In his article, “Moral Luck,” Thomas Nagel claims that, intuitively, we believe one is not responsible, morally speaking, for those things that are beyond one’s control. One normally would not cast moral aspersions against one if their action resulted from, “a clear absence of control, produced by involuntary movement, physical force, or ignorance of the circumstances.” For instance, if I am driving, and I am suddenly struck with a seizure, then one surely would not hold me morally responsible for any damages to people or property that would have resulted from the ensuing crash. One would claim that a great tragedy had happened, especially if a pedestrian or other motorist were seriously injured or killed, but one would not say that I did anything blameworthy. This seems a basic and uncontroversial claim. However, if applied consistently, this condition of control seems to undermine all moral judgment. Nagel believes that when one looks closely enough, more and more seems to be beyond one’s control, so much so, that very little or nothing is actually under an agent’s control. What Nagel claims then, is that we are morally assessed based upon what he calls moral luck. Moral luck covers those things that one is morally assessed for, yet remains primarily outside of one’s control. Nagel identifies four distinctive types of moral luck, constitutive, circumstantial, causal, and consequential, which will be described in greater detail below. However, to Nagel, this creates a paradox with our normal way of assessing moral culpability. If we cannot judge one for things that are beyond one’s control, and it seems as if almost everything is beyond the agent’s control, how can we assess moral praise or blame whatsoever? Herein, I shall discuss the significant aspects of this paradox, including the four types of moral luck Nagel identifies and the twofold nature of how Nagel believes we assign moral culpability. I will then argue that while this paradox seems to undermine normal moral assessme nt, that we can still find an agent praiseworthy or blameworthy regardless of the existence of moral luck.
We morally appraise ourselves and others in a twofold way. The first is an external evaluation. This is an assessment of the state of affairs, that it is a good or bad thing that such-and-such happened, or that why so-and-so is the way s/he is. The second is an internal assessment. That so-and-so is a good or bad person based on what s/he did, that the agent should feel pride or shame due to his/her actions.
As stated above, though, it seems that our common sense moral judgments seem to include an exception for those acts that are beyond the agent’s control. This seems most natural in cases that include some kind of involuntary movement, coercion, or ignorance of the facts. This is what Nagel deems the condition of control, or control principle. Nagel asserts, though, upon closer inspection, that much of what an agent does is beyond the agent’s control. So if we apply the control principle consistently, almost nothing an agent does can be morally assessed. We can still make the claim that a situation is good or bad, but we cannot morally assess the actors involved, as it seems almost nothing is under the agent’s control. Yet, as Nagel asserts, we still make moral claims against the agent, and this is due to the agent’s moral luck. This is the source of the paradox.
Nagel identifies four distinct types of moral luck, constitutive, circumstantial, causal, and consequential. Constitutive luck includes what composes one’s character traits. It covers what one’s inclinations are, how intelligent one is, etc. It seems to Nagel that most of what comprises constitutive luck is beyond what the agent can be said to control. It is in many ways determined by genetics and environmental causes. These things affect at a very basic level my basic character traits and capabilities. How smart I am depends, to a large extent, on the genes donated to me by my parents. So, my capacity to learn is, mostly, beyond my control. The same can be said of my basic character traits that are socialized either from my home environment or from peer groups.
The second type of moral luck is circumstantial luck. This consists of the circumstances one is born into, or subsequently finds oneself in. This is highlighted by Nagel’s example of the Nazi sympathizer. It is by fate alone that in the one instance he is sent to Argentinaon business concerns and never rises in the Nazi regime, and then leads a relatively quiet life, or in the other that he is not, and is swept up in the Nazi party and then commits horrible acts.
Causal luck is the third type that Nagel points out. This is the luck of antecedent processes. This is the idea that every process, mechanical or moral, is the result of another process that came before it. How can one be blamed or praised for an act if it is just part of a larger causal chain that extends both backwards and forwards into eternity? Was it not then that the action was not a matter of the will of the agent, but just part of a deterministic set, and that it is just the actor’s luck, good or bad, that any specific action was undertaken in a certain way? This idea seems to attack the concept of free will most directly, as it assumes that our actions are predetermined by antecedent processes.
