Prospectus: Part 3

 Posted by on 12 December 2007 at 8:35 am  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Dec 122007

This post contains Part 3 (“Three Attempted Responses”) 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.

Three Attempted Responses

If true, Nagel’s conclusion–that most ordinary claims of moral responsibility cannot survive the consistent application of the principle that moral responsibility requires control–would be a bitter pill to swallow. Accepting it would spell the end of ethics as a practical discipline. If people aren’t responsible for their actions and characters, the task of differentiating right from wrong and virtue from vice would be an intellectual exercise without further purpose. Consequently, most philosophers commenting on the problem of moral luck attempt to retain our practices of moral judgment in some form by developing alternative accounts of the relationship of morality and luck. That has proven more difficult than expected, in that neither the attempt to exclude luck from morality nor the attempt to include luck in morality seems to produce a plausible general theory of moral responsibility. Both approaches seem to work well when applied to some cases, then lapse into absurdity in others.

The standard strategy for eliminating the influence of luck in moral judgments is simple: remove any and all luck-based differences from moral judgments and punishments, so that cases differing only in matters of luck are judged and punished equally.[15] The resulting moral equivalence is undoubtedly plausible in cases of attempted murder foiled after the attack, as when the rapidly exsanguinating victim of an assault is rescued from death by a neighbor who happens to be a trauma surgeon stopping by to return a borrowed garden hose at that very moment. Contrary to current legal practice, the fortuitous rescue of the victim doesn’t seem to be legitimate grounds on which to weaken our moral condemnation of the violent act or its perpetrator, nor lessen his punishment. Similarly, the judge who would accept a bribe if offered seems worthy of equal condemnation (even if not equal punishment) as the judge who did accept such a bribe when offered. However plausible those analyses, the attempt to directly remove the influence of luck from all moral judgments yields the implausible conclusion that people with radically different moral records and moral characters should be blamed equally via a series of cases differing only in luck.[16] Here’s how:

Step 1: Eliminate differences in moral judgments due to resultant moral luck. Imagine that two people, Adam and Bonnie, voluntarily drive themselves home from a party, even though seriously impaired by alcohol. At various times, both drivers swerve into oncoming traffic, run red lights, and drive erratically–but only Adam strikes and kills a pedestrian. Since the presence of the pedestrian at the intersection was not in Adam’s control, the death is a matter of bad luck for Adam. To eliminate the effect of luck, Adam and Bonnie must be judged and punished equally for their drunk driving alone, since that’s what they did control.

Step 2: Eliminate differences in moral judgments due to circumstantial moral luck. Imagine a third party-goer Clive, who intends to drink and drive exactly like Adam and Bonnie, but who stumbles on a hidden rock while walking to his car, bumps his head, and passes out in the bushes. Since Clive’s intended drunk driving was prevented by the mere accident of an ill-placed rock, Adam, Bonnie, and Clive should be blamed and punished equally, based on their equal intention to drive drunk. Next, imagine David: he would have drunk to excess and driven home but was precluded from doing so solely by his work schedule. Perhaps he even attempted to switch shifts with his fellow workers but found no takers. Since David’s drinking and driving was precluded by the mere accident of his work schedule, he should be blamed and punished equal with Adam, Bonnie, and Clive based on a willingness to drive drunk. The only differences between them are the product of luck, so to judge them differently would be unjust.

Step 3: Eliminate differences in moral judgment due to constitutive moral luck. Imagine that Ernie would have driven home drunk from the party, had his best friend not been killed by drunk driver last year. Instead, he drinks club soda and lime then drives himself home safely. Ernie might seem to be a morally better person than the others since he refuses to drive drunk. Yet he would not always drive sober if his friend hadn’t been killed–and that experience was purely a matter of luck. We can even imagine that Adam, Bonnie, Clive, and David would not drive drunk if something similar happened to them. Consequently, Ernie should be judged and blamed equal to Adam, Bonnie, Clive, and David.

