Prospectus: Part 4

 Posted by on 13 December 2007 at 7:00 am  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Dec 132007

This post contains Part 4 (“The Necessity of a Fresh Start”) 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 Necessity of a Fresh Start

In light of the failed attempts to solve the problem of moral luck surveyed so far, the most promising course would seem to be a direct investigation into the nature and demands of moral responsibility, particularly a re-examination of the “intuitively plausible” control condition used by Nagel. Nagel denies the viability of such an investigation, claiming that when we consider the various cases of moral luck, we do not suspect that the control condition might be false.[43] We do not persist in our original judgment that the person is fully responsible in spite of our new appreciation for his lack of control. Rather, we realize that the person’s lack of control means that he isn’t as responsible as we once thought.[44] So by Nagel’s account, the problem of moral luck “emerges not as the absurd consequence of an over-simple theory, but as a natural consequence of the ordinary idea of moral assessment, when it is applied in view of a more complete and precise account of the facts.”[45] As a result, philosophers cannot hope to solve the problem of moral luck by investigating the nature and limits of moral responsibility, such as by identifying “a more refined condition which pick[s] out the kinds of lack of control that really undermine certain moral judgments.”[46] For Nagel, that would be a fruitless quest: our responses to the various cases of moral luck confirm our agreement with the intuitive control condition at work.

Happily, Nagel is wrong to deny that a solution to the problem of moral luck might emerge from the philosophic investigation of the conditions of moral responsibility. If his version of the control condition were flawed in some subtle way, that flaw would not necessarily be revealed merely by its application to a few specific cases. Moreover, something does seem amiss in softening the condemnation of a drunk driver who kills a pedestrian because the presence of the pedestrian was bad luck for him, as Nagel’s analysis demands. Our original judgments of severe blame reassert themselves when we consider that the drunk driver could have avoided risking the life of that pedestrian entirely by not drinking so much or not driving once drunk. Consequently, the possibility of some theoretical fault in Nagel’s conditions of moral responsibility cannot be summarily dismissed, as he would like. Rather, the accuracy thereof can only be confirmed or denied by a detailed inquiry into the nature and demands of moral responsibility.[47] In fact, we have good reason to worry that Nagel’s understanding of the control required for moral responsibility is too demanding, in the sense that such control is neither possible to human agents nor necessary for moral responsibility.

Nagel begins his essay on moral luck by considering Kant’s ideal of moral agency: that which is morally judged must be wholly within the agent’s power, free from any external forces that might distort or mask the agent’s pure act of will.[48] While Nagel does not explicitly endorse that ideal of “noumenal agency,” his standards for moral responsibility clearly show its strong influence. The “intuitively plausible” control required for moral responsibility is not simply the power to do or not do found in Aristotle, such that a person morally judged for choosing amongst the better and worse alternatives available to him. Rather, the control required by Nagel is all-encompassing: it must shield the object of moral judgment from all outside influences. That is why the negligent mother who puts her baby in the bath then leaves the room with the water running is morally unlucky if he drowns: even though she had the power to safeguard her child by staying in the room, she lacks control over the flow of water once she leaves the room.[49] Similarly, the Nazi officer is morally unlucky for living during the Third Reich, despite his deliberate choice to support rather than oppose that regime, because he did not control the political events that made his choice possible.[50] The control absent in such cases is basically that of Kant’s ideal noumenal agent. Similarly, in View from Nowhere, Nagel speaks of genuine autonomy as requiring us “to act from a standpoint completely outside ourselves, choosing everything about ourselves, including all our principles of choice–creating ourselves from nothing, so to speak.”[51] While Nagel recognizes that ideal of autonomy as “self-contradictory” because “to do anything we must already be somebody,” he claims that we cannot escape wishing for it.[52]