The final type of moral luck Nagel identifies is consequential. This is the idea that one is lucky, good or bad, on how one’s actions turn out. This would be embodied in the case Nagel gives of the two potential murderers, where one succeeds, and the other fails due to some happenstance beyond his control. If this, and the above conditions of moral luck hold true, then it seems that according to the condition of control, not very many of our actions can be assessed morally.
While it is undeniable that some degree of chance plays a role in the life of an agent, particularly when and to whom the agent is born; it is my assertion that Nagel overstates the importance he gives to moral luck, insofar as it wholly, or nearly wholly, determines the entirety of an agent’s possible actions and his or her characteristics, and when taken with the control principle exempts the agent from moral assessment. While certain factors may set baselines for behavior, it is not clear that those factors are necessarily the primary causes of any agent action. The possible exceptions to this would be those things that remain under the strictest possible reading of the condition of control. It is my claim that while there are many things that are beyond the control of an agent, the agent is still responsible for his or her willful actions. As such, one can be morally assessed for one’s role any event, and how that event turned out, in which one has performed a willful action, despite the fact that certain aspects of the event were beyond the direct control of the agent.
Let us look at this will hold up against Nagel’s four types of moral luck. First let us address consequential luck by analyzing the case of Nagel’s two negligent drivers. He asserts that we assess the driver that actually hits a child more harshly than we do one that did not hit a child. I do not disagree with him on this point. However, he goes on to say that it was only the first driver’s bad luck, and the second driver’s bad luck that the one hit the child and the other did not, so we cannot morally assess the first driver more harshly than the second. This I do not agree with. We find both drivers equally blameworthy for their negligent driving. In fact, in our every-day admonition of reckless or negligent driving, we often invoke the idea that the negligent driver could have hit an innocent pedestrian. That aspect of the possible outcome is built in to why we find reckless driving wrong in the first place. As the first driver actually hit a child, we make another moral judgment against him in light of the facts of the outcome.
One could claim then that we should not blame the first driver more harshly than the second, or that we should blame the second driver as harshly as the first, as the end results were ultimately decided by luck. Granted, the first driver could not control the fact that the child had wandered into the road, but he could control his driving negligently. So we blame him for his role in the hitting of the child. Whatever the causal link to the antecedent processes, the driver still made, or believed himself to make, the decision to drive recklessly, and to this we hold him morally responsible for both the reckless driving and the outcome of the reckless driving, in the first case further moral blame against the driver, and in the second no further blame.
Let us now turn to circumstantial luck. Again, this is an area that seems to be outside the realm of agent control, as illustrated by the Nazi sympathizers. This case is very similar to the case of our drivers above. We judge the one that actually got caught up in the Nazi regime and performed atrocious acts more harshly than the one that had similar beliefs, but due to his transfer toArgentina for business reasons, did not. We find both their attitudes morally objectionable, but we find even more objectionable that the one acted upon them. Again, we use a two tiered moral assessment. One that finds them morally blameworthy for their attitudes, and another that covers what they actually do. It is not the case that we find the first one’s anti-Semitism more deplorable just because he acted upon his beliefs. We find both cases of anti-Semitism deplorable, and then make a second judgment against the one who actually acted upon it, even though it was only by luck that the second one was transferred out ofGermany before he could act upon his inclinations.
How is it that we can make this judgment, even though it was only up to luck that the one remained inGermanyand the other did not? Again, we make moral assessments based on what an agent actually does, so long as it can be seen to be, or perceived to be an act of will of the agent. The second Nazi sympathizer may have even pursued the Nazi persecution even more fervently than the first had he stayed inGermany, but as he did not, we do not judge him as severely as the one who stayed and did. It still took a conscious act for the first to perpetrate his crimes, despite the factors that were outside of his control.
