Prospectus: Part 9

 Posted by on 18 December 2007 at 7:18 am  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Dec 182007

This post contains Part 9 (“Constitutive 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.

Constitutive Luck

Constitutive luck is luck in “the kind of person you are, where this is not just a question of what you deliberately do, but of your inclinations, capacities, and temperament.”[119] Nagel’s particular concern is the propriety of moral praise and blame for moral dispositions and feelings given our lack of control over them.[120] He observes that “a person may be greedy, envious, cowardly, cold, ungenerous, unkind, vain, or conceited, but behave perfectly well by a monumental effort of will.” [121] Yet “to possess these vices is to be unable to help having certain feelings under certain circumstances, and to have strong spontaneous impulses to act badly.”[122] As a result, “even if one controls the impulse, one still have the vice.”[123] Although such feelings may be “may be the product of earlier choices” and at least partially “amenable to change by current actions,” Nagel insists that they are nonetheless “largely a matter of constitutive bad luck,” presumably because a person cannot simply will his dispositions and feelings to be otherwise. So in moral judgments of character, “people are morally condemned for [certain] qualities, and esteemed for others equally beyond the will: they are assessed for what they are like.”[124]

While Nagel focuses on a person’s present lack of control over the moral dispositions and feelings for which he is judged, the problem of constitutive moral luck also concerns three influences of luck in the formation of moral qualities over the course of a person’s life. First, children are born with the rudiments of a distinct personality likely to influence the development of moral qualities. So the person born with an anxious temperament might find the cultivation of the virtue of courage particularly difficult, whereas the habits of contingency planning would become second nature quickly. Yet a person has no control over that innate temperament. Second, a child’s overall upbringing and particular experiences would matter enormously to his moral development, even though he exerts little control over them. Whether parents encourage, ignore, or correct a child’s lies, for example, will likely impact his commitment to honesty as an adult. That child does not choose his parents and may not realize the effects of their parenting on him at the time or even later. Third, an adult’s moral character will be influenced by the lucky and unlucky events, people, and opportunities that present themselves in his life. A woman might reasonably wonder whether she’d be as level-headed if she’d not met her now-husband in the park while walking her dog, whether she’d be more friendly toward strangers if not mugged two years ago, whether she’d be bitter and resentful if she took that well-paying but brutal job last year. In all these cases, a person does not deliberately direct his moral development, yet he is morally judged for the resulting character.

The proper analysis of those proposed cases of constitutive moral luck depends on the general case for moral responsibility for character. The key point is that moral character is not under a person’s direct control but rather is the indirect product of his corresponding voluntary actions.[125] A person cannot simply will himself to have an honest and just character; he cultivates that character by consistently acting honestly and justly. Consequently, a person is properly praised or blamed for his character in accordance with the three conditions of responsibility for outcomes outlined in the earlier discussion of resultant moral luck. First, he must act well or badly voluntarily. Second, those voluntary actions must be the salient cause of the corresponding moral character. Third, the resulting qualities of character must be voluntary, not the product of any involuntary incapacity or ignorance. Those three conditions are easily satisfied in ordinary cases of character development, as least for teenagers and adults. First, when a person acts honestly or dishonestly, he acts voluntarily. Second, by such actions, he cultivates the corresponding honest or dishonest character. Third, he has the capacity to develop an honest or dishonest character: he’s not involuntarily incapable. He’s also not involuntarily ignorant, as he can know by simple introspection that he’s cultivating a certain characteristic mode of action, whether the virtue or the vice.

Unsurprisingly, this approach to moral responsibility for character is similar to that sketched by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. There, Aristotle argues that careless people “are themselves by their slack lives responsible for becoming men of that kind … for it is activities exercised on particular objects that make the corresponding character.”[126] As a result, “it is irrational to suppose that a man who acts unjustly does not wish to be unjust or a man who acts self-indulgently to be self-indulgent. But if without being ignorant a man does the things which will make him unjust, he will be unjust voluntarily.”[127]

In light of this view of moral responsibility for character, what should be said about the problematic cases of constitutive moral luck?

First, as concerns a person’s innate temperament, moral judgments of character must distinguish between natural and cultivated qualities. A person ought not be praised or blamed for natural qualities per se since those are given, not produced by voluntary action. In fact, since genuine virtue (or vice) requires the guidance of practical reason, natural qualities of temperament are not moral qualities at all.[128] Moral responsibility only pertains to a person’s cultivated qualities, i.e., those created by voluntary action under the guidance of practical reason. So Joan might be empathic by nature, but whether she becomes a kind person or not is up to her.[129] She is properly praised for her cultivated kindness but not for her natural empathy. That’s consistent with standard practice, as Aristotle observes in the case of vices associated with the care of the body. He writes, “while no one blames those who are ugly by nature, we blame those who are so owing to want of exercise and care. … Of vices of the body, then, those in our own power are blamed, those not in our power are not.”[130]

In response, the advocate of constitutive moral luck will argue that no bright line can distinguish innate temperament from moral character for the simple reason that a person’s moral character can only be cultivated from the given foundation of his innate temperament. Joan’s cultivated kindness is, after all, rooted in her natural empathy. Since a person does not control his innate temperament, he does not fully control his moral character. So to judge that character as virtuous or vicious is to subject him to constitutive moral luck.