In addition, Nagel understands luck simply as that which lies beyond the control of the agent–so even highly probable events (e.g., one’s spouse buying milk as promised) and wholly causally determined events (e.g., the rising of the sun in the morning) are classified as matters of luck capable of diminishing (if not eliminating) moral responsibility.[53] Once again, that shows that Nagel requires a person to exert an all-encompassing control, free of outside influences, in order to be fully moral responsible–even for that which he deliberately chooses. As Margaret Walker observes, “the view against which moral luck offends is that of pure agency: agency neither diluted by nor implicated in the vagaries of causality at all, or at least not by causality external to the agent’s will.”[54]

With his control condition seen in this Kantian light, Nagel’s case for moral luck can be understood as an indirect but extended argument that humans cannot satisfy the ideal of noumenal agency.[55] We cannot satisfy that ideal because what we cause, what we choose, and even who we are depends too thoroughly on the vast range of uncontrollable causal forces in the external world. Upon reflection, we seem to be mere phenomenal objects buffeted about in a phenomenal world–yet we cannot rid ourselves of the contrary idea that we are noumenal agents, free and responsible.

The fact that Nagel’s control condition depends on an ideal of noumenal agency raises serious questions about its suitability as a standard for moral responsibility, as well as about its consistency with standard intuitions.[56] The former will be discussed in due course. As for the latter, ordinary discourse does not use the term “control” as Nagel does. For example, if I claim control over quenching my thirst, that would be understood as asserting the power to drink some nearby water or not–even though water flows through my tap thanks to the workers who maintain the pumps, sufficient annual rainfall, and so on.[57] To lack control would be understood as some kind of here-and-now physical incapacity to quench my thirst–such as paralysis due to a blow to the head or a burst pipe upstream and no other beverages in the house.[58] Similarly, toward the end of the NFL season, a team is said to “control its own destiny” if winning its own games is sufficient to secure a spot in the playoffs, regardless of the outcomes of games played by other teams. Yet obviously whether a team wins or loses its own games will depend on the performance of the opposing team. So Michael Moore is correct in his blunt observation that “Nagel’s stringent idea of control–where to control a result is to control all factors necessary to that result, even the normally occurring factors–finds no resonance in the ordinary notion of control, nor in the ordinary notion of moral assessment.”[59]

In light of these doubts about the very foundations of the problem of moral luck, a fresh examination of the nature of moral judgment, of human agency, and of moral responsibility is in order.


[43] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

[44] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

[45] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

[46] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

[47] Nagel’s denial of the utility of theoretical inquiry stems (at least in part) from his treatment of the control condition as a mysterious, unjustified intuition (1993, p. 58). In View from Nowhere, he plainly states that “we hold ourselves and others morally responsible for at least some actions,” even though “we cannot give an account of what would have to be true to justify such judgments” (1986, p. 120).

[48] Nagel 1993, p. 57.

[49] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

[50] Nagel 1993, p. 65.

[51] Nagel 1986, p. 118.

[52] Nagel 1986, p. 118.

[53] Nagel 1993, p. 59. This criticism has been developed in Latus 2003, pp. 465-6 and 2000, p. 167, note 5. Whether the causally-determined events would diminish or eliminate moral responsibility would depend on the nature and extent of their influence over the person’s actions.

[54] Walker 1993, p. 244.

[55] Nagel’s extensive discussion in View from Nowhere supports this interpretation (1986, pp. 110-24).

[56] My concerns about Nagel’s overly strict understanding of control are not unique. For example, see Browne 1992, p. 348; Zimmerman 1993, pp. 219-22; and Moore 1994, p. 257.

[57] This example is from Zimmerman 1993, p. 221.

[58] From the preliminary research I’ve done, I’m doubtful of claims of purely psychological incapacity. For example, while long-time abusers of alcohol are often said to lack control over their drinking, psychological studies show that they can and do control their own drinking, when provided with incentives to do so (Fingarette 1989).

[59] Moore 1994, p. 257.

Go to Works Cited or the Proposed Bibliography.

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