Moral Luck (summary and notes) Thomas Nagel

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Moral Luck (summary and notes)

Thomas Nagel

p. 440
Kant believed that good or bad luck should neither influence our moral judgment of a person and his actions, nor his moral assessment of himself

  • Kant quote

  • Whether or not a good (or bad) will accomplishes its intentions morally irrelevant

A course of action that would be condemned if it had a bad outcome cannot be vindicated if by luck it turns out well

This view seems to be wrong

  • The view arises in response to a fundamental problem about moral responsibility

Intuitively plausible:

  • People cannot be morally assessed for what is not their fault or for what is due to factors beyond their control

When we blame someone for his actions we are not merely saying it is bad that they happened, or bad that he exists: we are judging him, saying he is bad, which is different from his being a bad thing

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

Whether we succeed or fail in what we try to do nearly always depends to some extent on factors beyond our control

  • This is true of murder, altruism, revolution, the sacrifice of certain interests for the sake of others

  • Almost any moral act

p. 441

  • What has been done, and what is morally judged, is partly determined by external factors

  • E.g., whether a reckless driver hits a pedestrian depends on the presence of the pedestrian at the point where he recklessly passes a red light

What we do is also limited by the opportunities and choices with which we are faced

  • AND THESE ARE LARGELY DETERMINED by factors beyond our control

  • E.g., Someone who was an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had never come to power in Germany

  • Someone who led a quiet and harmless life in Argentina might have become an officer in a concentration camp is he had not left Germany for business reasons in 1930

  • Asch experiments, Zimbardo experiments, Milgram experiments


  • Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck

The problem posed by this phenomenon (moral luck), is that the broad range of external influences here identified seems to undermine moral assessment

  • The things for which people are morally judged are determined in more ways than we first realize by what is beyond their control

  • Ultimately, nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under her control.


  • The condition of control is false

  • It can be refuted by counter-examples

  • So, there must be kinds of lack of control that really undermine certain moral judgments rather than it being the case that most or all ordinary moral judgments are illegitimate


  • We are not dealing with a theoretical conjecture but with a philosophical problem

  • The condition of control does not suggest itself merely as a generalization from certain clear cases

  • It seems correct in the further cases to which it is extended beyond the original set

  • When we undermine moral assessment by considering new ways in which control is absent, we are not just discovering what would follow given the general hypothesis, but are actually being persuaded that in itself the absence of control is relevant in these cases too.

We cannot argue from the unacceptability of the conclusions to the need for a different account of the conditions of moral responsibility

  • There too conditions which seem perfectly natural, and which grow out of the ordinary procedures for challenging and defending claims to knowledge, threaten to undermine all such claims if consistently applied.

  • Epistemological skepticism – arises from consideration of the respects in which our beliefs and their relation to reality depend on factors beyond our control

  • External and internal causes produce our beliefs

    • We may subject these processes to scrutiny in an effort to avoid error, but out conclusions at this next level also result, in part, from influences, which we do not control directly.

p. 442

    • Our beliefs are always, ultimately, due to factors outside our control, and the impossibility of encompassing those factors without being at the mercy of others leads us to doubt whether we know anything

      • It looks as though, if any of our beliefs are true, it is pure biological luck rather than knowledge

Moral luck is like this because while there are various respects in which the natural objects of moral assessment are out of our control or influenced by what is out of our control, we cannot reflect on these facts without losing our grip on the judgments.


  1. Constitutive Luck

    1. The kind of person you are

    2. Inclinations, capacities, and temperament

  2. Luck in one’s circumstances

    1. The kind of problems and situations one faces

  3. Luck in how one is determined by antecedent circumstances

  4. Luck in the way one’s actions and projects turn out

Common problem to the above four

  • They are all opposed by the idea that one cannot be more culpable or estimable for anything than one is for that fraction of it which is under one’s control

It seems irrational to take or dispense credit or blame for matters over which a person has no control

  • Or for their influence on results over which she has partial control

  • Such things may create the conditions for action, but action can be judged only to the extent that it goes beyond these conditions and does not just result from them.

