Better Good Than Lucky

Responsibility for Moral Character

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Responsibility for Moral Character

Nagel describes constitutive luck as 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.”45 Unfortunately, his brief discussion of this form of luck is rather murky, in that the exact source of luck, i.e. the object of moral appraisal not under the control of the agent, is never clearly identified. Although Nagel begins by referencing Kant’s insistence upon “the moral irrelevance of qualities of temperament and personality that are not under the control of the will,” his ultimate worry seems to be the rationality of moral praise and blame for states of character and attendant feelings given that they “influence choice but are certainly not exhausted by dispositions to act deliberately in certain ways.”46 More concretely, Nagel writes that “a person may be greedy, envious, cowardly, cold, ungenerous, unkind, vain, or conceited, but behave perfectly well by a monumental effort of will.” 47 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.”48 As a result, “even if one controls the impulse, one still have the vice.”49 So 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” in that “people are morally condemned for such qualities, and esteemed for others equally beyond the will: they are assessed for what they are like.”50

Significantly, to make this category of constitutive moral luck plausible, Nagel implicitly draws upon Aristotelian intuitions about the importance of proper feelings as motivators of moral action. Aristotle, unlike Kant or Mill, requires the fully virtuous person to feel emotions appropriate to the circumstances at hand.51 So the worry that a person might be (in some sense) vicious due to persistent wrong feelings, despite outwardly performing the morally correct action, is an Aristotelian concern. The potential intransigence of such wrong moral feelings, whether in the short-term or long-term, then gives rise to the problem of moral luck. Despite these strongly Aristotelian roots, Nagel runs roughshod over the very elements of Aristotle’s moral psychology necessary for understanding a person’s responsibility for his moral dispositions and feelings. Aristotle’s ethics grounds its judgments of praise and blame for moral character on the fact that the cultivation of virtues and vices requires the repeated and deliberate performance of the corresponding action over time. Nagel ignores that necessary foundation, instead grafting the Aristotelian responsibility for cultivated dispositions onto an incompatible psychology of mysterious emotions running amok in a person’s psyche. Let us see how.

Aristotle considers the issue of moral responsibility for states of character toward the end of his discussion of moral responsibility in Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics in the course of answering an objection to his view of culpable ignorance. As an application of his general view that punishment of a man for ignorance is justified when “he is thought responsible for the ignorance,” Aristotle approves of punishment of “those who are ignorant of anything in the laws that they ought to know and that is not difficult, and so too in the case of anything else that they are thought to be ignorant of through carelessness.”52 For Aristotle, the ignorance of careless people is culpable because it is voluntary: they possess “the power not to be ignorant since they have the power of taking care.”53 Next Aristotle considers a likely objection to his position, namely that a person’s careless character might exempt him from blame for his individual careless acts. In other words, what if a person is by his very nature “the kind of man not to take care”?54 Aristotle defends the moral assessment of character in the course of forcefully rejecting that view. He writes:

…[Such careless people] are themselves by their slack lives responsible for becoming men of that kind, and men make themselves responsible for being unjust or self-indulgent, in that they cheat or spend their time in drinking bouts and the like; for it is activities exercised on particular objects that make the corresponding character. This is plain from the case of people training for any contest or action; they practice the activity the whole time. Now not to know that it is from the exercise of activities on particular objects that states of character are produced is the mark of a thoroughly senseless person. Again, 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.55

So the careless man is culpable because his careless disposition was the obvious natural outcome of his long history of voluntary careless actions.

This general claim becomes far more clear—and more plausible—when considered in light of the kinds of individual careless acts required to cultivate and entrench a careless character. For Aristotle, the cultivation of any vice requires glaringly wrong actions, not minor deviations from the proper mean of virtue.56 Minor deviations are not even blameworthy: “the man… who deviates little from goodness is not blamed, whether he do so in the direction of the more or the less, but only the man who deviates more widely.”57 So a man must routinely perform plainly careless actions to become a careless person. For example, he might assure himself that he’ll somehow remember to change the batteries in the smoke detector to avoid the bother of walking across the room to write himself a note. He might invest in stocks solely based upon snippets of conversation overheard at work, then later blame his co-workers for his devastating losses. He might assemble a new table saw without reading the instructions, then shrug his shoulders at all the leftover parts. He might tell himself that the death of his son was God’s will, even though he ignored the blatant early warning signs of the then-treatable illness. Clearly, the need for care in such cases is not some subtle point available only to those with finely-tuned powers of discernment: the risk to life and limb would be glaringly obvious to any competent adult. Moreover, a person could act carefully in such circumstances without any heroic effort, special skills, or detailed knowledge. He would just need to focus upon the obvious stakes involved (e.g. surviving rather than perishing in a house fire), then choose the obvious action necessary to minimize the risk of disaster (e.g. writing a reminder note). The now-careless person was unwilling to take such simple measures. Instead, he probably focused upon the here-and-now trouble required to take proper care, indulged feelings of resentment towards anyone who asked him to take proper precautions, and falsely reassured himself that all would work out well enough in the end. Even the occasional disasters resulting from his careless actions did not dissuade him from his path: he probably blamed them on bad luck or other people. Such are the kinds of voluntary actions required to become a careless person. As Aristotle observes, if a man prefers to do all that rather than take proper care, then we must regard his resulting careless disposition as voluntary. The disposition is merely the psychological entrenchment of a consistent pattern of voluntary action.

