Prospectus: Part 8

 Posted by on 17 December 2007 at 12:10 am  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Dec 172007

This post contains Part 8 (“Circumstantial 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.

Circumstantial Luck

The central problem of circumstantial moral luck is that a person’s moral record can be powerfully affected by the unchosen circumstances of his life.[107] A person’s actions are “limited by the opportunities and choices with which [he is] faced”–yet “we judge people for what they actually do or fail to do, not just for what they would have done if the circumstances had been different.”[108] If that is right, then all moral judgments of a person’s actions (and the outcomes thereof) are tainted by luck.

The core cases of circumstantial moral luck concern the way that luck affects a person’s opportunities to display his moral character in action. So if John were ever carjacked with his young son in the back seat of his car, he might bravely confront his attacker or run away screaming. Yet as Nagel observes, “if the situation never arises, [John] will never have the chance to distinguish or disgrace himself in this way, and his moral record will be different.”[109] Similarly, Jane might save a drowning baby from a shallow pond if she weren’t stuck in traffic on the far side of town; instead, the moral credit goes to Larry, who just happened to be at the right place at the right time.[110] More ominously, Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience to authority suggest that a majority of Americans would be as complicit with the evil schemes of a totalitarian government as were Germans in the Third Reich–meaning that they are protected from moral condemnation for the vicious acts they would commit only by the lucky accident of living in a more just political order.[111]

Notably, the concern is not that circumstances will shape a person’s character for better or worse, as when a man learns courage as a soldier in war: that is best understood as a kind of constitutive luck. Rather, the concern is that two people may choose two different courses of action, one morally better and one morally worse, not due to any difference in moral character but rather due to differences in the alternatives available to them in their particular circumstances. For example, an accountant might refrain from embezzlement solely due to his company’s strict monitoring policies whereas his moral doppelganger working at a more lax company might steal millions. Only the latter is guilty of theft, yet that is the result of company policies well beyond his control, not to any moral virtues. This worry about the impact of luck on a person’s moral record is substantially heightened if John Doris and other skeptics about global character traits are right that people’s conduct is far more influenced by circumstances than by any supposed qualities of character.[112]

Joel Feinberg develops the problem of circumstantial moral luck a step further with his cases of interrupted intent.[113] In these cases, some outside force interrupts a person’s wrongful intent before it is translated into action. So Joe might fully intend to kill his wife Sally in a fit of rage when a telephone call from his boss wipes that intention from his mind. Or Barry might fully intend to commit adultery with his co-worker Claudia, but he’s prevented at the last possible moment by the sudden and unwelcome blare of the fire alarm in the motel. In those cases, the mere luck of intervening circumstances prevented Joe from murdering his wife and Barry from committing adultery.

In cases of circumstantial moral luck, the control and epistemic conditions confirm the standard intuition that that the actions in question are voluntary despite differences in circumstances. Voluntary action does not require control over all the factors influencing the action. Rather, so long as a person can choose to do or not do some action based on adequate knowledge of its nature, the action is voluntary. The fact that a person doesn’t fully control the circumstances in which he acts and may face substantially different circumstances than others does not alter the basic nature of the action: the person knew what he was doing and could have done otherwise. So within any given circumstances, such actions are voluntary–and properly subject to moral judgment.

However, a person rarely finds himself thrust into morally significant circumstances substantially beyond his control. Rather, a person’s present circumstances are often the voluntary product of his past choices. For example, the teenager who chooses hoodlums as friends voluntarily risks involvement in their criminal activities; the person who drops out of school voluntarily risks limiting himself to dead-end, low-income jobs; and the woman who ignores the need to save for retirement risks the deprivations of poverty in her old age. So if those circumstances arise, the person is properly held responsible not only for his voluntary actions in those circumstances but also for creating those circumstances for himself. A person need not desire the circumstances he creates for himself: a man who pursues and accepts a lucrative job across town voluntarily lengthens his commute, whether he enjoys that extra time in his car or not.[114]

The fact that a person’s actions may be voluntary whether his circumstances are thrust on him or of his own creation does not solve all the puzzles of circumstantial moral luck. Important questions linger about the justice of our ordinary moral judgments, particularly given that some people face difficult moral dilemmas and tests unknown to others. Yet such concerns are ultimately misplaced, not only because proper moral judgments must account for the circumstances of the action but also because moral tests and dilemmas reveal far less about a person’s moral character than his actions under ordinary circumstances.

