Sex, Marriage, and Sexuality: July 2008 Archives

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.

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