Moral Luck by Admitting Defeat He Informs Essay

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Moral Luck" by admitting defeat: he informs the reader that he will be assessing "a fundamental problem about moral responsibility to which we possess no satisfactory solution" (450). The problem is essentially one about ethical judgment, and he begins it with an illustration from Kant. Kant's view of the ethical will, in the quotation offered by Nagel at the outset, is one in which goodness is not determined by "what it effects or accomplishes or because of its adequacy to achieve some proposed end" (449). In other words, goodness is to be located in process, rather than in results. The reader may find it ironic, then, that Nagel begins his paper by promising us no solution whatsoever -- in his critique of Kantian ethics, Nagel seemingly requires the reader to measure Nagel's own work as a philosopher by the Kantian criterion, of admiring Nagel's will to philosophize without judging him on his inability to attain any satisfactory solution to the problem he poses. But is it even a problem? Nagel's quarrel with Kant is that, by judging good or evil purely by the will or intention of the doer, and not by what is done or not done in actuality, in the Kantian analysis "there cannot be moral risk" and "this view seems to be wrong" (450). I hope to demonstrate that Kant's view of ethics is, to a large degree, more persuasive than Nagel's, largely because of Nagel's lack of appreciation of the role played by time.

Nagel begins by noting that the Kantian formulation diverges from the way "we feel" and our own instinctive sense of agency: "what we do depends in many…ways…on what is not under our control -- what is not produced by a good or a bad will, in Kant's phrase" (450). He notes that, in practice, we tend to view "absence of control" as an extenuating factor which "excuses what is done from moral judgment" (450). This leads to a problem which, in Nagel's account, "led Kant to deny [the] possibility" of such moral luck (450). The problem is that we now find ourselves on a slippery slope in which "the broad range of external influences seems…to undermine moral assessment as surely as does the narrower range of familiar excusing conditions" (450). Nagel identifies this as a philosophical problem, because in his account "there are roughly four ways in which the natural objects of moral assessment are disturbingly subject to luck" (451). The first of these Nagel identifies as "constitutive luck" or "the kind of person you are" in terms of "inclinations, capacities, and temperament" (451). The second is "luck in one's circumstances" -- in other words, whether or not one is placed in a situation which requires difficult moral choice (451). The third and fourth ways involve "antecedent circumstances" of action and finally the results of action, "the way one's actions and projects turn out," which Kant believed irrelevant to the assessment of morality (451).

Nagel starts by examining the last of these, because of Kant's opinion which he finds problematic. His example is a truck-driver who has faulty brakes which he has not bothered to check or fix: this is negligence. Yet if circumstances cause the truck-driver to run over a child, the driver "will blame himself for the death" (452). But if no child runs in front of the truck -- which is, after all, an occurrence entirely outside the driver's control -- "the negligence is the same" but there is a different level of blame assigned to the negligence because the results are less bad (452). In other words, the crime here is one of negligence, but the level of culpability entirely depends upon the "way things turn out" -- in this case, the negligence leads to a death which is the driver's fault. Nagel expands upon this point to note that, in a court of law, "the penalty for attempted murder is less than that for successful murder," while the difference between the two can hinge upon matters beyond the control of the moral agent: the legal penalty is different when a would-be assassin shoots when the "victim happened to be wearing a bullet-proof vest" (452). He also includes moral "decision under uncertainty" about results, which can be as large as the uncertainty of Washington and Jefferson that the American Revolution would ultimately be successful (452). Nagel's conclusion, set against Kant, is that "actual results influence culpability or esteem in a large class of unquestionably ethical cases ranging from negligence to political choice" (452). He adds that "one can say in advance that the moral verdict will depend on the results" (452). But if it seems irrational to find that a truck-driver's negligence suddenly becomes more culpable on the basis of something outside the truck-driver's control -- namely a child running into the street -- Nagel suggests that it might equally be found "irrational to base moral assessment on what people do" (453).

This is where he comes round to considering Kant's view in some more depth, by way of considering the first type of moral luck identified, "constitutive luck" or what kind of person one happens to be. Nagel notes that Kant found this irrelevant, just as Kant had found consequences irrelevant: for Kant "virtue is enjoined on everyone and therefore must in principle be possible for everyone" (453). For Nagel, this seems "intuitively unacceptable" (453). He brings in the second type of moral luck, that of circumstance: a person can be lucky in the sense of never having to encounter a certain situation (like living in Nazi Germany) in which moral action might be more difficult. At this point, Nagel is forced to bring in the question of free will and determinism: he returns to the slippery slope identified earlier, and suggests that even Kant's view of moral action would vanish if the contingent nature of action (by separating out what is and is not under a person's control) approaches something closer to determinism: "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?" (454).

At this point Nagel finally identifies what he sees as the chief problem, which is one of agency. "While the concept of agency is easily undermined, it is very difficult to give it a positive characterization," he notes (455). Nagel believes that our ideas of agency are the reason that "the problem has no solution" because "something in the idea of agency is incompatible with actions being events, or people being things" (455). Nagel believes this problem stems from our own sense of internal agency, which makes it impossible to feel as though we are merely pawns in a deterministic universe -- and he notes that in evaluating others, we tend to ascribe to them a similar sense of internal agency and "accord to them selves like our own" (455). He concedes that determinism itself makes no difference, seemingly, in any account of agency. This is where Nagel ultimately leaves his argument, by concluding that "the problem of moral luck cannot be understood without an account of the internal conception of agency and its special connection with the moral attitudes as opposed to other types of value" and admitting, finally, that "I do not have such an account." This is a confession that the problem of moral luck cannot be understood by Nagel himself, and concludes where the essay began: by admitting that there is no actual solution to the problem he describes.

But Nagel seems entirely to miss the real point at issue in both his account of moral luck, and indeed in Kant's account. The missing element in his discussion -- only briefly and unsatisfyingly handled -- is time. Kant, by refusing to concede the relevance of results to moral action, at least manages to make moral action into a purely forward-looking activity. Kant's account, therefore, has the advantage of matching up with how agency actually feels to a person who believes himself to possess agency -- a choice is being made that is sufficiently confident in its own virtue that the consequence is rendered irrelevant. Nagel's analysis of "difficult choice" entails a situation where the "results cannot be foreseen with certainty" but he insists that the results are relevant to the ethics of the choice because "one can say in advance that the moral verdict will depend on the results" (452). Nagel seems to miss the point here that all moral verdict is retrospective. To use the political example which is, in various forms, invoked on three separate occasions in this short essay, let us consider the ethical obligation to resist Nazism. For Nagel, the element of moral luck in the Nazi drama is illustrated by (1) a concentration camp guard who might have led a peaceful life if the Nazis had not risen to power, or a German immigrant to Argentina who might have become a concentration camp guard…[continue]

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