Thomas Nagel on Moral Luck

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The philosopher Thomas Nagel points out that for people to find a moral judgment fitting, whatever it is for which the person is judged must be under his control. If it turns out that he didn’t have control over the action, then we ordinarily think that morally judging him is inappropriate. “So a clear absence of control,” he says, “produced by involuntary movement, physical force, or ignorance of the circumstances, excuses what is done from moral judgment.”

This seems pretty uncontroversial, doesn’t it? You can’t be judged for what is not your fault.

The problem, according to Nagel, is that the degree to which we lack control is greater than we ordinarily recognize. It’s in this broad range of influences, over which we have no control, that Nagel identifies what he calls moral luck:

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.

If we apply consistently the idea that moral judgment is appropriate only for things people control, Nagel argues, it leaves few moral judgments intact. “Ultimately,” he says, “nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.”

Four Different Types of Moral Luck

Nagel distiguishes between four different types moral luck. They’re all influences that, because they’re beyond people’s control, should be morally irrelevant.

Luck in How Things Turn Out

These are cases in which moral judgments are affected by an action’s results when those results were beyond the person’s control. Nagel uses as an example a truck driver who accidentally runs over a child. If the driver is without fault, he will regret his role in the child’s death, but he won’t morally blame himself. But if he is the slightest bit negligent – by, for example, failing to have his brakes checked – and his negligence is a factor in the child’s death, then he will morally reproach himself for the death.

This is a case of moral luck because the driver would have to blame himself only slightly if there weren’t a situation in which he had to brake suddenly to avoid hitting a child. The driver’s degree of negligence is the same in both cases, but the moral assessment differs based on factors outside of the driver’s control – i.e., whether a child runs out in front of him.

Another example of luck in how things turn out is attempted murder. The intentions and motives behind an attempted murder can be exactly the same as those behind a successful one, but the penalty is, nonetheless, less severe. And the degree of culpability can depend on things outside of the committed murderer’s control, such as whether the victim was wearing a bullet-proof vest or whether a bird flew in the bullet’s path.

From the commonsense perspective that moral responsibility depends upon control, Nagel says, 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 into the path of one’s bullet?”

Constitutive Luck

One’s character traits are often the object of moral assessment. We blame people for being greedy, envious, cowardly, cold, or ungenerous, and we praise them for having the opposite traits. To some extent, Nagel allows, such character traits may be the product of earlier choices. And to some extent, the person may be able to modify his character traits.

But character traits are largely a product of genetic predispositions and environmental circumstances, both of which are beyond people’s control. “Yet,” Nagel says, “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.”

Luck in One’s Circumstances

How people are morally assessed often depends on the circumstances in which they find themselves, even though those circumstances are largely beyond their control. “It may be true of someone that in a dangerous situation he would behave in a cowardly or heroic fashion,” Nagel says, “but if the situation never arises, he will never have the chance to distinguish or disgrace himself in this way, and his moral record will be different.”

Nagel also gives a more provocative example. In Nazi Germany, he says, ordinary citizens had the opportunity to either be heroes and oppose the regime or to behave badly and support it (and even participate in its atrocities). Many of the citizens failed this moral test. But the test, Nagel argues, was one “to which the citizens of other countries were not subjected, with the result that even if they, or some of them, would have behaved as badly as the Germans in like circumstances, they simply did not and therefore are not similarly culpable.”

Those people who would have behaved as badly as the Germans who supported the Nazi regime but didn’t find themselves in such circumstances were morally lucky. What they did or didn’t do was due circumstances beyond their control.

Luck in How One is Determined by Antecedent Circumstances

This is essentially the problem of free will and moral responsibility. The extent to which the laws of nature and other circumstances that precedes one’s actions and choices (i.e., antecedent circumstances) seems to shrink the areas in which people are responsible for their actions. Nagel doesn’t expound upon this problem, but he does point out its connection to the other kinds of moral luck:

If one cannot be responsible for consequences of one’s acts due to factors beyond one’s control, or for antecedents of one’s acts that are properties of temperament no subject to one’s will, or for the circumstances that pose one’s moral choices, then how can one be responsible even for the stripped down acts of the will itself, if they are the product of antecedent circumstances outside of the will’s control?

Nagel’s Solution

Nagel doesn’t think there is a solution to the problem moral luck poses for moral responsibility and moral judgment. The problem arises because the influence of things not under our control causes our responsible selves to vanish, making those acts that are ordinarily the objects of moral judgment mere events. “Eventually nothing remains which can be ascribed to the responsible self,” Nagel says, “and we are left with nothing but a portion of the larger sequence of events, which can be deplored or celebrated, but not blamed or praised.”

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