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The Concept of Moral Luck

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Chance is an objective probability. The type of probability that depends only on what the mind-independent world is like. There exists a bunch of words with which we define events that in some way or another surprise us, either because we didn’t expect them, or because they are out of the ordinary, or because they seem unfathomable. “Chance,” “causality,” “coincidence,” “randomness,” and “luck” are words that belong to this category of surprise.

Chance is something that happens unpredictably without clear human intention. The core idea of chance and indeterminism is closely related to the idea of causality. Causality is when one process or state, a cause, contributes to the production of another process or state, an effect, where the cause is somewhat responsible for the effect, and the effect is somewhat dependent on the cause. A lot of us think that our thoughts and actions are free, but most of us believe that every effect has a cause and that everything that happens now in the present is the necessary result of events occurred in the past.

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An interesting topic to discuss is the morality of chance. Imagine the following situation, in two different universes, the exact same man is driving home after having too much to drink. In one universe, he loses control and hits a pedestrian killing him instantly. In the other universe, there is no pedestrian, but the driver is pulled over by a police officer and is charged for driving under the influence. From a legal and moral point of view, driving under the influence and killing someone while driving under the influence are very different things. We would morally judge the man who killed someone more harshly. It is important to realize that the difference between these two cases is merely a result of whether or not a pedestrian happened to be there, which is completely out of the driver’s control. The idea that people bear the full moral weight of their actions, despite the significance of the external factors is called Moral Luck and was first mentioned in 1976 by a philosopher named Thomas Nagel as a response to philosopher Immanuel Kant’s view on morality. Kant argued that, regardless of the outcome, we should judge others based on their good will or their conscious intention to do something that is morally right. In his essay titled Moral Luck, Nagel, however, argues that the moral judgment we place on others are based on factors that are beyond our control.

In Nagel’s interpretation, there are four separate categories on Moral Luck. The first is called Constitutive Luck which is basically the habits and personality traits that effect a person and their actions. For example, you may not like sharing your snacks even though many others find sharing food and other things to be second nature, it’s just how you were born. If someone else is used to sharing their food, they can judge your natural temperament to not sharing as selfish. Regardless of people’s intentions or actions we hold them accountable for parts of their personality that they do not control. The second type is called Circumstantial Luck and deals with the circumstances you are in as long as the options you have. As Nagel wrote “The things that we are called upon to do, the moral tests we face are importantly determined by factors beyond our control” (Nagel – Moral Luck (excerpts, page 6, first line)). For instance, war criminals in a different world may have lived out their life without hurting anyone. On the other hand, citizens under oppressive systems have the choice to stand up against the government as heroes or sit back and ignore the massacres. In some cases, one might argue that they are undergoing a moral test. What is important to notice here is that this test is not what citizens in other countries go through. Regardless of what these citizens choose to do, they would be called one way or the other, a hero or a coward. The third type is called Causal Luck. Nagel does not go into much detail on this one because it is sort of a combination of Constitutive luck and Circumstantial luck. To put it briefly, it is all about the events that have influenced the person you are today. Like if you have ever been in a car accident or any other life changing experience. The final type of Moral Luck Nagel talked about is called Resultant Luck and it deals with the way our actions turned out. For instance, the charges for attempted murder versus an actual murder are quite different in many countries even though the intentions are exactly the same. We judge them differently based on the end result of whether or not someone died which might have to do with something out of the persons control such as a bird flying in the path of a bullet in the process of a murder attempt.

The more we explore the idea of moral luck the more cracks appear in our moral judgment. There are two natural conflicting moral impulses that we have. One pushes us to pass moral judgment about a person based on their actions while the other is an instinct to be just and to only judge people for what they are responsible for. What Thomas Nagel shows is that if we try to strip away the ‘could haves’ and judge people for what they actually did and what they are responsible for, it is possible to tear away parts until no one is responsible for anything. It follows that we should stop passing moral judgment, but this feels fundamentally wrong, because we do not think things just happen. The final question we are left with is how do we define our moral views knowing that Moral Luck is everywhere? And as Nagel concludes, there is an answer to that question. Once we start to classify the active actions of people as passive events of things, there is no responsible self left which could take out that judgment.

In many ways, Moral Luck might be intimidating. The prospect of a paradox infecting our own judgments. The fact is that life does go on. We keep judging ourselves and others for better or for worse and we keep seeing people as people, because there is no way we could ever think of them as giant bundles of luck and randomness. This is a flaw in our reasoning, but it is also a tribute to our powerful sense of humanity. On this, Nagel writes “There is a close connection between our feelings about ourselves and our feelings about others…We do not regard our actions and characters as unfortunate episodes. We cannot simply take an external view of ourselves – of what we most essentially are, and what we do,” (Ethics: Essential Readings in Moral Theory book page 682, second paragraph, third line). This remains true. Even when we know that we are not responsible for our own existence, our nature, the choices we have to make, or the consequences that come with our actions. “Those acts remain ours, and we remain ourselves despite the persuasiveness of reasons that argue us out of existence,” (Moral luck edited by Daniel Statman book page 68, second paragraph, last line). The consequences of the system that we constructed are due to our desires to be fair to others while also holding ourselves accountable.

Chance can truly change your life completely. Do you ever bump into the same stranger a number of times within one hour? Do you ever think about that maybe that is because in another universe, you two are friends and have planned to go out together that day, but due to something that happened in the past by chance, you are still strangers? That might be a little bit of a stretch, but it is nonetheless interesting to think about. How different would your life be if the unavoidable chance did not exist? Let’s say one day you planned to leave your apartment at one o’clock in the afternoon, but you were feeling productive and left at twelve in the afternoon. You later get a call that your building has burned down at twelve thirty and everyone in the building has passed away or severely injured. You are always lazy, but for one day for some reason you decided to be productive and that ended up saving your life. What are the chances?

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