In sum, the attempt to purge luck from moral judgments would require declaring Adam, Bonnie, Clive, David, and Ernie morally equivalent and treating them equally–despite the often-vast differences in the harms caused, the actions taken, the intentions formed, and the characters enacted by each person.[17] Ultimately, the most vicious criminals might need to be judged morally equal to the most virtuous saints, on the grounds that some chain of purely luck-based differences connects them, just as Adam is connected to Ernie. Here, luck in the circumstances that shape a person’s basic character is of particular concern. After all, the fiery abolitionist who helped slaves escape north to freedom in the 1850s might have defended and practiced brutal forms of slavery if unlucky enough to have been raised in a slaveholding southern family. And the 20-year-old thug who shoots a frightened bystander in a robbery might have been quietly studying in his college dorm if his parents had been more concerned with his education than with their next fix.[18] If those counterfactuals are true, then the abolitionist must be judged the same as the slaveholder and the thug the same as the student in order to eliminate the effects of luck from our moral judgments. Even if those counterfactuals are merely probable or possible, then to praise one person and condemn the other seems to make the moral judgment unfairly dependent on luck. Yet equalizing the moral judgments to eliminate the effect of luck also seems deeply unfair, if not absurd.

In addition, the equalization of judgments renders the proper judgments and deserts of persons totally mysterious.[19] Does justice demand excusing everyone on the grounds that they might have driven sober with Ernie’s good luck or blaming everyone on the grounds that they might have killed a pedestrian with Adam’s bad luck? Absent some luck-free baseline for moral judgments, any answer seems arbitrary.[20]

Philosophers seeking to exclude luck from moral judgments deny that Ernie is the moral equal of Adam, however. They often accept that Adam, Bonnie, Clive, and David should be judged and punished equally given their equal moral character, meaning based on the counterfactual claim that all would have acted the same under the same conditions.[21] The same cannot be said of Ernie, however. On this approach, moral judgments are not made of a person’s luck-infected choices, actions, or outcomes; instead, only a person’s character is subject to moral judgment.[22] So then what is said of the problem of constitutive moral luck, i.e., of luck in moral character itself? Rescher offers the standard reply, arguing that very concept of constitutive moral luck is logically incoherent because a person must be someone in particular in order to be subject to luck.[23] He claims that “one cannot meaningfully be said to be lucky in regard to who one is, but only with respect to what happens to one.”[24] That’s why it’s not sensible, for example, to ask what kind of person you’d be if you were unlucky enough to be born to starving Somali refugees, medieval Germanic peasants, or abusive drug-addicted celebrities. In such cases, you wouldn’t exist at all; someone else would.

This attempt to avoid moral luck is subject to serious objections. Personal identity may well entail that some aspects of a person’s character are essential to him, such that those aspects cannot be coherently attributed to luck. Yet the elimination of all luck in character would require the far stronger thesis that any and all aspects of a person’s character are essential to his identity. Surprisingly, Rescher seems to endorse that strong view in describing “one’s inclinations, disposition, and character,” whether within one’s control or not, as “a crucial part of what constitutes oneself as such”–without any qualification or distinction between essential and non-essential traits.[25] That view of personal identity would render even the most minor changes to a person’s character impossible, meaning that Ernie would be a different person before and after his friend’s accident.[26] In fact, such inessential changes are not only routine but also often inspired, influenced, or facilitated by accidental and unexpected external forces, i.e., by luck.

Worrisomely, the alternative strategy of abandoning the control condition so as to allow some role for luck in moral judgments is no more appealing in its general results. That approach would allow us to praise and blame a person based on what he actually does, causes, and is like–even when influenced by luck. So Adam should be blamed more severely than Bonnie because he caused more damage, while Bonnie should be blamed more severely than Clive and David because she acted wrongly while they merely intended and hoped (respectively) to do so. Far less plausibly, however, two equally vicious people with identical malicious plans executed in exactly the same way would be judged differently based on the unforeseeable intervention of random outside forces, like whether a bird flew into the path of the bullet intended to kill or whether the trauma surgeon attempted to return his neighbor’s garden hose at just the right moment. That seems manifestly unjust, since the differences between the lucky and the unlucky wrongdoer had nothing to do with anything about them. Their choices, actions, and characters are the same, yet they are blamed unequally.[27] As we shall see, that approach would frustrate the basic purpose of moral judgment.

