Monday, August 08, 2005

Moral Luck

I have just come across the philosophical concept known as moral luck, which is illustrated by this example from Wikipedia:

Suppose there are two truck drivers, Driver A, and Driver B. They are exactly alike in every single way, drive the same exact car, have the same driving schedule, have the same exact reaction time, and so forth. Let's say that Driver A is driving down a road, following all legal driving requirements, when suddenly, a child runs out in the middle of the road to retrieve a lost ball. Driver A slams the brakes, swerves, in short, does everything to try to avoid hitting the child -- alas, the inertia of the truck is too great, and the distance between the truck and the child is too short. Unfortunately, the child is killed as the result of the collision. Driver B, in the meantime, is following the exact same route, doing all the exact same things, and everything is quite exactly the same --– except for one important distinction. In his scenario, there is no child that appears on the road as if out of nowhere. He gets to his destination safely, and there no accident occurs.

If a bystander were asked to morally evaluate Drivers A and B, there is very good reason to expect him to say that Driver A is due more moral blame than Driver B. After all, his course of action resulted in the death of a child, whereas the course of action taken by Driver B was quite uneventful. However, there are absolutely no differences in the controllable actions performed by Drivers A and B. The only disparity is that in the case of Driver A, an external uncontrollable event occurred, whereas it did not in the case of Driver B. The external uncontrollable event, of course, is the child appearing on the road. In other words, there is no difference at all in what the two of them could have done --– however, one seems clearly more to blame than the other. How does this occur?

This is the problem of moral luck. If we agree that moral responsibility should only be relevant when the agent voluntarily performed or failed to perform some action, we should blame Drivers A and B equally, or praise them equally, as may be the case. At the same time, this seems to be at least intuitively problematic, as -- whatever the external circumstances are --– one situation resulted in an unfortunate death, and the other did not.

My reaction: The example only shows that moral luck is an artificial philosophical construct. Specifically, Driver B's experience is irrelevant because Driver B wasn't placed in the same circumstances as Driver A. The example avoids the real issues, which are these:
  • Did Driver A in fact drive prudently? That isn't the same thing as "following all legal driving requirements." Driver A might have passed a breathalyzer test, but perhaps just barely. Or Driver A might have been talking on his cell phone in a jurisdiction that doesn't forbid doing so while driving. Or Driver A might not have been paying full attention to his surroundings (an undetectable lapse) because he was thinking about where to make his next turn.
  • More fundamentally, the example fails to mention the actions of the child and the child's parents. Was the child of an age to have known better than to dart into the street without looking? Why was the child allowed to play with a ball near the street? Why wasn't someone keeping an eye on the child? Why hadn't the child's parents fenced the front yard and seen to it that the child couldn't unlatch the gate?
If Driver A drove prudently, no blame can attach to Driver A. The blame, if any, must attach to the child or the child's parents, an option that the example omits.


Moral luck entails two extreme outcomes, both of which seem intuitively unacceptable.

If, one hand, we accept moral luck as a real phenomenon and accept it as a valid restriction on personal responsibility (and, consequently, the assign[ment] of moral blame or praise), it is difficult to identify a situation where moral luck does not affect an event or an individual. Many, if not all, of the moral judgments that we engage in daily seem to become problematic, since any single action can be defended as having been affected by moral luck. Constitutive moral luck [pertaining to the personal character of the moral agent] especially highlights this problem --– after all, it is perfectly valid to argue that every single thing that we do relates in some way to our personal character disposition, and is not one hundred percent voluntary. Thus, if we do stick by our requirement of moral responsibility as needing complete volition, we cannot validly morally assess any action performed by an individual. As Nagel himself points out, if moral luck is accepted as a valid premise, the area of individual moral responsibility seems to "“shrink . . . to an extensionless point."

On the other hand, if we deny the influence of moral luck and refuse to accept that it has anything to do with moral evaluation (as Kant most certainly would, for example), we are left with a single unappealing option: we are responsible for everything that we do, whether voluntarily or not, and for all the consequences, no matter how unforeseen or unlikely, that our actions entail. By this logic, the unlucky Driver A from our earlier example can take no solace in the fact that there was nothing he could have done to prevent the death of the child as the result of the accident --– he deserves the full amount of moral blame that can be assigned for such an outcome.

That is, moral luck either (1) negates personal responsibility or (2) places all responsibility on the individual actor to whom things happen. I reject the first premise because we have free will or must act as if we have it. (See this post.) I reject the second premise because, as I argued above, it fails to account for the freely chosen actions of others.

The concept of moral luck strikes me as useless philosophical casuistry. I'm sorry it came to my attention. I will now try to forget it.

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