moral luck, rolling notes

I’m going to update this post throughout the next ten weeks with new information about moral luck.

It will consist primarily of summarization, although if I find something exceptionally problematic and decide to grapple with it immediately… then I will post a link to my further analysis.

— 1st week of April :: different types of moral luck, empirical vs theoretical components —

Thomas Nagel, in the third chapter of his book Mortal Questions, raises a real issue – what he calls a paradox – with moral accountability in a world of uncertainty. The problem is simple enough to appreciate after only brief reflection – almost any action you take is subject to outside interference. What’s even more problematic is that your motivations behind any action at any given time may be a result of luck as well. The closer we look, the more luck we can find. Nagel explicitly identifies three types of luck:

  • constitutive – your biological luck. ie. sex, temperament, dispositions, etc.
  • circumstantial – the luck involved with where you happen to be (or have ever been) and what is going on while you are/were there
  • resultant – the luck involved in your completion (or incompletion) of an action, and how that action is interpreted

For specific scenarios refer to the book, or simply roll your own. The interesting issue at hand is that on some level everything you do seems to hinge on some sort of luck. Your responsibility for action seems to melt away, and your agency vanish. You are left simply as a sum of happenstances. This is problematic for most people. But this result is derived through mostly unproblematic premises:

  1. [intuitive] People cannot be morally assessed for actions outside of their control.
  2. [result of our analysis] Everything depends on factors beyond our control.
  3. [empirical] We can be morally assessed for our actions.
  4. [but, 1. and 2.] We can not be morally assessed for anything.

This is the problem we are left to deal with. It’ll be interesting to see where other authors might have us go from here.

— 2nd week of April :: next —

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