Moreover, the most plausible substitutes for the control condition seem unable to adequately account for our ordinary judgments of responsibility. Presumably, a person’s moral responsibility must be limited to that which he causes; otherwise, car salesmen leading quiet lives in upstate New York might be blamed for a shortage of tea in remote villages in China.[28] That causal condition isn’t sufficient, however, as people also shouldn’t be held responsible for the myriad far-flung, improbable, and unforeseeable effects of their actions.[29] A person shouldn’t be blamed for telling the time to a stranger at the mall, for example, even if that knowledge helps the stranger kidnap a child. Such false claims of responsibility could be excluded by requiring the outcome to be foreseen or at least reasonably foreseeable.[30] Yet that wouldn’t preclude holding a person responsible for some event he foresees and causes but cannot act to prevent. So if clever terrorists kidnap Jack and securely rig him to a bomb set to explode after his heart beats a few hundred times, he causes and foresees the explosion, yet he is not properly blamed for it, most plausibly because he cannot control the beating of his heart. So notwithstanding the puzzling cases of moral luck, control does seem somehow necessary to moral responsibility, as Nagel claims.

For some philosophers, the failure of the attempt to eliminate luck from moral judgment shows that moral luck is inescapable.[31] Yet as we’ve seen, the attempt to incorporate luck into moral judgments by rejecting the control condition creates significant problems for a general theory of moral responsibility, just as does the attempt to exclude luck from moral judgments by strictly applying the control condition. Nagel attempts a third approach: the problem of moral luck is the product of an irreconcilable conflict between the subjective and the objective perspectives on persons.[32] He claims that we initially think of ourselves and others from a subjective (or first-person) perspective, i.e., as agents in control of and responsible for our own actions.[33] Yet as we investigate the external forces that influence a person’s choices, actions, and character, we are forced to assume the objective (or third-person) perspective according to which “actions are events and people things.”[34] Then we see the morally responsible agent as “merely… a bit of the world,” such that “the alternatives that he may think of as available to him are… just alternative courses that the world might have taken.”[35] So ultimately, Nagel claims, “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.”[36] Nonetheless, we cannot abandon our original understanding of ourselves and others as agents, not “even when we have seen that we are not responsible for our own existence, or our nature, or the choices we have to make.”[37] Consequently, control still seems necessary for moral responsibility, even though the strict application of the control condition in the proposed cases of moral luck ultimately undermines all our standard attributions of moral responsibility.[38] So for Nagel, the problem of moral luck is ultimately insoluble. Like other related problems of autonomy and responsibility, it has “no available solution.”[39]

This view of the origin of the problem of moral luck raises perhaps more troubling questions than the already-surveyed attempts to forbid or permit some role for luck in moral judgments. Nagel regards the subjective and objective perspectives on human agency as equally compelling and equally necessary–yet hopelessly contradictory.[40] In particular, the identification of ethical values requires the assumption of an objective perspective, yet that very perspective precludes regarding ourselves and others as morally responsible agents.[41] The implications of Nagel’s willing acceptance of such major philosophic contradictions as beyond our power to resolve are disturbing, to say the least. Presumably, we are unable to rationally determine truth about the nature of human agency and responsibility either because humans are systematically deceived about our place in the natural world or because reality itself is contradictory. Either way, rational philosophy would be in serious peril, if even possible. In fact, however, the source of the Nagel’s irresolvable conflict is probably more mundane: although Nagel repeatedly denies that his arguments presuppose any form of determinism, that is precisely what the objective perspective seems to demand.[42] However, neither Nagel’s understanding of moral luck as rooted in conflicting perspectives nor his seeming determinism is necessary to feel the force of his cases of moral luck; few (if any) other philosophers accept his account of the problem’s origins.


