Thursday, April 14, 2011

Moral Luck Day 2: Nagel on Moral Luck

Today we continue talking about moral luck.  The main question regarding moral luck is whether judgments about good actions and bad actions ever depend on luck.  Is a moral agent or her actions good or bad based on things outside her control?  Specifically, we are talking about Thomas Nagel, who identified a paradox in the arguments about moral luck.

The Paradox.  Nagel thinks that we believe both of the following things: (1) The Control Principle states that we are morally responsible only for things that are in our control and (2) there are many cases where a person is responsible for things outside of his control.  This is a paradox because the two statements contradict one another.  We should not believe both at the same time becuase they are inconsistent statements.  To believe inconsistent or contradictory things is irrational.  Yet Nagel thinks that we cannot plausibly reject either one.

Nagel thinks that he can explain the paradox.  He says the reason why we have contradictory beliefs about responsibility and moral luck is because we have two opposed perspectives on our actions.  First, we view our actions from our own personal perspective.  Second, we also look at our actions from the perspective of others.  While we cannot reconcile these two principles, we also cannot avoid believing both.

In order to expand on his argument, Nagel discusses the different kinds of moral luck.  He thinks that Williams has gotten some of his examples wrong.  Williams thinks that the regret that we feel for accidentally causing something bad (like accidentally running over a cat in spite of taking all safety precautions) is evidence for the existence of moral luck.  Nagel denies that this feeling of regret is sufficient to prove that moral luck is real.  Nagel thinks that such regret indicates the presence of moral luck only if there has been some negligent action.  A person performs a negligent action when he or she performs an action in a careless way.

For example, say that I leave the gas stove on in my apartment.  As a result, the apartment fills up with natural gas, which is toxic to humans.  Usually my roommate is gone during the day.  On this particular day, however, my roommate is at home in the apartment because her professor got sick and cancelled class.  It is a matter of luck that my roommate is home.  As a result of this luck, she inhales gas and dies in her sleep.  Because my negligence coincided with the unlucky fact that my roommate was in the apartment, this is a case of moral luck.  Therefore I am morally responsible for my roommate's death.  If the situation were slightly different, I would not be responsible.  For example, say that I had remembered to turn off the stove but that the oven malfunctioned and left the gas on anyway.  In this modified version of the scenario, I am not negligent so I am not responsible for the death.  Without negligence there is no moral luck.

In addition to negligent actions, actions that result from uncertain decisions can result in moral luck.  For example, Gaugin's choice to leave his wife and children would have been morally worse if he had not been successful.  Also, the American Revolution would not have been moral if England had won the war.  Although George Washington would have still made a noble attempt at revolution, he would be morally responsible for the deaths of his comrades.  Because the revolution was successful, Washington is a hero.  Had he failed, he would have been blamed.  Actions with certain results are not privy to moral luck.  But actions that have uncertain outcomes are subject to moral luck.  From a prospective view, when someone is trying to decide what to do, the morality of the choice is undetermined.  But from a retrospective view, when looking back on actions that have been performed, we can judge the morality of the action based on the outcomes of the action.

Nagel thinks that circumstantial luck can also be moral luck.  For example, German citizens in the 20th century had the circumstantial bad luck to be citizens of the Nazi regime.  Other citizens of other countries that did not have fascist regimes responsible for genocide had better circumstantial luck.  Although it was just a matter of luck that many Germans were complicit in the Holocaust and the Swedes were not, we hold German citizens responsible for Hitler's genocide and we do not hold Swedish citizens responsible.

You can also have moral constitutive luck.  You can have moral luck about who you are.  For example, imagine a racist, Reggie.  Reggie was raised in a racist household.  His parents made racist comments all the time and told Reggie that he was better than others because he is a certain race.  It's a matter of bad luck that Reggie was born with racist parents, but he is still responsible for his racist attitudes.

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