Prospectus: Part 1

 Posted by on 10 December 2007 at 5:06 pm  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Dec 102007

This post contains Part 1 (“Overview”) of my dissertation prospectus, written in pursuit of my Ph.D in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and submitted to my committee in early December 2007. The full prospectus is available in PDF format and as an MS Word file. Comments and questions are welcome. While they won’t change the prospectus, they might be of use as I write the dissertation over the next year.


The problem of moral luck is best understood as a clash of common beliefs about moral responsibility and moral judgment. On one hand, people commonly think that a person cannot be justly praised or blamed for his actions unless he controls them. So if a man releases a critical pulley rope on a construction job due to a sudden heart attack, leaves the scene of an auto accident because he’s spirited away by kidnappers, or breaks a vase when knocked over by a strong gust of wind, his lack of control over his bodily movements should absolve him of any moral blame. The same is said of character traits and the outcomes of actions: a person may be justly praised and blamed only to the extent that he exerts control over them. On the other hand, ordinary moral judgments of persons routinely vary based on the actual goods or evils caused by the person, even when partly or wholly beyond his control. For example, the drunk driver who kills two pedestrians is blamed far more than the drunk driver who merely collides with a telephone pole, even if their driving was equally reckless. The only difference in what they’ve done is due to luck, yet they are blamed unequally by themselves and others. Similarly, the coward in Hitler’s Third Reich who betrays his Jewish neighbors to the authorities is responsible for contributing to genocide, whereas a man of identical character in America today might never be guilty of worse than failing to defend his wife from his sniping parents. These two men differ radically in their moral records solely based on the accidental circumstances of their births.

The problem of moral luck is the apparent conflict between the idea that a morally responsible agent must control his actions and the standard practice of blaming people more simply for causing worse results. As developed most clearly and forcefully by Thomas Nagel, the proposed category of moral luck attempts to highlight a range of cases in which “a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment.”[1] Matters of luck arguably influence all that a person is morally judged for, not only his choices and actions but also his character. Consequently, Nagel claims, “ultimately, nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control,” meaning that the consistent application of the principle that responsibility requires control threatens most if not all our ordinary moral judgments.[2]

My thesis, in brief, is that the problem of moral luck stems from a faulty understanding of the conditions of moral responsibility. A person need not solely determine all of that for which he is morally judged, as Nagel supposes. Instead, a person is properly held responsible for his voluntary acts. When a person acts voluntarily, (1) he has the power to act or not and (2) he knows what he’s doing. That Aristotelian understanding of the conditions of moral responsibility is not only consistent with standard intuitions but also grounded in basic facts about human capacities and about the purposes and demands of moral judgment. When developed in sufficient detail and extended to responsibility for a person’s products and qualities, that theory can effectively solve the puzzling cases of moral luck raised by Nagel and others, such that moral responsibility clearly tracks a person’s voluntary actions, products, and qualities.

The basic structure of this prospectus (and ultimately, of the dissertation) is fairly simple. First, I will describe the basic problem of moral luck as developed by Nagel and others. I will scrutinize the standard attempts to solve the problem of moral luck, as well as Nagel’s implicit understanding of the kind of control required for responsibility. I will also consider why the problem of moral luck as formulated by Nagel seems intractable. Second, I will develop a broadly Aristotelian theory of moral responsibility based on an analysis of the nature, purpose, and demands of moral judgment and the nature of human agency. Third, I will further develop and refine that theory of moral responsibility in the course of applying it in turn to each of the three basic kinds of moral luck: resultant luck, circumstantial luck, and constitutive luck. My analysis will show that the seemingly hopeless clash of intuitions in the various cases of moral luck can be satisfactorily resolved by a proper theory of moral responsibility, albeit perhaps not always quite as expected.

The dissertation will rely on Aristotle’s ethics and moral psychology as a general framework for the development of a robust theory of moral responsibility. While I intend to generally steer clear of substantive moral questions, the work will presuppose a teleological rather than deontological approach to ethics, meaning that “the moral propriety of actions depends on their relationship to [the] overarching end” of the agent’s own flourishing.[3] It will also rely on an incompatibilist understanding of free will as the agent’s power to perform or not perform some action, independent of prior conditions.[4]

In the following sections, I sketch the core arguments of my analysis of the problem of moral luck. I have chosen to do so in considerable detail because that enabled me to develop my account of moral responsibility clearly enough to test it against the core cases of moral luck.


[1] Nagel 1993, p. 59. Bernard Williams (1993) and Joel Feinberg (1970) were also instrumental in the development of the problem of moral luck.

[2] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

[3] Smith 1999, p. 361.

[4] My view of free will seems similar to agent-causation, but I’ll need to do some further reading to conclude that definitively.

Go to Works Cited or the Proposed Bibliography.

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