Moral Luck (Free Will pt. III)

Luck plays a bigger role in our lives than we tend to admit. Intuitively, you’d think that people couldn’t be held morally accountable for what is not their fault, or what happens due to factors beyond their control. But according to Thomas Nagel, “a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond their control, yet we continue to treat them as an object of moral judgment.” So even though in the abstract, it seems wrong to judge people for things outside their control, we actually do it all the time. The common example is to imagine that someone drives home a little drunk. They know they shouldn’t be driving, but they get in the car and go home. At one point, the driver veers slightly off the road, but he quickly corrects the diversion and gets home safely. We might chide that person and tell them not to do it again. But imagine a different driver in the same exact scenario with all the same decisions and conditions, except where the driver veered slightly off the road, a child happened to be walking, and the driver hits and kills the child. The actions and characters of the two drivers are identical; they both drove home slightly impaired, but one driver had the bad luck of a child being in the wrong place at just the wrong time. Even though they behaved identically, we tend to judge the second driver more harshly. We don’t view him as worse just because of the consequences of his actions, but we actually see his actions as worse. We judge him to be a worse person than the first driver, even though they did the same thing. Even if the first driver had been caught driving drunk, he would’ve been treated more lightly by the police, legal system, and the court of public opinion than someone who behaved in the same exact way but was unlucky. One person gets a ticket, the other may go to prison, and the difference between them was luck.

But the luck of our circumstances can have even more dramatic moral consequences. Hannah Arendt, in A Report on the Banality of Evil, observed that many Nazis were not monsters, but rather morally average people who simply complied with authority and followed orders. According to her, even Adolf Eichmann was a disturbingly normal person. Philip Zimbardo in his famous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated, to our immense discomfort, that humans are far more compliant to authority than we like to admit. This is yet another area where luck is important to how you end up being morally judged; you can’t take responsibility for the fact that you don’t live in 1930’s and 40’s Germany.

Luck also affects your disposition, personality, and temperament — you didn’t choose your genes. Some of us are prone to anger and some of us are very easy-going; some of us are naturally friendly and some of us are painfully shy; some of us have a positive affect and others are naturally sarcastic and cynical. We can definitely work against these dispositions that we have, but that doesn’t change the fact that some of us have to work really hard to have positive traits and others don’t. It’s not that our natural traits can’t be cultivated or resisted, but if it’s easy for you to be kind and comes naturally to you to outgoing, you can’t really take credit for your disposition. If it takes immense self-control to resist anger or jealousy, you can’t really be blamed for your constitutive bad luck, and a person who doesn’t struggle with these feelings at all can’t take credit for their constitutive good luck.

Nagel writes, “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? As the external determinants of what someone has done are gradually exposed, in their effect on consequences, character, and choice itself, it becomes gradually clear that actions are events and people things. Eventually nothing remains which can be ascribed to the responsible self, and we are left with nothing but a portion of the larger sequences of events, which can be deplored or celebrated, but not blamed or praised.”

In a naturalistic, deterministic world, actions are events and people are things. But as Nagel says, we can still honestly deplore or celebrate actions. We can still detain criminals, deter crime, prevent bad things from happening, incentivize good things to happen, and try to rehabilitate those who do bad things. We can deplore or celebrate without assigning causal responsibility just in the interest of incentivizing those types of behaviors and characters.

Determinism doesn’t mean the end of morality. Determinism forces us to face the fact that if we had a murderer’s genes, environment, and bad luck, we would be that murderer. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t try to stop him or condemn his actions as immoral. It just forces us to look with utter humility at ourselves.


One thought on “Moral Luck (Free Will pt. III)

  1. Praise and blame have nothing to do with free will. They are deterministic tools we use to modify behavior. For example, in William Bowers’s 1964 study, “Student Dishonesty and Its Control in College”, he found that the most significant factor influencing a students decision to cheat or not was “perceived peer disapproval”. We teach our children right from wrong by praising them when they do something good, and pointing out to them when they have done something harmful. To correct them, we discuss what they “could have done otherwise in that situation”, and give them options that they may not have thought of on their own.

    Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we “will” do, “free” of external coercion or other undue influence. Everyone has parents and prior life experiences. Whether these are mostly good or mostly bad are, as you say, matters of chance.

    But, for those who choose to drink and drive, it doesn’t really matter whether they came from homes where drinking and driving were taken for granted, or if they came from homes of teetotalers. If we expect them to change their behavior, we must provide a penalty that expresses our disapproval in no uncertain terms, and that conveys to them that such behavior will not be tolerated.

    When their behavior injures or kills someone, then the penalty will be more severe, partly to discourage others from following their example.

    But this is what “holding responsible” is all about. This is what praise and blame are all about. It is about the deterministic objective of providing safety on our roads, safety from those who choose to drink and drive.


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