Friday, April 12, 2013

Nagel on Moral Luck

**This is from guest blogger, Claire S.**

Nagel’s article on Moral Luck evoked many responses in me, which I will share with you all. I am eager to hear your responses.

My first reaction to Nagel’s article concerns determinism and more specifically incompatabilism. If “hard” determinism is true – the view that the truth of determinism means that no agent is ever free – then it seems like all action an agent may take are out of that agent’s control because it is not the case that, given the antecedent causal events, that agent could have acted other than they did. If we want to accept incompatabilism and still talk about moral luck, then it seems like we would have to hold that no one is morally accountable for any actions they take because they were determined to take these actions and could not have acted other than they did. But this seems wrong. For example, even if we hold that hard determinism is true then agent A who murdered someone and agent B who didn’t murder someone were equally determined and constrained to act as they did, yet we still think that agent A is morally responsible for her actions.

Next I want to talk about the legal aspect of Nagel’s article. Nagel asks, why do we punish agent A who successfully murders her husband more severely than agent B who unsuccessfully murders her husband? My answer to this question is firstly that in the legal system we base punishment on the outcome of the situation, so since in the case of agent A a man was murdered and in the case of agent B a man was not murdered, we punish agent A for the murder of her husband. I think the reason this is true of our legal system and of the way we react to the two different cases is because there is a difference in the victim. In the case of agent A a man is a victim of murder and he is gone forever. As restitution for the victim agent A is given a more harsh punishment in order to make up for the loss she caused. Another question that I must ask to this is, would it even be possible or how could we punish people for what might have happened, for what they intended to do, if it did not in fact happen? This goes along with the case of the man in Germany who becomes a Nazi simply by being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the (say, the exact same) man who leaves Germany just in time to prevent him from becoming a Nazi. How could we punish the man who would have become a Nazi but just wasn’t there at the time to do it? I think it’s fair to only punish the man who did become the Nazi, even if this was just bad luck for him. Even if we did think that it was justified to punish the man who doesn’t become a Nazi, how would our legal system look? It would certainly be more complicated than it is now – and that is bad for lawyers. That is why I think we focus mostly on the outcome and the victim when it comes to the legal system. Lastly, I think perhaps we actually do account for moral luck to some degree in the legal system – for there are plenty of times when circumstantial evidence is included in the case to determine the level of guilt of the person on trial. This circumstantial evidence can be used both for the defense and the prosecution, and I think sometimes it does affect what the verdict ends up being. Can anyone else think of any specific court cases or written laws where circumstances can get you off the hook?

Another reaction I have to Nagel’s article is, so what? Moral luck just is a fact of life, some people are born into worse situations than others and some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time. How could we account for this in the legal system? And I’m not sure we even should account for it (in most cases) – people should still try to make the best decisions they can, given what circumstances they have to deal with, and they still have the ultimate choice in how they should act. A place where I think that actually there should be a difference in punishment (and I’m pretty sure there isn’t) is say, if agent A and agent B are both caught stealing food from the grocery store. Only, agent A is a ten-year-old kid whose parents are drug addicts and don’t provide food for thei child, and agent B is someone with the means to buy the food. It seems like there should be a different level of blameworthiness for the two agents given their circumstances. But again, this is not something that the legal system directly does, I believe both agents would be equally punished.

Now I ask myself and you all, is this fair? No, it probably isn’t fair, but that is just the way things are a lot of the time. It doesn’t seem like we can be “fair” unless we all take an incompatabilist view and say that it applies to everyone than nothing is in their control and no one should be blamed or punished for their actions. But I personally cannot accept the incompatabilist view because what would society look like if we did? There would be no incentive to act morally and there would be no punishment for not acting morally. How do you all feel about it?


J P H Stephens said...


While I really enjoyed your pessimistic analysis, I DO have a couple TINY points to argue.