However, that a person’s moral character might grow out of his innate temperament does not render that character beyond a person’s control or immune from moral judgment. As discussed in relation to circumstantial moral luck, a person is properly judged for what he voluntarily does or not in the context of the given circumstances of his life, particularly in light of his available alternatives. Since a person’s innate temperament would be one such given circumstance, he is properly judged for what he does control, namely what he voluntarily does or fails to do with that innate temperament. In practice, however, a person’s innate temperament would seem to matter little to his ultimate moral character. A person can become kind whether naturally empathetic or not because he can cultivate feelings of empathy while also cultivating his practical judgment of the rational requirements of genuine kindness. Moreover, the ordinary range of innate temperament would not seem to offer any significant advantages or disadvantages in the cultivation of moral virtues or vices: the particular moral struggles would merely differ from one individual to another. In contrast, a person with serious mental illness like depression or bi-polarity may struggle more than most to live well. The common practice of praising and admiring such people more for overcoming extraordinary obstacles (or partially excusing them for failing to do so) exemplifies the proper practice of judgment in the context of given circumstances, particularly of taking account of an unchosen moral disadvantage.

Second, a person’s moral responsibility for qualities of character rooted in childhood experience and instruction is based on the fact that a person gradually gains the requisite knowledge of and control over his character as he matures into an adult. A person cannot be morally praised or blamed for his dispositions cultivated in childhood per se. Even if the child is old enough to act voluntarily, the resulting character trait is not plausibly voluntary because children are not sufficiently adept at introspection to understand or monitor the ways in which their actions shape their character. For better or worse, children are subject to luck in their own character development.

However, that luck does not preclude moral responsibility by an adult for character traits rooted in childhood, as the advocate of constitutive moral luck claims. A person assumes responsibility for his childhood dispositions as he matures into an adult because then he becomes capable of shaping his own moral character. Except in cases of barbarically abusive upbringing that damage the capacity of the person to think and choose, an adult is not bound to his childhood. As he matures and forges his own life, he has ample time, opportunity, and capacity to reflect on and change his dispositions. The most basic action required to alter dispositions is simply to act in some new way, i.e., contrary to rather than consistent with his established dispositions. That’s always possible, so long as a person can act voluntarily.[131] So when an adult chooses to act in accordance with his childhood dispositions, he is not subject to constitutive moral luck. He is properly understood as endorsing those character traits, as well as further entrenching them, by his voluntary actions. Notably, the years-long process of shaping one’s own moral character is one reason why people in their teens and twenties usually are not blamed so severely for character flaws as their older counterparts.

Third, the accidental circumstances of a person’s life would seem to influence the development of that person’s character, not just because circumstances shape actions and actions shape character but also because a person might draw explicit moral lessons from the particular events, institutions, and people around him. Undoubtedly, a person’s character, personality, habits, and style are shaped to some degree by such accidental forces–although a person does also choose his own influences. Yet that does not undermine a person’s responsibility for his own character, as actions in circumstances are still voluntary, as seen in the analysis of circumstantial moral luck. Whatever the circumstances, the person who acts voluntary has the capacity to act other than he does. Moreover, a person has the capacity to undo the effect of any action on his character by deciding that his action was wrong and acting differently in the future.

Finally, Nagel’s particular worry that a person might be condemned for uncontrollable moral emotions like envy, even though the person acts rightly, is misplaced. To make this kind of constitutive moral luck plausible, Nagel implicitly draws on Aristotelian intuitions about the importance of proper feelings as motivators of moral action. Aristotle, unlike Kant and Mill, requires the fully virtuous person to feel emotions appropriate to the circumstances at hand.[132] Yet Nagel implicitly rejects the elements of Aristotle’s moral psychology necessary for moral responsibility for character by then suggesting that moral dispositions and emotions lie “beyond control of the will.”[133] If that were the case, then an Aristotelian approach would simply demand eliminating the practice of morally judging such states. Yet Nagel’s proposed candidates for constitutive moral luck–dispositions such as greediness, envy, cowardice, coldness, stinginess, unkindness, vanity, and conceit–are not plausibly regarded as beyond a person’s control.[134] A person is not suddenly or inexplicably stricken with such moral feelings, but must cultivate those emotional dispositions by repeated voluntary action. So Nagel’s basic error is that of grafting the Aristotelian responsibility for cultivated dispositions onto an incompatible psychology of mysterious emotions running amok in a person’s psyche.

In short, the influence of luck in the formation of character is not a genuine obstacle to moral responsibility for character because a person’s character is ultimately forged by his voluntary actions as an adult.


[119] Nagel 1993, p. 60.

[120] Nagel 1993, pp. 64-5.

[121] Nagel 1993, p. 64.

[122] Nagel 1993, p. 64.

[123] Nagel 1993, p. 64.

[124] Nagel 1993, p. 64.

[125] See Aristotle NE, 1103b6-25, 1105a30-5b1.

[126] Aristotle NE, 1114a4-7.

[127] Aristotle NE, 1114a10-13.

[128] Aristotle NE, 1144b13-1145a7.

[129] I’m doubtful that complex emotional responses like empathy could be innate, but I’ve not yet reviewed the psychological literature on the subject.

[130] Aristotle NE, 1114a22-9. Aristotle’s discussion of “natural excellence” versus “excellence in the strict sense” is also relevant (1144b1-17).

[131] Contrary to Hume, existing dispositions, no matter how well-entrenched, do not preclude acting out of character (Moody-Adams 1990, pp. 118-20). The honest person is capable of lying, for example, but chooses not to do so.

[132] Aristotle NE, 1106b16-24.

[133] Nagel 1993, p. 65.

[134] Nagel 1993, pp. 64-5.

Go to Works Cited or the Proposed Bibliography.

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