Notably, Aristotle explicitly limits moral responsibility for dispositions and emotions in accordance with his control condition for voluntary action. He differentiates between the aspects of a person’s psychology under his control from those not—and insists that only the former are rightly subject to moral praise and blame. This distinction between natural and cultivated qualities is most clearly articulated in a discussion of the virtues and vices associated with the body. Aristotle writes,

But not only are the vices of the soul voluntary, but those of the body also for some men, whom we accordingly blame; while no one blames those who are ugly by nature, we blame those who are so owing to want of exercise and care. So it is, too, with respect to weakness and infirmity; no one would reproach a man blind from birth or by disease or from a blow, but rather pity him, while every one would blame a man who was blind from alcoholism or some other form of self-indulgence. Of vices of the body, then, those in our own power are blamed, those not in our power are not.58

Thus Aristotle clearly rejects the notion that a person should be praised or blamed for inborn qualities (e.g. blindness from birth) or inflicted qualities (e.g. blindness from a blow) on the grounds that those qualities were not created by a person’s own voluntary actions, as in the case of blindness from alcohol. This general position is consistent with the two aspects of Aristotle’s control condition. Although the source of such natural qualities lies in the agent (as required by the first aspect), he lacks power over them (as required by the second aspect). So innate and inflicted qualities are involuntary—and immune from moral appraisal.

So in Aristotle’s ethics, a person is morally responsible for his moral dispositions and feelings precisely because they are cultivated by his repeated voluntary action over time. As he writes early in the Nicomachean Ethics, “none of the moral excellences arises in us by nature” because “nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature.”59 Rather, “we are adapted by nature to receive [the excellences], and are made perfect by habit.”60 A person is responsible for who he is because he made himself that way.

So how does Nagel’s proposed category of constitutive moral luck fare against Aristotle’s complex theory of moral responsibility for cultivated dispositions and feelings? In short, not well. If Nagel could show that certain psychological states presently subject to moral praise and blame actually lie “beyond control of the will,” then Aristotle’s theory would simply counsel ending the unjust practice of morally assessing those states. However, 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.61 As already seen in the case of carelessness, a person develops such qualities of character only by routinely performing the corresponding actions. A person is a not suddenly or inexplicably stricken with feelings of envy or coldness, but must cultivate such dispositions by repeated voluntary action. As such, he is justly held responsible for them.

Oddly, Nagel seems to concede that moral feelings and dispositions are within a person’s power in writing that they “may be the product of earlier choices” and “to some extent… amenable to change by current actions.”62 Yet in the very next sentence, he claims that such qualities are “largely a matter of constitutive bad fortune”—without offering any argument for this claim.63 He provides no reason to reject the Aristotelian view that a person is morally responsible for the predictable effects of his choices upon his own psyche. Moreover, Nagel has the burden of producing plausible examples of moral qualities beyond a person’s control, for he needs such examples in order to render his case for constitutive moral luck even minimally worthy of consideration. Yet he offers no such examples, merely a list of vices for which many people would prefer to regard themselves as not responsible.64 As such, the category of constitutive moral luck seems to be an empty set.

In addition, Nagel’s description of the moral judgment in cases of constitutive moral luck is unduly harsh, particularly by Aristotelian standards. Nagel claims that a person can be judged vicious based solely upon his inner thoughts and feelings, whatever his outward actions. So the person who “hates the greater success of others… can be morally condemned as envious even if he congratulates them cordially and does nothing to denigrate or spoil their success.”65 Undoubtedly, the concern for moral feelings underlying such a judgment is rooted in the Aristotle’s distinctive ideal of feeling emotions like anger “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way.”66 Yet Aristotle would never condemn Nagel’s envious-feeling person as vicious. Aristotle’s moral taxonomy classifies such a person as continent, a state far closer to virtue than vice. The person suffers from wrong moral feelings, but he does not endorse them by choice (as a vicious person does) nor even allow them to overrule his rational judgment (as an incontinent person does).67 Such continence might not be as praiseworthy as virtue, but that does not make it blameworthy like incontinence and viciousness.68 Thus Nagel’s basic example of constitutive moral luck relies a harsh moral judgment that an Aristotelian would consider obviously unjust.

Despite these basic problems with Nagel’s case for constitutive moral luck, the defender thereof might attempt to carve out space for constitutive moral luck by challenging certain elements of the Aristotelian account of moral responsibility for character. So let us consider four seemingly plausible objections.

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