First and most importantly, Nagel’s talk of a person’s “moral record” suggests that a person is morally judged simply for what he’s done, e.g., for lying to the police, betraying a friend’s secret, grading papers fairly, etc. Yet in fact, actions in isolation do not morally speak for themselves. A person’s actions can only be fairly judged as better or worse in light of the surrounding circumstances.[115] As concerns moral responsibility, the basic reason is simple: since a person is not responsible for any involuntary incapacity or ignorance, moral judgments must consider the circumstances of the action, particularly the alternatives and information available to the person at the time.[116] So in the movie Sophie’s Choice, Sophie’s moral record is not stained by the fact that she gave away her daughter to the Nazi officer since her only alternatives were equally bad (giving him her son) and worse (allowing him to take both children). Similarly, a doctor cannot be faulted for failing to offer his ailing patients potentially live-saving drugs in off-label uses if those findings haven’t been published yet. In essence, moral judgments must be limited to a person’s voluntary actions, yet those actions can only be understood and fairly judged when considered in the context of the surrounding circumstances.

Second, while Nagel’s cases of circumstantial moral luck focus on a person’s choices in terribly difficult circumstances, such choices may not be a good basis for our general moral judgments of a person. In the ordinary course of his life, a person has ample opportunity to display his moral character, whether for better or worse. A woman will remain faithful to her husband or not, a mother will smack her misbehaving children or not, a CEO will cook the books or not, a man will spend money within his budget or not. In general, such routine actions seem far more revealing of a person’s true character than the painful choices required in moral dilemmas (e.g. between informing on your neighbor and dying of starvation in North Korea) or the quick decisions required in moral tests (e.g. between jumping into the dangerously cold water to rescue the child or running for help). In fact, although a person surely ought to act well when faced with difficult moral choices, he is far better off avoiding such dire situations by foresight and planning when possible. A person might display his character in moral dilemmas and tests but only at the terrible price of risking if not losing much of value to him.[117] In some cases, the circumstances might be so dire as to exert “pressure which overstrains human nature,” such that the action warrants pity rather than blame.[118] Those are situations to be avoided, if one’s goal is to flourish.

In short, proper moral judgments of an action should treat the particular circumstances of that action as a variable to be controlled. That’s done in particular cases by consideration of the actual circumstances of the action, as well in general by largely basing moral judgments on actions taken in the ordinary circumstances of human life. If done well, that eliminates the effect of luck in circumstances from moral judgments.


[107] Nagel 1993, pp. 65-6.

[108] Nagel 1993, pp. 58, 66.

[109] Nagel 1993, p. 65.

[110] Richards 1993, p. 173.

[111] Milgram 1973.

[112] Doris 2002. Doris’ thesis is largely based on recent work in empirical psychology. Annnas (2005) persuasively argues that Doris’ skepticism about character is based on critical misunderstandings of the nature and demands of moral character in the Aristotelian tradition.

[113] Feinberg 1970, p. 34.

[114] The doctrine of double effect might be relevant to my claims here.

[115] Nagel seems to recognize that elsewhere (1986, pp. 120-1).

[116] Circumstances matter in other significant ways to moral judgments. A husband who conceals painful news from his wife on her deathbed should be judged better than the husband who does so as a matter of course–but not due to any involuntary incapacity or ignorance. The reason seems to be that circumstances affect what constitutes the proper means to our ends.

[117] In contrast, a deontological ethics like Kant’s might regard moral dilemmas as the only way to reliably determine whether a person is acting from duty or merely in accordance with duty (Kant 1990, pp. 407-8).

[118] Aristotle NE, 1110a25.

Go to Works Cited or the Proposed Bibliography.

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