7 December 2006
On the view of moral responsibility most widely accepted today, a person cannot be justly praised or blamed for his actions unless he exerts some measure of control over them. So if a man releases a critical pulley rope on a construction job due to a sudden heart attack, leaves the scene of an auto accident because he’s spirited away by kidnappers, or breaks a vase when knocked over by a strong gust of wind, his lack of control over his bodily movements absolves him of any moral blame. In such cases, the person is not the cause of his actions: they are neither generated nor controlled by him. As such, his actions fail to meet the basic “control condition” for morally responsible action. To hold a person morally responsible for such actions would be unjust in much the same way as praising or blaming one man for the deeds of another.
This standard view of moral responsibility has been challenged in recent years by the problem of “moral luck.” As first introduced by Bernard Williams and then further developed by Thomas Nagel, the proposed category of moral luck attempts to highlight a range of cases in which “a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond [the person’s] control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment.”1 For example, the “morally significant difference between reckless driving and manslaughter” may depend solely on “the presence of the pedestrian [or not] at the point where [the driver] recklessly passes a red light” rather than on any action by the driver.2 In such cases, the person’s action seems substantially determined by outside forces, yet we hold him morally responsible. In so doing, we seem to violate the control condition for moral responsibility. Since such outside forces intrude upon almost every human action, Nagel claims that the consistent application that control condition “threatens to erode most of the moral assessments we find it natural to make” such that “ultimately, nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.”3 The very concept of moral luck thus presents us with a serious philosophic puzzle about moral responsibility.
In this paper, I will argue that the problem of moral luck, although initially compelling, is largely a philosophic illusion generated by Nagel’s coarse and superficial characterization of the conditions of moral responsibility. Nagel constructs the paradox of moral luck from our standard view of moral responsibility without examining its philosophic source, namely Aristotle’s complex and detailed theory developed in Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics. Careful examination of and extrapolation from that theory shows it capable of accounting for our ordinary ascriptions of praise and blame in the supposed cases of moral luck. This paper will develop that argument with respect to Nagel’s general case for moral luck, then consider the case of constitutive luck in detail.