[15] This general approach is found in Richards 1993; Thomson 1993; and Rescher 1993. It’s often described as “the epistemic solution” because differential judgments are explained as the product of differences in others’ knowledge of the agent’s true character.

[16] The following set of examples is drawn from Greco 2006, pp. 18-20. Greco denies the moral equivalence of the cases by a distinction between “agent record” and “agent worth” (p. 23). As we shall see with Rescher, that strategy reduces all problems of moral luck to constitutive moral luck. Other versions of this step-wise reductio are found in Moore 1994, pp. 271-80 and Latus 2000, pp. 154-8.

[17] Kessler embraces that view in part, arguing that mildly reckless driving could be justly punished the same as manslaughter and extremely reckless driving the same as murder (1994, p. 2227).

[18] The idea that a person’s moral character and record substantially depends on luck in basic circumstances is commonplace, as expressed in the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

[19] Wolf 2001, pp. 7-9.

[20] Moore 1994, p. 255.

[21] See, for example, Rescher 1993; Thomson 1993; and Kessler 1994.

[22] This demand to only judge character is subject to serious epistemological objections because judgments of character are based on judgments of actions, if not also on judgments of outcomes.

[23] Rescher 1993, p. 155. Greco makes a similar claim (2006, p. 26).

[24] Rescher 1993, p. 155.

[25] Rescher 1993, p. 157.

[26] Further criticisms can be found in Latus 2003, pp. 470-2 and 2000, pp. 158-60.

[27] Moore, for example, unconvincingly appeals to people’s standard emotional responses to justify such differential judgments (1994, pp. 267-70).

[28] Even strict liability requires the liable party to be causally connected to the harm: if I fall off a ladder made by Bob’s Ladder Company, I can’t sue Joe’s Ladder Company. General discussions of the role of causation in legal liability are found in Morris, ed. 1961, pp. 282-342 and Honore 2005. Notable advocates of causation-based approaches to moral responsibility include Moore 1994, pp. 254-5 and Feinberg 1970, pp. 195, 207-11. Sartorio (2004) criticizes such approaches.

[29] Honore observes that “if every causally relevant condition… is treated as grounding responsibility for the outcomes to which it is causally relevant[,] the extent of legal responsibility will extend almost indefinitely” (2005, sec. 3.2). Feinberg argues that causation is necessary but not sufficient for moral responsibility (1970, p. 195). Ripstein claims that no principled line can be drawn between what an agent causes and what he’s responsible for (1994, p. 6).

[30] In the influential case on tort law, “Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company,” the dispute between the majority and dissenting opinions hinged on the foreseeability of the explosion and injury caused by the attempt of two train guards to help a passenger on the train. The passenger was carrying well-concealed fireworks that fell on the tracks and exploded, thereby injuring a bystander (Appeals Court of New York 1961). Zimmerman argues that negligence requires not just foreseeability, but actual foresight at some point in the past (1986, pp. 206-10).

[31] Latus 2000, p. 158.

[32] Nagel 1993, pp. 67-9. Nagel substantially elaborates on his views in View from Nowhere (1986, pp. 110-24).

[33] Nagel 1993, p. 68.

[34] Nagel 1993, p. 68.

[35] Nagel 1986, pp. 122-3.

[36] Nagel 1993, p. 68.

[37] Nagel 1993, p. 68.

[38] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

[39] Nagel 1986, p. 126.

[40] Nagel denies that the problem is that the control we do seem to exert is our lives is merely illusory (1986, p. 114).

[41] Nagel 1986, pp. 135, 122.

[42] Nagel 1986, pp. 110, 113-5, 120-3. On my incompatibilist view, human agency could not exist in a world determined by antecedent conditions.

Go to Works Cited or the Proposed Bibliography.

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