Better Good Than Lucky

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Objection Two: “I’m too old to change”

Next, the defender of constitutive moral luck might suggest that the moral dispositions voluntarily cultivated by a person might become so entrenched as to be beyond any power to change. For example, by carefully cultivating his anger, resentment, and frustration with other people over the course of decades, a man may become such a deeply committed misanthrope that he could no longer adopt a more benevolent view of his fellow man, even if he tried. He might force himself to act pleasantly toward other people, yet his basic disposition would remain malevolent. He would inwardly stomp and fume at the stupidity of people, even while waiting patiently and smiling blandly. By ordinary standards of moral judgment, such a person would be blamed for his malevolent disposition—and blamed more harshly than someone with a mere tendency to misanthropy. The advocate of moral luck could plausibly claim that such a person fails to satisfy the control condition for moral responsibility since he lacks the power to reform his character for the better. In that case, any person with dispositions so entrenched as to be unchangeable would be victim of constitutive bad luck.

Aristotle explicitly rejects this argument against moral responsibility for entrenched moral character on the grounds that a person’s past voluntary actions are sufficient for present moral responsibility. In speaking of the man who has made himself unjust by voluntary unjust acts, Aristotle writes:

…it does not follow that if he wishes he will cease to be unjust and will be just. For neither does the man who is ill become well on those terms—although he may, perhaps, be ill voluntarily, through living incontinently and disobeying his doctors. In that case it was then open to him not to be ill, but not now, when he has thrown away his chance, just as when you have let a stone go it is too late to recover it; but yet it was in your power to throw it, since the moving principle was in you. So, too, to the unjust and to the self-indulgent man it was open at the beginning not to become men of this kind, and so they are such voluntarily; but now that they have become so it is not possible for them not to be so.77

So for Aristotle, while a vicious man might often be able to reform his character for the better, but such is not a necessary condition for moral responsibility. A person is responsible for the obvious consequences of his voluntary actions—both physical and mental. As Sarah Broadie notes, Aristotle regards moral dispositions as voluntary because “they are the inevitable and foreseeable results of voluntary behavior.”78

Once again, Aristotle’s argument clarifies the nature and extent of the control required for moral responsibility.79 To be morally responsible for the predictable outcomes of his actions, a person need not possess the power to alter those outcomes at will. So long as he voluntarily chose those outcomes by his past actions, i.e. so long as he wasn’t blamelessly ignorant of them, he is responsible for them. As such, the critical assumption of this argument for constitutive moral luck, namely that a person to be able to reform his moral character anytime he wishes in order to be morally responsible for it, is false.

Consistent with Aristotle, the common sense account of moral responsibility holds people accountable for the readily-known and likely outcomes of their actions. So if I voluntarily cut off one of my fingers, I cannot sensibly protest three days later that I’m not morally responsible for the unbearable pain I feel because I cannot directly will it to stop. Similarly, a thief unable to compensate his victims for their losses is not thereby less culpable for his actions, nor is a murderer exonerated by the fact that he cannot restore his victim to life. The fact that the person acted voluntarily at the time, with adequate knowledge of the likely consequences of that action, is sufficient to render him morally responsible for those consequences. The person could have chosen a different course of action with different consequences, but knowingly opted not to do so. As such, he is rightly regarded as choosing not just his particular bodily action, but also its foreseen (and even reasonably foreseeable) consequences. The fact that a person cannot later magically reverse the known consequences of his actions is irrelevant to moral responsibility for those consequences, particularly since any sane person knows that such magic reversal is impossible. Aquinas emphasizes this point in explaining Aristotle’s view: “If a man wills some cause from which he knows a particular effect results, it follows that he wills that effect. Although perhaps he does not intend that effect in itself, nevertheless he rather wishes that the effect exist than that the cause not exist.”80 In such cases, while the effect is “non-voluntary in itself,” it is “voluntary on account of [the cause].”81

Notably, to reject the view that people are responsible for at least the known likely outcomes of their actions would require ignoring the obvious fact that human action is purposeful.82 The alternative, in which a person chooses only his directly willed and controlled bodily movements, would render most human action completely senseless: no action would ever have a purpose beyond itself. A woman brushing her teeth would only be moving her toothbrush in her mouth in a certain pattern, not promoting dental health and minty breath. A person’s work for a given company would be wholly unrelated to the money paid to him every two weeks. In fact, most human action aims at distant purposes via intermediate effects: a man sleeps tonight to be refreshed for work tomorrow, a couple has sex now to have a baby in nine months, a young worker saves now to be able to retire comfortably in old age, and so on. The fact that most human action is so goal-directed means that it cannot be understood except upon the general view that a person chooses not just his immediate actions, but also the known and desired outcomes which motivate them. In addition, a person accepts the foreseen consequences of his voluntary actions even if not intended because by choosing a particular course of action a person indicates that the merely foreseen consequences are acceptable to him.83 Some merely foreseen consequences may be welcome side benefits, as in the pleasure of sex for a couple primarily intending to conceive; others may be unwelcome, such as the morning sickness and weight gain of pregnancy. Yet the fact that the person still chooses that course of action means that those merely foreseen consequences are regarded as a price worth paying to achieve the intended consequences. Ultimately, the fact that a person has adequate knowledge of the likely outcome of his action generates moral responsibility for its intended and foreseen consequences. The causal history of an action is the basic source of moral responsibility; whether or not a person can later alter the intended and foreseen effects of his actions at will is often not relevant.84

The view that moral responsibility for an action and its outcome is established by a certain sort of causal history, namely a person’s voluntary choice in adequate knowledge, is common to both the common sense view and the Aristotelian view. When applied to the issue of responsibility for the effects of voluntary action upon a person’s psyche, it undermines the modified argument for constitutive moral luck according to which a person is not responsible for his moral dispositions if they are so entrenched as to be beyond his power to change. After all, an irredeemably vicious character is merely the easily predictable result of repeated vicious action over time. However, it’s not clear that we ought to accept the basic premise that a person’s character might be so degraded as to be beyond his capacity to repair, as Aristotle seems to do. The fact that people with entrenched vices are unlikely to exert the years of painful effort required for moral reform does not prove such change to be impossible. Indeed, even habitual criminals are capable of moral reform if sufficiently motivated to end the misery of their current existence by destroying their disposition to exploit and manipulate other people.85 If that’s right, i.e. if even well-entrenched dispositions can be changed, then the attempt to find constitutive moral luck in cases of entrenched dispositions beyond a person’s power to change is completely hopeless.

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