Firstly, you note that a system which judged us independently of moral luck would be much more complex. This much is true. You then go on to say that it would be bad for lawyers. This is false. Lawyers are a tool by which citizens can deal with the complexity of law. If the law is more complex, this tool will be in higher demand...meaning higher wages for lawyers. It IS, however, bad for the citizens who need the lawyers.

As for how the justice system might deal with circumstantial evidence in the real world, I do not have any good examples...but your comments made me think about entrapment and search warrant laws. In a case where someone has a large quantity of heroin in their home, whether police have the right to search their home seems to have absolutely no bearing on whether what they are doing is right/wrong. The search warrant system is in place to protect our right to privacy, and it is funny how it can potentially make things more complex by allowing individuals to keep illegal items in their domiciles. As for short, a police officer cannot entice you into breaking the law and then arrest you for doing so. That protects someone who did not originally intend to commit a crime, since their actions were swayed by the officer.

Lastly, I'd like to return to the case of stealing food. I'm not sure exactly how the two agents would be treated in court, but the ten-year-old would most certainly be treated as a minor. Additionally, our justice system is set up to attempt to right the "luck" that child has had...taking him/her away from her former, drug-addicted, parents.

Also...I was attempting to set up a thought experiment on entrapment, but decided to hold off to see where this comment thread does/does not go.

Danny Witt said...

Great post—just a few thoughts. I’m interested in how you reject hard determinism. The common response, as you have given, is to say that it ‘seems’ wrong. I don’t mean to harp on epistemic inadequacies, but just because it seems that we are not “determined” to act, in no way reduces the viability of determinism as an ontological truth about how things are in a mind-independent sense. However, you elaborated on your position with the argument that determinism and moral responsibility cannot coexist. You suggest that determinism is not possible because it produces, in situations with agent A (who murders) and agent B (who does not murder), instances of holding certain individuals (in this case agent A) morally responsible for an action even though both agents are constrained/caused to act from determined antecedents.

Say we are determined though—namely, we have an intricate collection of genetically-controlled qualities, shaped in part by environmental causes, and a whole host of other causes which bring us to this moment in space and time. Might our tendency to assign moral evaluation be a product of our unchecked belief that we have free will (in its purest sense). Perhaps what we are truly justified in doing is restricting our moral assessments to the actions that actually materialize—by the doing of some agent. Even those actions will be determined, but at least we can collectively (as a community) voice our moral opinions about said actions. Using your example, can we really assign moral responsibility to the agent A if he has genetics which predispose him towards acts of violence and was for the sake of the argument, sexually molested as a youth, fell into gang life, had a propensity to become addicted to personality-altering drugs, etc. Are we justified in holding agent A morally responsible for the act now? Or do we just know murder (the action) is wrong and—believing that an agent’s action is free of antecedent constraints—assign agent A morally responsibility, based solely on the fact that his action was morally evaluated to be wrong?

Kelsen Alexander said...

I want to say that a person shouldn't be morally accountable for anything they didn't intend to do but I fail to come up with good reasons for this. Let's consider that a person is responsible for the moral luck that they have. In this case, we can handle the examples of moral luck and describe the different punishments accordingly. The reason we don't like moral luck is because it is unfair. We have to deal with unfair all the time though. Every time we drive we are accepting some small amount of risk of hitting someone through no fault of our own except that we were driving. What is wrong with assigning full moral responsibility when something bad happens? All the other times we don't hit someone, we feel not moral qualms about driving. Sure it's a game of luck but there are things you can do to improve your odds. That means that the person who isn't that careful and never hits someone and the person who is always careful and never hits someone have the same luck but a difference in moral judgement only in the fact that the decisions (or intentions) are different. Where as with two careful drivers, the person who actually hits someone will have different moral judgement but this time in the fact that they were the one who hit the person. Odds are good that the people being less careful will more likely add poor moral luck to their poor decisions but there isn't a problem really with holding the person who actually does the thing a little more accountable.