consequence, but he's not sure how we should avoid it.

It seems we can't view ourselves as merely "portions of the world". Nagel says we have some idea from the inside about what's us and what's not, what we do and what just happens to us, what's our personality and what amounts to accidental features of ourselves. We have a conception of the self, and we think of others the same way. Therefore we bring in moral evaluation. Yet we can see from the external conception that we aren't really in control of the things that significantly affect what we hold each other responsible for. Is this inconsistent? Can we think of ourselves from both the internal and the external points of view? Nagel thinks it might be possible. He's also open to saying that there's a mystery to be solve here. Perhaps something's gone wrong with the argument so far, and it's our job just to figure our where it went wrong. He says he doesn't know what that is, though.

One direction we can take his line of reasoning brings us to the next general topic of this series. Some of Nagel's questions involve figuring out what it means to be me. We'll look at a number of questions about that. Should these issues open us up more to the possibility of something to us beyond the physical - that I'm not just part of a physical world that acts fully according to physical laws but that I've got to be more than that? Does a prior commitment to naturalism make compatibilism more attractive? Or could one reasonably say I'm just physical while being a libertarian (as Peter van Inwagen thinks) or a be a compatibilist who also believes in immaterial minds (e.g. the great philosopher G.W. Leibniz)? I'll start looking at the dualist view of the human person in the next post.

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