Philosophy In Seconds

40. The Problem of Moral Luck [QP]


On the 30th of August 1918, Fanny Kaplan, a member of the anarchistic Social Revolutionaries, walked up to Lenin and fired three shots into his chest. Lenin survived the firing of three poisoned bullets into his chest which punctured his lungs. To say that Lenin was lucky is an understatement, but luck is in itself a peculiar concept. If we concede that luck exists in this world, we concede that we do not actually possess that much control over our actions. A necessary consequence is that the institution of moral accountability is eroded, since, if our actions were subject to luck or ‘fortune’, it would be illogical to blame or even praise someone for managing the circumstances that were outside of their control. But what is Moral luck?

It can best be illustrated with an example, proposed by the moral philosophers Bernard Williams (1929-2003) and Thomas Nagel (1937- ).

Scenario 1: Let’s say that you were taking care of someone’s child. You forget to put their seatbelt on and you begin to drive through the murky night, when all of a sudden, a car crashes into you leading to the death of the child, but not yourself.

Scenario 2: It is slightly similar to the first scenario. You are taking care of someone’s child. You forget to put their seatbelt on and you begin to drive through the murky night. You arrive home safely.

The parents in Scenario 1 are devastated. Your neglect led to the death of their child. In Scenario 2, however, the parents are enraged, but not ‘devastated’ as described in Scenario 1Scenario 2 is what we would call Moral luck. Williams calls moral luck an oxymoron, but his partner Nagel, manages to identify a legitimate ‘Control Principle’:

“CP: We are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control.”- Thomas Nagel, Moral Luck.

Essentially, we acknowledge the existence of moral luck anytime we are committed to morally judging someone who made a mistake when they had no control over the factors that determined the outcome of the action. Free will seems to posit that we may have acted differently if we were given the choice to perform an action again, but under the Control Principle, it seems that many of our notions of moral accountability seem to be false. Additionally, what this says about Kant’s famous ethical formula ‘ought implies can’, is that at times, we may not be capable of performing moral duties to the unpredictable nature of moral luck. In general, when philosophers want to introduce new jargon to the public, it requires a certain defence in order to maintain its legitimacy, thus, Nagel identifies four kinds of moral luck:

  1. Resultant Moral Luck: Two people attempt to perform the same action, but are not equally responsible due to the consequences of their action.
  2. Circumstantial Moral Luck: Luck in the circumstances one finds themselves in.
  3. Constitutive Luck: Luck which can be attributed to the traits and dispositions one possesses, i.e: their character or personality.
  4. Causal Luck: Luck in how in one’s actions are determined by previous circumstances.

If we concede the seemingly reasonable Control Principle, then we have to concede the various constituents of moral luck and what it means for our basic intuitions to not line up with the actions we actually perform. Bearing in mind, that these actions are influenced by the various forms of moral luck, which we have conceded are factors outside of our control we run into a paradox, which Nagel puts as follows:

A person can be morally responsible only for what he does; but what he does results from a great deal that he does not do; therefore he is not morally responsible for what he is and is not responsible for. – Thomas Nagel, Moral Luck.

It seems that a great reformation of our legal system, akin to the Protestant Reformation of the Church, must be performed. Not so fast, you might say. You might say that we rarely know what a person’s intentions are and that a surefire way of identifying said intentions are the consequences of their actions. For instance, if two people attempted to murder someone and one of them succeeded, it would seem that we could say with some credibility that the one who succeeded intended to murder someone. In this case, you would be an adherent of the epistemic argument, but it seems that we are neglecting the potential for one of these people that we have described in becoming a murderer. The epistemic argument seems to miss out on potentiality. In sum, it seems only rational to concede that there may at times occur a mismatch between our deliberations and the outcome of an event and perhaps we may not have to radically modify existing legal institutions, but at least our jurors should take the problem of moral luck into account.