The Problems and Consequences of Moral Luck
Do we really have control over our actions? And should we be morally judged on the outcomes of those actions? These fundamental philosophical questions have intense implications for how we enforce laws, conduct foreign relations, interact with peers and live our daily lives. The notion that we maintain sole control over our destiny is powerfully intoxicating – it allows us to envision a future where our problems have been overcome and our dreams are attainable. Yet upon even cursory inspection, it is obvious that external factors beyond any individual’s direct control undoubtedly influence our actions, decisions and the circumstances of our lives.
As Thomas Nagel points out in his essay Moral Luck, even a driver who recklessly hits a pedestrian suffered the bad luck of encountering a pedestrian at that very spot at that very time. (Nagel, 1972, 2) And obviously, nobody controls where they are born, when they are born or who their parents are. But does this absolve people from moral responsibility? What is the threshold for determining responsibility and when does it become appropriate to morally judge a person?
Modern society tends to make the determination that a person can be an agent of judgment when: 1) their actions were voluntary and not coerced and 2) the person had the full necessary set of information to evaluate potential consequences. Therefore, acting in self-defense is seen as an appropriate circumstance to absolve a person of killing someone – presumably because the person cannot control their attacker’s actions and thus have no other option. Moreover notions of “just war” abound throughout history, be it in religious texts or formal military doctrines.
So clearly, we are capable of distinguishing the difference between actions that deserve moral condemnation and those that deserve moral praise. But, as Nagel discusses, if a person does all they reasonably can to avoid a negative consequence but fails because of external events, why do we tend to blame that person more harshly than a person who makes the exact same choices in an identical situation except for the one (or more) external events, and thus avoids the negative consequence? More generally, since we never have full control over events that preceded a particular moment, perhaps free will itself is a mirage.
These tough questions raise profound practical challenges for a functioning society. There must be rules of the game and some method of consistently evaluating culpability for both praiseworthy and condemnable actions. Ultimately, while Nagel’s discussion on the problems of moral luck force us to question and defend our ability to make moral judgments, the problems do not compel a total abandonment or revision of the notion of moral responsibility because outcomes and consequences are inextricably tied to individuals’ actions. External events and circumstances should always be considered relevant when determining moral responsibility, but even if a person is not any more at fault per se (in that someone else doing the same thing might not have produced the negative consequence but for some externality) he should accept more blame if his actions led to a negative outcome – even an unlucky outcome.
Nagel famously discusses the instance of a German citizen who moves to Argentina for business in 1930. Had the person stayed in Germany, he might well have become an officer for the Nazis in a concentration camp. However, since he left (because of some external reason in Argentina), he leads a peaceful and harmless life as a business man. To be sure, that person would clearly be quite lucky to have left Germany before the Nazis came to power. And others who stayed – and who did become Nazi officers – are quite clearly unlucky. Nonetheless, this cannot allow us to absolve all Nazi officers simply because they were unfortunate enough to be born in post-World War I Germany and never left.
Similarly, many conservatives in America argue that violent video games should be banned since they incite violence in real life, pointing to the Columbine tragedy where the gunmen were rumored to like a popular bloody game called Doom. Yet the obvious rebuttal is that not everyone who plays those games goes out and shoots somebody. And not every person who stayed in Germany became a violent, murderous Nazi. Some kids enjoy the games as entertainment and recognize the separation between the virtual world and the real world. Some Germans sacrificed their lives to help hide or transport Jews, and some who still became Nazis looked for opportunities to minimize the torment of their victims. In most situations, people still have the ability to make choices, no matter what has happened before to lead to the present moment.
However, this view of control is not uncontested. “If the condition of control is consistently applied, it threatens to erode most of the moral assessments we find it natural to make,” Nagel explains. “Ultimately, nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.” (Ibid.)
In nearly every case, one can make a credible argument that any number of external events substantially impacted the ultimate consequence, good or bad. Even people who make selfish or mean-spirited choices, they are affected by their own personality, which is, of course, a product of many factors beyond that person’s control like their parents, school, religion, culture, etc. This becomes a problem anytime we want to hold a person accountable for their actions. Though we may at first unapologetically blame a person for killing someone – or praise someone for giving away their lottery winnings – closer inspection makes it apparent that had certain external events that were beyond their control not occurred (childhood abuse, for example; the right lottery numbers being called), then the outcome would not have happened. This logic can be applied so frequently that it undermines all our moral judgments. As Nagel puts it, “The erosion of moral judgment emerges not as the absurd consequence of an over-simple theory, but as a natural consequence of the ordinary idea of moral assessment, when it is applied in view of a more complete and precise account of the facts.” (Ibid.)
