Course notes for Edexcel students on Moral Luck/Thomas Nagel

From the Edexcel syllabus for Paper 2:

A comparison of the work of Immanuel Kant and Aristotle with regard to Deontology and Virtue Ethics respectively.

  1. Kantian deontology – social, political and cultural influences on Kant’s ethical theory, duty-based ethics, the categorical imperative in its different formulations, prima facie duties, and contemporary applications of rule and duty-based ethics.

(2) Kant I – Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Text, second section, pp. 29–53 (Yale University Press, 2002) ISBN 9780300094879 With reference to the ideas of W D Ross and T Nagel.

NOTE: see also your course notes on Kant and Virtue Ethics, plus the Anthology extracts on Kant and Aristotle. For a discussion of Ross, see the course notes on the strengths and weaknesses of Kantian Ethics.

Thomas Nagel is a modern critic of Kant’s moral philosophy. But his criticisms also apply to Aristotle’s virtue based system of ethics. Both of them tried to show that we can be moral and held to be morally responsible for our actions over and above any circumstances that might be working against us.

Kant explains that the only thing that is good in itself is what he calls the ‘good will’. This term is one that he uses to describe our ability to act rationally and perform our moral duty in spite of any pressures we might be under. For Kant, we never lose this ability to do the right thing for the right reason. So there are no excuses. Rationality itself protects morality from all outside pressures.

Think of a situation where a drawing pin has been left on a teacher’s chair at the beginning of a lesson and they sit on it. The teacher then demands that the culprit in the class be identified. At this point, there is considerable pressure on all the pupils in that class not to identify the person who did it. However, for Kant, peer pressure is irrelevant. One’s duty, according to the moral law, is to tell the truth. Had Kant been a member of that class, he would have offered up the name of the miscreant right away.

Aristotle meanwhile, argues that even though we are often aroused by powerful pleasurable and painful sensations, that we never lose our freedom to act virtuously.

What Nagel argues in a famous essay called ‘Moral Luck’ is that, on closer examination, ‘Ultimately, nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control’.

Moral luck occurs whenever praise or blame is apportioned to someone for an action or its consequences even when, on closer inspection, it is clear that the action or its consequences were largely outside their control.

Some examples will be described further on in this handout that should make this concept clearer.

The more you think about it, Nagel observes, the larger part that luck seems to play in things for which we are morally judged.

First there is constitutive luck. This has to do with one’s innate character or personality, the kind of thing Lady Gaga is getting at when she sings about being ‘born this way.’ Some people seem to be born with kindly and sympathetic natures; others seem naturally cold and selfish. But no one chooses the character they’re born with. So ultimately, one’s constitution is a matter of luck.

Secondly, there’s circumstantial luck. In part, this has to do with being in the right place at the right time, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nagel gives the example of ordinary citizens of Nazi Germany who had to choose whether to oppose the regime or ‘behave badly’. ‘Most of them’, he writes, ‘are culpable for having failed the test’. Citizens of other countries may well have behaved just as badly in similar circumstances, but luckily for them their circumstances were different, and so they did not. They, therefore, are not culpable.

Another aspect of circumstantial luck has to do with the results of one’s actions, in the sense of whether things turn out fortuitously (i.e. things turn out well purely by chance) or not.

Picture the following situation (this is not one mentioned by Nagel): Cristiano is driving home from work one evening and in a moment of inattentiveness runs a red light at a zebra crossing. Fortunately, the road is clear and no one is hurt. Later that evening, Lionel is also driving home from work, and in a similar moment of inattention runs the same red light. Unfortunately, an old man is crossing the road at the same time and Lionel runs over him and kills him.

For Nagel, an example like this shows that although both committed precisely the same driving offence, Lionel will be judged and punished more harshly, even though it is arguably a matter of circumstantial luck that the elderly gentleman was present on the second occasion.

For Nagel, this suggests that Kant was possibly wrong to not seriously consider the importance of consequences in moral judgements. The above example also highlights once again the role that luck or chance can play in situations of this kind, even though arguably Cristiano and Lionel are guilty of the same fault and therefore equally to blame for what they did.

At the end of his essay, Nagel goes even further. He notes that it is possible to argue that luck determines all our actions. Here’s how: our characters are shaped by two forces: nature and nurture. Nature is a matter of constitutive luck while nurture is a matter of circumstantial luck. So our characters are determined by luck. Now, the actions we perform are determined by our characters and by external circumstances. Both of these are down to luck. So everything we do is ultimately determined by factors that we do not control.

This leads to the conclusion that there is no space left for Kant’s ‘good will’ to operate. We only feel as if we are acting freely and rationally. Instead, the conclusion must be reached that if everything that we do is determined by luck, then no-one is blameable for anything.

This perspective is as an aspect of what later came to be described in Nagel’s writing as ‘the view from nowhere’. On the one hand, from this larger perspective, humans lack the free will to act rationally and apply the moral law. But subjectively, we do feel as though our actions are freely chosen and that we can make moral judgements about human behaviour because we are responsible for what we do.

In the essay ‘Moral Luck’, although Nagel does seem to side with ‘the view from nowhere’, and this view undermines Kant’s own view of moral responsibility, he is also highlighting the paradox that lies at the heart of this whole issue of how responsible we are for our behaviour.

A paradox is a word used to describe a situation in which contradictory ideas both seem to be true simultaneously.  As he puts it, ‘A person can be morally responsible only for what he does; but what he does results from a great deal that he does not do; therefore he is not morally responsible for what he is and is not responsible for.’ Note: you may need to read that quotation a couple of times to get the gist of what Nagel is saying. In simple terms, we are both responsible and not responsible for what we do.