Moral luck: How it matters, and how it doesn’t

Feb 10 JDN 2458525

The concept of moral luck is now relatively familiar to most philosophers, but I imagine most other people haven’t heard it before. It sounds like a contradiction, which is probably why it drew so much attention.

The term “moral luck” seems to have originated in essay by Thomas Nagel, but the intuition is much older, dating at least back to Greek philosophy (and really probably older than that; we just don’t have good records that far back).

The basic argument is this:

Most people would say that if you had no control over something, you can’t be held morally responsible for it. It was just luck.

But if you look closely, everything we do—including things we would conventionally regard as moral actions—depends heavily on things we don’t have control over.

Therefore, either we can be held responsible for things we have no control over, or we can’t be held responsible for anything at all!

Neither approach seems very satisfying; hence the conundrum.

For example, consider four drivers:

Anna is driving normally, and nothing of note happens.

Bob is driving recklessly, but nothing of note happens.

Carla is driving normally, but a child stumbles out into the street and she runs the child over.

Dan is driving recklessly, and a child stumbles out into the street and he runs the child over.

The presence or absence of a child in the street was not in the control of any of the four drivers. Yet I think most people would agree that Dan should be held more morally responsible than Bob, and Carla should be held more morally responsible than Anna. (Whether Bob should be held more morally responsible than Carla is not as clear.) Yet both Bob and Dan were driving recklessly, and both Anna and Carla were driving normally. The moral evaluation seems to depend upon the presence of the child, which was not under the drivers’ control.

Other philosophers have argued that the difference is an epistemic one: We know the moral character of someone who drove recklessly and ran over a child better than the moral character of someone who drove recklessly and didn’t run over a child. But do we, really?

Another response is simply to deny that we should treat Bob and Dan any differently, and say that reckless driving is reckless driving, and safe driving is safe driving. For this particular example, maybe that works. But it’s not hard to come up with better examples where that doesn’t work:

Ted is a psychopathic serial killer. He kidnaps, rapes, and murder people. Maybe he can control whether or not he rapes and murders someone. But the reason he rapes and murders someone is that he is a psychopath. And he can’t control that he is a psychopath. So how can we say that his actions are morally wrong?

Obviously, we want to say that his actions are morally wrong.

I have heard one alternative, which is to consider psychopaths as morally equivalent to viruses: Zero culpability, zero moral value, something morally neutral but dangerous that we should contain or eradicate as swiftly as possible. HIV isn’t evil; it’s just harmful. We should kill it not because it deserves to die, but because it will kill us if we don’t. On this theory, Ted doesn’t deserve to be executed; it’s just that we must execute him in order to protect ourselves from the danger he poses.

But this quickly becomes unsatisfactory as well:

Jonas is a medical researcher whose work has saved millions of lives. Maybe he can control the research he works on, but he only works on medical research because he was born with a high IQ and strong feelings of compassion. He can’t control that he was born with a high IQ and strong feelings of compassion. So how can we say his actions are morally right?

This is the line of reasoning that quickly leads to saying that all actions are outside our control, and therefore morally neutral; and then the whole concept of morality falls apart.

So we need to draw the line somewhere; there has to be a space of things that aren’t in our control, but nonetheless carry moral weight. That’s moral luck.

Philosophers have actually identified four types of moral luck, which turns out to be tremendously useful in drawing that line.

Resultant luck is luck that determines the consequences of your actions, how things “turn out”. Happening to run over the child because you couldn’t swerve fast enough is resultant luck.

Circumstantial luck is luck that determines the sorts of situations you are in, and what moral decisions you have to make. A child happening to stumble across the street is circumstantial luck.

Constitutive luck is luck that determines who you are, your own capabilities, virtues, intentions and so on. Having a high IQ and strong feelings of compassion is constitutive luck.

Causal luck is the inherent luck written into the fabric of the universe that determines all events according to the fundamental laws of physics. Causal luck is everything and everywhere; it is written into the universal wavefunction.

I have a very strong intuition that this list is ordered; going from top to bottom makes things “less luck” in a vital sense.

Resultant luck is pure luck, what we originally meant when we said the word “luck”. It’s the roll of the dice.

Circumstantial luck is still mostly luck, but maybe not entirely; there are some aspects of it that do seem to be under our control.

