Moral Luck

We saw that compatibilists like to connect the notion of freedom with the notion of moral responsibility. Thomas Nagel has raised a challenge to the claim that we have significant moral responsibility which goes beyond the challenge of determinism.


If our actions are causally determined, then whether we do the right or wrong thing depends on our characters. Our characters are constructed in very complicated way by our genes and our upbringing. Since we didn't have control over either, we shouldn't be held responsible for the choices that we make.


So far, this is the hard determinist claim we've seen libertarians and compatibilists try to resist. Nagel's challenge to moral responsibility goes further. He points to three other kinds of moral luck. It seems that whether we act morally or immorally is almost, if not entirely, a matter of luck. If Nagel is correct, our notion of moral responsibility is deeply conflicted.


One kind of luck is luck in how things turn out. Texting while driving is widely thought to be an immoral thing to do. Controlling a fast, heavy machine near other people is usually thought to require one's full visual attention. Yet many of us end up texting on occasion, or are distracted in other ways. While texting, some of us are unfortunate enough to cause serious accidents. These people are punished heavily. They end up in jail, and we often view them with considerable moral disapproval.


However, we do not generally have this attitude towards people who text or are otherwise distracted, but who are lucky enough not to cause serious accidents. (Indeed, most of us who drive fall into this category!) We may be annoyed by them, we may think they deserve a ticket, we may get very mad at them--but we do not think of them the same way as we do someone who caused a fatal accident.


Yet the only difference between the two kinds of people is luck. If you aren't paying attention while driving, whether your inattention leads to a serious accident is entirely beyond your control. All that matters is whether a child happens to run into the road at the wrong time, or whether there was a car in the next lane.


Okay,  you're lucky. Still bad.


Another kind of luck is the luck in the general circumstances that we face. Someone may be cowardly, but happen never to be in a situation in which deep courage is required. For example, we know that there have been many oppressive societies in which the average citizen not targeted by oppression did nothing to resist the horrible things being done. We judge these people harshly for going along with atrocities. However, we have statistical reason to think that most of us would go along, too, were we in an analogous situation. The only difference between us and them is the circumstances faced, over which we have no control. 


It's so lucky we can be complacent without severe moral consequences.


The final kind of moral luck is in the immediate circumstances of our actions. I may be triggered into irrational anger by a certain kind of behavior which is in itself harmless. Whether I react with inappropriate anger depends on whether I run into that behavior. But of course, whether I run into it is generally beyond my control.


Nagel holds that these three kinds of moral luck, whether or not they are combined with the idea that our actions are causally determined, are pervasive enough to challenge our everyday notion of moral responsibility. We seem to consistently hold people for things they can't control, and at the same time think you shouldn't be held responsible for things you can't control. The hard determinist account of responsibility as serving merely a pragmatic role to enforce social norms might look pretty good at this point. 


Copyright 2019 by Sam Ruhmkorff

Hubble Deep Field
Back to: Philosophy is Awesome