Luck in the way things turn out

  • Kant’s example of truck driver accidentally running over a child vs. artist (Gauguin) leaving wife and three kids to pursue his art.

  • We see the driver as being unfortunate, but not blameworthy (unless accident was due to some negligence such as failing to fix faulty breaks).

    • But it is still moral luck because there might have never been a situation requiring sudden breaking.

    • The driver has no control over whether a child will run into his path

  • The same is true at a higher level of negligence (such as drunk driving)

    • If a drunk driver swerves on to the sidewalk, he can count himself morally lucky if there are no pedestrians

    • If there were, then he would be blameworthy and charged with manslaughter

  • Another example:

    • The penalty for attempted murder is less than that for successful murder

      • Even though the intentions and motives are the same in both cases

      • Her degree of culpability can depend on whether the victim happened to be wearing a bullet-proof vest, or whether a bird flew into the path of the bullet

        • Matters beyond her control


  • Examples: Anna Karenina, Gauguin, Chamberlain signing the Munich agreement, Decembrists persuading troops to revolt against the czar, American colonies declare independence, matchmaking friends

  • It is tempting in all such cases to feel that some decision must be possible, in light of what is known at the time, which will make reproach unsuitable no matter how things turn out

  • But this is not true

    • When someone acts in such ways she takes her life, or her moral position, into her hands, because how things turn out determines what she has done

    • It is possible also to assess the decision from the point of view of what could be known at the time, but this is not the end of the story

p. 443
If the Decembrists had succeeded in overthrowing Nicholas I in 1825 and establishing a constitutional regime, they would be heroes.

  • As it is, not only did they fail and pay for it, but they bore some responsibility for the terrible punishments meted out to the troops who had been persuaded to follow them

If the American Revolution had been a bloody failure resulting in greater repression, then Franklin and Washington would still have made a noble attempt, and might not have regretted it on the way to the scaffold, but they would also have had to blame themselves for what they had helped to bring on their compatriots

If Hitler had not overrun Europe and exterminated millions, but instead had died of a heart attack after occupying the Sudetenland, Chamberlain’s action at Munich would still have utterly betrayed the Czechs, but it would not be the great moral disaster that has made his name a household word.
When moral judgment depends on the outcome, it is objective and timeless and not dependent on a change of standpoint produced by success or failure
From the point of view which makes responsibility dependent on control, all this seems absurd

  • How is it possible to be more or less culpable depending on whether a child gets into the path of one’s car, or a bird in to the path of one’s bullet?

  • Perhaps it is true that what is done depends on more than the agent’s state of mind or intention

  • The problem then is, why is it not irrational to base moral assessment on what people do, in this broad sense?

  • It amounts to holding them responsible for the contributions of fate as well as for their own (providing they made some contributions to begin with)

The result of such a line of thought is to pare down each act to its morally essential core, an inner act of pure will assessed by motive and intention

  • Advocated b Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments

  • But Smith notes that such a position runs contrary to our actual judgments

p. 444

  • “The actual consequences which happen to proceed from any action, have a very great effect upon our sentiments concerning its merit or demerit, and almost always either enhance or diminish our sense of both” (Adam Smith)

Joel Feinberg

  • Restricting the domain of moral responsibility to the inner world will not immunize it to luck

  • Factors beyond the agent’s control, such as a coughing fit, can interfere with her decisions as surely as they can with the path of a bullet from her gun


  • Kant was particularly insistent on the moral irrelevance of qualities of temperament and personality that are not under the control of the will

  • Such qualities as sympathy or coldness might provide the background against which obedience to moral requirements is more or less difficult, but they could not be objects of moral assessment themselves, and might well interfere with confident assessment of its proper object—the determination of the will by the motive of duty

  • This rules out moral judgment of many of the virtues and vices, which are states of character that influence choice but are certainly not exhausted by dispositions to act deliberately in certain ways.

