Ethics: July 2008 Archives

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:

When I was looking for information on the X-Gene for the mutants and race piece I'm working on, one website I was looking at wrongly cited X-Men (the 1991 series) issues 2-3 as one place the X-Gene comes up. I was immediately suspicious, because I'd just read those issues when I was thinking about submitting a proposal for Magneto's moral philosophy for the Supervillains volume (which in the end I decided not to do, even though it would have used material I've put some work into both from the political section of my ancient philosophy teaching and the just war and terrorism section of my applied ethics teaching). I hadn't seen anything about an X-Gene in my recent reading of those issues, but I decided to read them again anyway, and it led to an interesting thought process about the story, something I hadn't spent as much time thinking about the first time through.

The main plot involves Magneto discovering he was genetically re-engineered by Moira McTaggart when he was reduced to a baby. She decided to figure out how the close friend of Charles Xavier could do the things Magneto did, and she discovered an instability in his brain due to the power he was channeling. This did explain how Charles Xavier's friend could become a terrorist. She apparently saw this as hindering who he really was, so she sought to give him a second chance by removing the instability. Many people might think she was preventing a power outside his free choice from influencing him.

What generates the conflict in these issues, though, is that he has a different view. He sees it as her playing God and making every choice he made since then suspect. It's as if he thinks his choices are only free if they go naturally the way they would have without interference from someone changing his internal structure as he existed naturally. I have to say that whether she's right or not, he certainly isn't. How does removing an instability resulting from too much power being channeled through him count as behavior modification of the sort that undermines free will?

But then he forces her to apply the same process (removing an instability particular to him?) to some of the X-Men so that they will follow him and not Xavier. She does it, and they do. Huh? How can removing the instability particular to him from the X-Men who don't have it make them loyal to him and not Xavier? If they do have it, won't it stop their powers from doing the same thing to them and clouding their moral judgments? So removing it wouldn't make them like Magneto. I'm not sure what Chris Claremont was thinking with this one.

Then they snap out of it eventually, because the process only works if the subject never uses their powers. The use of powers undoes it, because somehow the powers are tied into the way the brain has naturally developed, and the genetic re-engineering gets forced back into its natural state somehow by the powers in order to ensure proper functioning. This is also a little strange, because it sounds as if the re-engineering is messing with nature and proper functioning, except the original explanation with Magneto sounded like it was restoring a natural balance that the powers were interfering with.

This was Chris Claremont's last story on X-Men, and in some ways it was a nice send-off to its longest-running writer to end on a battle with Magneto that hits some of the main themes Magneto has always differed with the X-Men on, but it's too bad that a very important premise of the story is so confused, both on the theoretical level about what's going on in this hypothetical scenario and in terms of ethical reflection on that situation. I remember not really liking this story all that much when it came out (seventeen years ago now!), as hyped as it had been with Claremont returning to start off the new X-Men teams and the new book and my favorite new artist Jim Lee rendering the visuals. The first issue is still the highest-selling comic book ever. I don't remember my reasons, but it didn't strike me as worth the attention. I wonder if this was part of the reason.

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.

A while ago (June 5, to be exact), NPR's All Things Considered had a piece on punishing kids in school by making them learn Robert Frost. It was intended partly as a way to make the kids learn more. They included several responses to the policy. One response caught my interest. It said that such a policy ends up agreeing with all the high school dropouts that education is bad. After all, it can't be a punishment unless it's bad. The problem with this punishment is that education isn't punishment.

This is a common enough view, and it has interesting implications for theories of punishment. In particular, it seems to undermine restorative, rehabilitative models of punishment. It doesn't undermine the view that we should seek to restore and rehabilitate criminals. It does undermine the view that we should call it punishment when we do so. It seems to me that the main assumption lying behind this slogan is that education isn't punishment, because education isn't retribution.

Given some of the stuff Wink is working on, I thought this was an interesting presentation of a popular intuition about punishment that runs counter to how he's trying to think about punishment.


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