Prospectus: Part 2

 Posted by on 11 December 2007 at 8:29 am  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Dec 112007

This post contains Part 2 (“The Problem of Moral Luck”) 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

Nagel’s case for pervasive moral luck begins with a brief survey of “the ordinary conditions of moral judgment,” particularly the “control condition” for moral responsibility.[5] Appealing to the primitive intuition that “people cannot be morally assessed for what is not their fault, or for what is due to factors outside their control,” Nagel observes that “the appropriateness of moral assessment is easily undermined by the discovery that the act or attribute, no matter how good or bad, is not under the person’s control.”[6] So “a clear absence of control, produced by involuntary movement, physical force, or ignorance of the circumstances, excuses what is done from moral judgment.”[7] The problem of moral luck arises from the attempt to consistently apply that control condition in our everyday moral judgments. When we look closely, Nagel claims, we find that “what we do depends in many more ways than [commonly thought] on what is not under our control,” yet the “external influences in this broader range are not usually thought to excuse what is done from moral judgment, positive or negative.”[8] So the problem of moral luck is that our ordinary moral judgments routinely violate the control condition: people are praised and blamed for matters beyond their control.

Nagel classifies the various cases of moral luck as resultant, circumstantial, or constitutive luck–based on that which is affected by luck.[9] In cases of resultant luck, a person is morally judged partly based on the outcome of his action despite his lack of control over that outcome, such as in cases of inherently risky action (e.g., inciting bloody revolution), failed attempts (e.g., shooting someone but not killing him as intended), and negligence (e.g., text messaging while driving).[10] In cases of circumstantial luck, the person’s moral record depends on accidental circumstances, as when a person faces a difficult moral test to which others are never put or when a would-be wrongdoer finds his deed already done for him by others.[11] In cases of constitutive luck, a person is praised or blamed for aspects of his moral character imposed upon him by his upbringing or his genes, for example.[12] These cases seem to show that our standard moral judgments of a person–whether for his products, his choices, or his character–are often substantially based on accidental factors outside his control.

Notably, the problem of moral luck does not merely present us with a limited set of puzzling cases about moral responsibility.[13] Luck is a pervasive influence in human life. No one controls the particular family, culture, nation, or era of his birth. No one controls his genetic endowments. Few people have any significant power to influence the economic conditions, political institutions, or moral climate that shape their lives. Our actions often have far-reaching, unexpected, and unpredictable effects in the world. Such external forces seem to influence the thoughts, actions, qualities, and products for which a person is morally judged. If that’s true, then the problem of moral luck undermines attributions of moral responsibility generally, not just in a few select cases. That’s why Nagel claims that “if the condition of control is consistently applied, it threatens to erode most of the moral assessments we find it natural to make.”[14]


[5] Nagel 1993, p. 58.

[6] Nagel 1993, p. 58.

[7] Nagel 1993, p. 58.

[8] Nagel 1993, p. 58.

[9] I plan to ignore Nagel’s fourth category of “causal luck,” since it concerns the broader question of free will versus determinism. Some commenters on moral luck have suggested alternative schemes of classification, but none are more illuminating than that of Nagel. See, for example, Ollila 1993, pp. 19-21. These three kinds of moral luck will be explained in greater detailed in later sections.

[10] Nagel 1993, p. 60. Cases of resultant luck are also found in Williams 1993, pp. 38-9 and Feinberg 1970, pp. 32-4.

[11] Nagel 1993, p. 60. Cases of circumstantial luck are also found in Feinberg 1970, pp. 34, 191-2.

[12] Nagel 1993, p. 60; Feinberg 1970, p. 36.

[13] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

[14] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

Go to Works Cited or the Proposed Bibliography.

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