Constitutive luck would seem to present a major problem to this view. How is it that one can be held responsible for traits that one inherits genetically from one’s parents, or are socialized into by one’s prevailing culture and peer group? These circumstances seem to be wholly out of the control of the agent. However, it seems more that these set baselines for behavior, and are very possibly not a primary cause of an agent’s actions or character traits. The agent, themselves, after taking in information, decides, however passively, ultimately who they are. I will use an example from my personal life to illustrate this point. I have a twin brother. We grew up in the same household, mostly shared the same peer groups while growing up, and in general were exposed to many of the same ideas while growing up. We have similar personalities, insofar as our sense of humor and various other personality characteristics are concerned. However, we diverge in some very important aspects that are hard to explain under constitutive determinism. My brother tends to be religious and me not at all. He is politically conservative, while I am a liberal libertarian. I value intellectual pursuits more highly, while he values more mundane pursuits with more vigor.
If environmental and/or genetic determinism were indeed as strong as Nagel claims them to be, what can explain these stark differences? It is true as well, that at one time I shared those same values. Could it be that I just had slightly different experiences that manifested itself in larger differences over time? As stated, I did share many of those same values, but I then went through a process of critically evaluating my values, and decided I was unhappy with them. No perceptible force outside myself caused me to do so; it was just a result of a process of self-evaluation that I initiated. I am therefore responsible for the beliefs and attitudes that I hold, and the actions that I effect out of those desires.
The last form of moral luck needing to be addressed is that of causal luck. This seems to pose a problem as well. In fact, by its very definition, causal luck infers that events are the result of antecedent processes. While this may, or may not be true, preceding events still may not be the primary cause of an agent’s acting one way instead of another. Antecedent processes may, however, restrict the set of perceived options to any given possible action, but it is still up to the agent to willfully act, even if the agent perceives that s/he has only one choice.
But how can one be blamed or praised for an action that is part of a larger causal chain? An agent can still be blamed for their role in that causal chain, so long as one’s action in it resulted from a willful act. Let us return to our negligent driver. What if the driver had just gotten into a nasty break-up with his fiancée after catching her in bed with another man; so he storms out to his car and drives off not paying attention to basic rules of caution and safety, and then strikes a child with his car. Do we find his action any less reprehensible, even though the reason he was driving negligently was not entirely in his control, as he was upset after witnessing his fiancée with another man, and he perceived that his only option was to drive away as fast as he could? My answer is that we do not. Granted, we sympathize with him on some level, but he still did something wrong, and that wrong resulted in an even greater harm. Speeding off was not his only option. He could have waited in his car for some time until he regained his composure enough to drive safely. He could have run off on foot. He could have done any number of things. But what he did do, and that which we pass our judgment against him, is drive off carelessly and then hit a child. Even though the majority of the events were outside of his control, we still find him responsible for those things that he could control and decided to act upon.
Thomas Nagel believes that given our common-sense way of moral assessment, we do not hold one accountable for those actions that are beyond one’s control. He goes on to claim that when applied consistently, given the seemingly deterministic nature of the world (humanity included) that very little, if anything, remains that can be morally assessed. He holds that this creates a paradox with our common sense morality. How can we pass moral judgments if almost nothing is under the control of the agent? He then asserts that we find moral blame and praise based upon one’s moral luck. He defines moral luck as when moral assessment is weighed even when most of one’s actions are beyond one’s control. He then identifies four types of moral luck, constitutive, circumstantial, causal, and consequential. I have then argued that despite the condition of control, and moral luck, that Nagel places too much emphasis on the deterministic nature of moral luck as a causative force upon an agent’s character, will, and actions. It is my belief that an agent is responsible for those things that are deemed a willful act by the agent, and the agent’s role in any causal chain in which the agent performed an act that is deemed willful.
 This case would be particularly true if I had no history of epilepsy, or seizures in general. However, if I had a medical condition that caused me to have seizures and I did not take my prescribed medication, then one may find me blameworthy according to our common sense moral evaluations.
 Cohon, Rachel. “Handout on Nagel’s ‘Moral Luck.’”
 Nagel. p. 442, 451. Cohon. “Handout.”
 I am interpreting willful actions as those actions which the agent is the primary cause of, or believes himself to be the primary cause of.
 An exception to this would be cases where the is a clear genetic, or other, defect that manifests itself physically or mentally in the agent, such as Down Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy.
 It is possible that causation may not be deterministic, but probabilistic.
 It is an unstated premise in my argument that if determinism fails, and agent action is caused willfully in all circumstances, that the paradox does not exist at all, and moral luck is just a manifestation of the randomness of the universe.