  • Virtues and vices are a matter of constitutive good or bad fortune

    • E.g., whether someone is giving or greedy, cold or compassionate

    • Yet people are morally condemned for such qualities, and esteemed for others equally beyond the control of the will

    • They are assessed for what they are like

  • To Kant this seems incoherent because virtue is enjoined on everyone and therefore must in principle be possible for everyone

    • It must be possible to achieve it by making the right choices, against whatever temperamental background

    • One may want to have a generous spirit, but it makes no sense to condemn oneself or anyone else for a quality which is not within the control of the will

Kant’s conclusion seems intuitively unacceptable

The things we are called upon to do, the moral tests we face, are importantly determined by factors beyond our control

  • A person may be brave or cowardly in the face of danger, but if she is never put in a dangerous situation, she will never have the chance to distinguish or disgrace herself in this way.

  • E.g., Nazi Germany – people had the opportunity to behave heroically by opposing the regime; they also had the opportunity to behave badly, and most of them are culpable for failing the test

    • It is a test to which people in other countries were not subjected, with the result that even if they, or some of them, would have behaved badly, they did not.

  • Here again one is morally at the mercy of fate

p. 445

  • We judge people for what they actually do or fail to do, not just for what they would have done if circumstances had been different


  • A person can be morally responsible only for what she does

  • But what she does results from a great deal that she does not do

  • Therefore she is not morally responsible for what she is and is not responsible for

Freedom of the Will

  • There is a connection between problems about responsibility and control and problems about freedom of the will

  • If one cannot be responsible for consequences of one’s acts due to factors beyond one’s control, or for antecedents (events prior) to one’s acts, or for their temperament, or for their circumstances, THEN HOW CAN ONE BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ACTS OF THEIR WILL?

  • Acts of one’s will are the products of prior circumstances outside of the will’s control

The idea of genuine agency, and therefore of legitimate moral judgment, seems to shrink to oblivion
Everything seems to result from the combined influence of factors that are not within the agent’s control

  • (side note from professor) This includes one’s ability to accept or reject external influences, which is what compatibilists argue is the source of free will. Free will skeptics respond that whether we accept or reject parental, peer, media, and education influences is determined by other influences over which we have no control. Therefore, if WE don’t determine our character, personality, feelings or emotions, we cannot legitimately be morally responsible for the actions that are the products of that character, personality, feelings or emotions.

It may be possible to take up the analogues of the moral attitudes that are thus displaced

  • What this means is that if a person commits a heinous, immoral act we cannot hold him or her morally responsible, we cannot blame him or her, but we CAN express our grief, disappointment and sadness over the action. We can take steps to ensure that the person does not commit the act again through re-education, re-conditioning, or, if necessary, incarceration (like quarantining the sick – someone with an infectious disease may not be morally responsible for their disease, but we must still remove them from society so that they do not infect others).

On the bottom of the right column and top of left column of page 445, Nagel discusses the compatibilist argument for free will.

pp. 445-446

Nagel’s rejection of compatibilism:

  • In these paragraphs, Nagel expresses the problem of personhood and agency

  • Basically, he is arguing that if we are merely the products of our past, external influences, and circumstances, then the “self” disappears and we become merely things (like programmed computers or automatons).

  • This is suggested by his comment on p. 446 (left column) – “it becomes gradually clear that actions are events and people things.”

  • As disagreeable as this sounds, there is, according to him, no other way to see it. If you follow the facts of the situation to its logical conclusion, then there is no part of us that is not determined by factors beyond our control.

  • We can “deplore or celebrate” events, but we cannot “praise or blame” people.

p. 446
Here, Nagel explains why we have such a hard time accepting the conclusions of free will skepticism

  • We feel free

  • We feel the boundary between ourselves and the external world

  • We do not feel all of the external circumstances and influences that make us who we are

  • “We cannot simply take an external evaluative view of ourselves.”

  • “It is this internal view that we extend to others [when we make moral judgments]—when we judge them rather than their [external circumstances].”

  • We have a hard time accepting free will skepticism “because it leaves us with no one to be.”

I hope can return soon, so that I can explain in further detail the implications of free will skepticism both for and against the position. But if not, I hope you have enough now to make a well-informed decision about the topic.

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