Thursday, April 14, 2011

Moral Luck Day 2: Nagel on Control

On What Grounds Do We Excuse People?  Nagel then considers what supports the control principle.  First, involuntary movements are usually not blameworthy.  Someone with Turrets, for example, is not responsible for outbursts of bad language because the outbursts are involuntary.  Second, actions caused by external physical forces are not blameworthy.  For example, if someone forces you to pull the trigger of a gun pointed at your mother, you are not responsible for that action.  Third, acts out of ignorance of circumstances are not morally bad.  In German, the words for "fog" and "fag" are very similar.  Now, say that I happen to be speaking with Germans in San Fransisco and I try to tell them that I hate all the fog.  Instead, I tell them that I hate all the gay people.  Because I said those words out of ignorance of the German language, I am not responsible for my words.  The control principle seems to be true not just about some special cases.  Rather, it is a general philosophical truth that agents are responsible only for actions that they can control.  

There is a problem with the control principle.  The control principle is at odds with the fact that ultimately, nothing is fully under our control.  This may lead someone to be skeptical about responsibility.  How can we ever be responsible if we are never in control?  It seems that even our desires and choices are often out of our complete control.  To deny that we have responsibility is to skeptical about moral responsibility.  Compatibalists about luck and responsiblity say that we must blame people not based on whether they were on control.  We blame them for doing "wicked" things.  Nagel responds to this by saying that this is still no explanation of why the control principle is true.

Nagel thinks that there are simply two standpoints that humans adopt.  Neither standpoint can be abandoned.  First, we have the internal and personal active self perspective.  Actions and people are considered as things that relate to people.  They are not mere events or mere physical objects.  Neither ourselves nor others are merely objects in the world.  Second there is the external, impersonal view from nowhere, which is the perspective that actions are mere events and people are merely things.  This view does not gives us reasons to be a certain way or to have a certain character because the perspective is entirely impersonal.  We must accept both moral luck and the control principle.  But are the two inconsistent?  No, because either is true only from a certain standpoint that is essential to moral evaluation.  The perspectives cannot be combined and neither can be abandoned.  

Replies to Nagel.  First, someone can argue that luck and responsibility are, indeed, compatible.  Harry Frankfurt is such a compatibalist.  He says that there are cases where events are beyond our control and yet we are fully responsible.  Imagine that John Wilkes Booth had decided firmly that he wanted to kill Abraham Lincoln.  Now imagine that aliens had also planted a chip in Booth's head that would cause him to shoot the president even if he decided not to pull the trigger at the last minute.  Booth could not have done otherwise.  Aliens made it so that even if he had chosen not to assassinate Lincoln, he still would have pulled the trigger anyway.  It was beyond his control whether he killed the president or not.  Yet Booth is still responsible for murdering the president. 

Why is Booth still responsible?  Well, Scanlon would say that Booth honestly thought it was a good idea to kill the president.  Because Booth thought he had good reasons to perform an action, he is responsible for that action.   Based on this, Scanlon gives a modified control condition.  He says that control is not the relevant feature of actions for which we are responsible.  We are responsible if actions are accepted, owned and approved by us.  We are responsible for actions that accurately reflect our character and our reasons for acting.   Scanlon also notes that luck does matter because the outcomes of actions do make a practical difference in the relations that we have with others.  Even when we are not blameworthy, the results of our actions affect our relationships with others.  

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