Even our very beliefs, values, knowledge and abilities stem from events outside our own control. Nagel calls this form of the moral luck problem “constitutive luck.” (Ibid., 4) A particularly enthusiastic science teacher might instill a passion for learning in a student that propels him to become a NASA engineer, while that same student might have been introduced to hard drugs and ended up as an addict if he attended a different school with poorer, less inspiring teachers. Those people and events that surround us and preceded us shape the way we perceive the world and mold the way in which we make decisions.
Nagel goes so far as to ominously state, “It looks as though, if any of our beliefs are true, it is pure biological luck rather than knowledge.” This rather gloomy view implies that our actions are almost inconsequential since outcomes are primarily shaped by forces and circumstances beyond our control. Again, however, this view must not be automatically accepted because even people who experienced the exact same circumstances still maintain the ability to make a choice. Not every abused child becomes a criminal. And not every wealthy, Harvard-educated person becomes successful.
Nagel also identifies circumstantial luck as the “kinds of problems and situations one faces.” (Ibid.) Obviously, had Barack Obama lived two hundred years ago – or even 20 years earlier – he never could have become President. But as a result of the time period in which he rose to national prominence – not to mention the highly unusual political environment in 2008 – Obama was swept into office as a reformer offering hope to a war-weary nation. Does that make Obama more praise-worthy than other significant African-American pillars like Martin Luther King or Frederick Douglas, neither of whom had even the opportunity to become President given the cultural realities of their eras?
Perhaps not, yet most people would allow that it took something more than simple timing; rather, something unique within Obama also propelled him to the Presidency. He faced different circumstances and situations than other black leaders, yet he used his own innate political skill (which itself could be argued to be a product of external forces in his life) and took advantage of the right opportunities at the right time. Of course, even Obama would likely admit that “luck” played a huge role in his ascension. And so it is with any successful person; JFK was lucky to have a prominent political family; Warren Buffet was lucky the companies he invested in did well; and even Jesus can be said to be “lucky” since he had dedicated followers who followed through on their commitments to him by continuing to spread Jesus’ message after his death.
As Nagel sufficiently shows, luck most certainly plays a role – though not always equally – in all human events. Nagel continues by introducing two other forms of moral luck: the outcome of an action (one person might shoot a gun in the air with no consequence, but another person might shoot the same gun from the same spot a minute later and the bullet winds up hitting and killing somebody, for example) and the extent to which “antecedent circumstances” affect who we are.
Maintaining a sense of responsibility
Lest we use this logic to abandon any sense of moral responsibility, we might encourage drivers to be less vigilant on the road (since if they hit someone/thing it’s not their fault), law-abiding citizens to break the law (always being able to argue that past circumstances compelled his action) and other people to act indifferently to potential consequences, good or bad. To be sure, this would cause chaos and havoc and would prevent society from functioning. Instead, we must work to find some form of compromise where individual action maintains responsibility even in complex and incomprehensible circumstances.
For this reason, American courts typically look to the degree of culpability. For example, a toy manufacturer can be held liable for the death of a child if their product was defective in some way. Yet, an adequate defense for their potential negligence is that the parent failed to properly supervise the child. This leaves the jury to determine which party is more at fault, even if both were partially responsible for the outcome occurring (along with limitless other events, which might also be held partially responsible). This imperfect solution acknowledges the lack of a vacuum for individual events, yet maintains order and fairness by examining the external circumstance to gauge their relative contribution and importance to the outcome.
Nagel points out that this societal solution can also be applied to a person’s internal assessment of blame and their resulting sense of responsibility. He describes a drunk driver swerving onto a sidewalk that is empty of pedestrians. The driver may make it home safely and not judge himself harshly or admit “fault” in the way he would have to if there were pedestrians on that curb and he had hit and killed them. (Ibid., 5) Not only does the legal system treat the driver much different in these two situations (he is essentially ignored in the former and thrown in jail in the latter) but the person maintains a more solidly intact conscience when the externality prevents the horrible outcome.
Furthermore, Nagel notes that attempted murder is a far less serious crime in America than successful murder. The victim may have been wearing a bullet proof vest of which the shooter was unaware. Though his intent is to kill, the outside circumstance of a bullet proof vest prevents him from succeeding and thus inadvertently shields him from the moral condemnation associated with murder. Now, society may codify a legal difference in that situation, but most people would still view the shooter with the same level of disdain and moral judgment for the very reason that he was simply “lucky” that the person didn’t die.