Constitutive luck is maybe luck, sort of, but not really. Yes, “You’re lucky to be so smart” makes sense, but “You’re lucky to not be a psychopath” already sounds pretty weird. We’re entering territory here where our ordinary notions of luck and responsibility really don’t seem to apply.

Causal luck is not luck at all. Causal luck is really the opposite of luck: Without a universe with fundamental laws of physics to maintain causal order, none of our actions would have any meaning at all. They wouldn’t even really be actions; they’d just be events. You can’t do something in a world of pure chaos; things only happen. And being made of physical particles doesn’t make you any less what you are; a table made of wood is still a table, and a rocket made of steel is still a rocket. Thou art physics.

And that, my dear reader, is the solution to the problem of moral luck. Forget “causal luck”, which isn’t luck at all. Then, draw a hard line at constitutive luck: regardless of how you became who you are, you are responsible for what you do.

You don’t need to have control over who you are (what would that even mean!?).

You merely need to have control over what you do.

This is how the word “control” is normally used, by the way; when we say that a manufacturing process is “under control” or a pilot “has control” of an airplane, we aren’t asserting some grand metaphysical claim of ultimate causation. We’re merely saying that the system is working as it’s supposed to; the outputs coming out are within the intended parameters. This is all we need for moral responsibility as well.

In some cases, maybe people’s brains really are so messed up that we can’t hold them morally responsible; they aren’t “under control”. Okay, we’re back to the virus argument then: Contain or eradicate. If a brain tumor makes you so dangerous that we can’t trust you around sharp objects, unless we can take out that tumor, we’ll need to lock you up somewhere where you can’t get any sharp objects. Sorry. Maybe you don’t deserve that in some ultimate sense, but it’s still obviously what we have to do. And this is obviously quite exceptional; most people are not suffering from brain tumors that radically alter their personalities—and even most psychopaths are otherwise neurologically normal.

Ironically, it’s probably my fellow social scientists who will scoff the most at this answer. “But so much of what we are is determined by our neurochemistry/cultural norms/social circumstances/political institutions/economic incentives!” Yes, that’s true. And if we want to change those things to make us and others better, I’m all for it. (Well, neurochemistry is a bit problematic, so let’s focus on the others first—but if you can make a pill that cures psychopathy, I would support mandatory administration of that pill to psychopaths in positions of power.)

When you make a moral choice, we have to hold you responsible for that choice.

Maybe Ted is psychopathic and sadistic because there was too much lead in his water as a child. That’s a good reason to stop putting lead in people’s water (like we didn’t already have plenty!); but it’s not a good reason to let Ted off the hook for all those rapes and murders.

Maybe Jonas is intelligent and compassionate because his parents were wealthy and well-educated. That’s a good reason to make sure people are financially secure and well-educated (again, did we need more?); but it’s not a good reason to deny Jonas his Nobel Prize for saving millions of lives.

Yes, “personal responsibility” has been used by conservatives as an excuse to not solve various social and economic problems (indeed, it has specifically been used to stop regulations on lead in water and public funding for education). But that’s not actually anything wrong with personal responsibility. We should hold those conservatives personally responsible for abusing the term in support of their destructive social and economic policies. No moral freedom is lost by preventing lead from turning children into psychopaths. No personal liberty is destroyed by ensuring that everyone has access to a good education.

In fact, there is evidence that telling people who are suffering from poverty or oppression that they should take personal responsibility for their choices benefits them. Self-perceived victimhood is linked to all sorts of destructive behaviors, even controlling for prior life circumstances. Feminist theorists have written about how taking responsibility even when you are oppressed can empower you to make your life better. Yes, obviously, we should be helping people when we can. But telling them that they are hopeless unless we come in to rescue them isn’t helping them.

This way of thinking may require a delicate balance at times, but it’s not inconsistent. You can both fight against lead pollution and support the criminal justice system. You can believe in both public education and the Nobel Prize. We be working toward a world where people are constituted with more virtue for reasons beyond their control, and where people are held responsible for the actions they take that are under their control.

We can continue to talk about “moral luck” referring to constitutive luck, I suppose, but I think the term obscures more than it illuminates. The “luck” that made you a good or a bad person is very different from the “luck” that decides how things happen to turn out.