Better Good Than Lucky

Nagel’s General Case for Moral Luck

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Nagel’s General Case for Moral Luck

In developing his general case for pervasive moral luck, Nagel does not delve deeply into “the ordinary conditions of moral judgment,” nor examine their Aristotelian origins.4 Instead, he quickly sketches the control condition for moral responsibility, presumably expecting his readers to find it familiar. Regarding moral judgments of persons, he writes:

Prior to reflection, it is intuitively plausible that people cannot be morally assessed for what is not their fault, or for what is due to factors outside their control… Without being able to explain exactly why, we feel that the appropriateness of moral assessment is easily undermined by the discovery that the act or attribute, no matter how good or bad, is not under the person’s control… So a clear absence of control, produced by involuntary movement, physical force, or ignorance of the circumstances, excuses what is done from moral judgment.5

In short, a person must control his actions to be morally responsible for them. Nagel says little else about the conditions of morally responsible action. He never differentiates between various kinds of control, nor identifies those relevant to moral responsibility. Yet his general case for moral luck reveals an implausibly strict interpretation of the control condition.

According to Nagel, the basic paradox of moral luck is that “what we do depends in many more ways than [commonly thought] on what is not under our control,” yet the “external influences in this broader range are not usually thought to excuse what is done from moral judgment, positive or negative.”6 So our ordinary moral judgments routinely violate the control condition: people are morally judged for actions not fully under their control. Such cases of moral luck fall into three broad categories: resultant luck, circumstantial luck, and constitutive luck.7 In resultant luck, external forces influence moral judgments by shaping the outcomes of action.8 So a hit man might be incarcerated for attempted murder rather than executed for murder solely because his gun happened to jam in the course of his crime. In circumstantial luck, external forces influence moral judgments by shaping the circumstances faced by the agent.9 So a brilliant army general might languish in obscurity without a war in which to demonstrate his daring and innovative military tactics. And in constitutive luck, external forces influence moral judgments by shaping the dispositions of the agent.10 So an abusive mother might have been merely strict toward her misbehaving children if her natural temper were slightly cooler. According to Nagel’s analysis, some accidental force influences the person’s actions—and our moral judgments thereof—in all these cases. We judge unfairly since “what has been done, and what is morally judged, is partly determined by external factors.”11

Nagel properly recognizes that the forces outside the control of the agent said to generate moral luck are major influences on human life. The course of a person’s life is substantially shaped by factors wholly or partially outside his control. A person has no choice about the particular family, culture, nation, or era into which he is born. He does not choose his natural temperament, nor consciously direct its development as a child. His actions often have unintended and unforeseen consequences, particularly when involving other people. Nagel’s contribution to such truisms is that such forces often profoundly influence the very thoughts, values, choices, and actions for which a person is morally judged. As such, he claims, they undermine moral responsibility. In writing that “ultimately, nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control,” Nagel clearly understands those causal influences to pose significant and pervasive barriers to a person’s moral responsibility for his life.12

Nagel’s general case for pervasive moral luck sheds light on his understanding of the kind of control required for moral responsibility. By Nagel’s standards, a person does not adequately control his actions by choosing amongst the better and worse alternatives available to him, such that he is praised for choosing the better and blamed for choosing the worse. That would not yield the truly level playing field required for fair moral judgments. Instead, Nagel’s morally responsible agent would have to be immune from all possible influences on his actions. To avoid moral luck, he would have to directly choose the outcomes of his actions, the circumstances he faces, and his psychological dispositions—and do so from the “view from nowhere” elsewhere advocated Nagel.13 To be so detached from the world, a person would have to possess the omnipotence (and perhaps even omniscience) of a god. On that reading of the control condition, it’s hardly surprising that humans are rarely if ever responsible for their actions.

Nagel’s initial sketch of the standard requirements of moral responsibility does not seem unduly strict, let alone impossible for humans to satisfy. In retrospect, that’s because it is vague enough to be compatible with a wide range of readings of “control.” Yet as we’ve just seen, Nagel’s general case for pervasive moral luck depends upon an ultra-strict understanding, one that requires the power to determine every aspect of one’s moral choices. That strict view of control is not articulated by Nagel nor consistent with his appeals to the standard view of moral responsibility. After all, the problem of moral luck is supposed to arise out of the consistent application of the ordinary conditions of moral responsibility, not any revisions thereto. Nagel writes,

The erosion of moral judgment [in cases 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 moral complete and precise account of the facts. It would therefore be a mistake to argue from the unacceptability of the conclusions to the need for a different account of the conditions of moral responsibility.14

Since his proposed cases of moral luck supposedly persuade us that “the absence of control is relevant” to our moral judgments, Nagel claims that we ought not waste our time searching for “a more refined condition which picked out the kinds of lack of control that really undermine certain moral judgments.”15 Yet in fact, Nagel’s implicit view of control does substantially deviate from the standard view thereof, so it’s plausible that his cases of moral luck depend upon an improper understanding or application of the conditions of moral responsibility. Contra Nagel, that possibility cannot be ruled out without a detailed inquiry into the conditions of moral responsibility and its application to the apparent cases of moral luck.

As we’ve seen, Nagel only discusses the conditions of moral responsibility in very brief, causal, and vague terms. That enables him to covertly rely upon an understanding of control that most people would reject. He even suggests—with phrases like “prior to reflection” and “without being able to explain exactly why”—that the standard requirements of moral responsibility are philosophically ungrounded and uncritically accepted.16 If that were true, then he could not say more about them than he does. In fact, the standard view articulated by Nagel clearly traces back to Aristotle’s careful and complex discussion of voluntary action in the Nicomachean Ethics.17 Nagel clearly draws upon Aristotle’s theory, albeit only in bare, sketchy, and distorted outlines. He thus risks using a philosophically inadequate, oversimplified, and/or inaccurate theory of moral responsibility to generate his problem of moral luck. Our examination of Aristotle’s basic theory of moral responsibility will show that to be the case.

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