Next, Nagel considers a more complicated circumstance where incomplete information makes a decision difficult or impossible to judge until the final outcome – potentially years later even – occurs. He cites Neville Chamberlain’s signing the Munich agreement, which paved the way for Hitler to invade Poland and ultimately initiate World War II. “[W]hen someone acts in such ways,” he explains, “he takes his life, or his moral position, into his hands, because how things turn out determines what he has done.” (Ibid.) Chamberlain could have made the same decision and been recorded as a hero in the history books because Hitler never invaded Poland (because of a fatal heart attack, a strategic reversal, or something else) and the peace held. But Hitler’s actions – and the subsequent bloody war – ensured Chamberlain’s widespread reputation as a failed appeaser.
The same decision, with varying externalities, leads to wildly divergent degrees of blame for the actor.
Outcome is not everything
Nagel’s emphasis on outcomes is one potential solution, yet it under-emphasizes other critical factors. He concedes that motive, intent or concern all affect the extent and type of moral judgments made about people. But Nagel returns to focus on the “actual results” of a given action as the basis for the final verdict. While the outcome is obviously relevant, more leniency should be given in light of a person’s genuine intent. To wit, a person who tosses a brick out of a window and accidentally kills somebody is universally considered to be less morally culpable than a sniper deliberately killing someone from a high-rise window.
Yet, it is perfectly reasonable to extend our analysis to include the decision itself. It may have been an innocent act, but it was not morally right to toss the brick in the first place. The risk of actually harming – or even killing someone – may be low, but it is not trivial when throwing a brick through a residence window. So even if a person did not know how their actions would affect someone at the time, it can be fair to expect that they should have known, by common knowledge, cultural understanding or just awareness.
Furthermore, Nagel’s view seems at first to allow grossly negligent or malevolent actions to be exonerated by revisionist judgment after the final outcome is known. A parent leaving their child in a running bath is merely careless if the baby does not drown, but criminally responsible if the baby does drown. So Nagel amends his argument to allow that “[c]ertain things are so bad in themselves, or so risky, that no results can make them all right.” (Ibid.) This prevents the unaccountable acceptance of poor decisions merely by way of luck.
Choice still exists
Ultimately, Nagel laments that “holding [people] responsible for the contributions of fate as well as for their own” is the fundamental problem of basing moral assessment on what people do. He advises us to “pare down each act to its morally essential core, an inner act of pure will assessed by motive and intention.” (Ibid., 6) But this is not easy advice to follow. When we examine specific cases, it is nearly impossible to completely separate the actor from the outcome; we all make moral judgments that heavily weigh how things actually turned out.
The “determination of the will,” with its inherent focus on an actor’s internal state, shows how uncontrollable aspects of a person’s life (personality traits, health, or physical ability) can be overcome by sheer will, work ethic or determination. Someone who is naturally envious doesn’t have to ridicule people or actively sabotage others’ success. They can hide that internal sentiment, recognize that it would be morally better to be supportive and congratulate others and thus chose to act in a manner that supersedes their natural inclinations. This renders them more likely to be judged – by society – sympathetically.
The reality is that luck plays an undeniable role in every person’s life to an extent that is impossible to mitigate completely or ignore. Yet, we cannot afford to abandon notions of moral responsibility because the absence of judgment allows unchecked immorality. We have long-established codes of conduct and standards that we should aim to apply fairly. So, though one person may never be confronted by a particular challenge that disgraces them, if someone else is confronted and fails, then it is fair to judge their response. Fairness includes weighing degrees of fault and allows externalities to be assessed and evaluated to determine the extent of their impact versus the extent of the person’s control. Surely, we cannot control many aspects of our lives, but we can control our response to those circumstances, whether they are positive or negative. We can and should judge ourselves and our peers based not only on their actions themselves, but also on the eventual outcome, the person’s intent/motivation as well as other extenuating circumstances.
Note: this essay by Cliff Satell on Moral Luck was originally an essay for “Problems in Ethical Theory” a Duke course taught by Prof. David Wong in December 2010. It has been updated slightly.
Nagel, Thomas. “Moral Luck.” Mortal Questions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-luck/
Richard J. Aronson, Ph.D. Co-Director of the Institute for Law and Philosophy at the School of Law, Univ. of San Diego. http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/rarneson/Courses/NAGELMoralLuck.pdf
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Moral Luck. http://www.iep.utm.edu/moralluc/#H2