Moral Luck Notes for September 13–18

Why “Moral Luck”?

I wanted to read the article “Moral Luck” for two reasons.

  1. It’s an interesting problem
  2. It’s an alternative to the case-driven way of looking at ethics that you find in Singer and Thomson (Cohen is a bit of a hybrid)

When we come back to this on Monday, let’s look more carefully at Nagel’s distinction between people and things (pp. 25, 36) and the four categories of luck that he defined.

I would also like to see if we can apply some of the material here to the ‘voluntariness’ objection to Thomson’s violinist example.

Main points from Monday

We began by listing some of the ways that we judge people as good or bad. A generous or kind person is judged to be good. A stingy or mean one is thought to be bad.

Then we noted that Nagel contrasts these judgments with judgments of moral responsibility. People are morally good or bad for what they are in control of. I think that’s what he means when he says that judging a person is different from judging a thing. As Martin, Yavor, and Tom variously pointed out, things are thought to be good or bad depending on how they are used; persons are judged based on how they choose (if you’ll pardon the rhyme). We judge persons when we hold them morally responsible and we hold them morally responsible for what they are in control of.

Since no one is in control of their character traits, that must mean that the sorts of judgments I listed at the beginning of this section are not judgments of moral responsibility.

But what’s a person?

Gloria hit the nail on the head when she said that Nagel defines moral responsibility as involving control and then takes control away. That’s what he sees as the problem.

There’s another way of looking at it, though. One might say that what this shows is that we don’t rely on thinking that people are in control to the degree that Nagel suggests. This was Mike’s position and, if I recall correctly, Barrett’s. Mike is comfortable with saying that generous people are good and stingy people are bad even though they can’t control whether they are generous or good.

It seems to me that there are two ways to go here.

You might think that Nagel is wrong to insist that moral responsibility requires the kind of control he says it does.

Or you might think that he correctly characterizes what we think moral responsibility involves and conclude that our ideas about moral responsibility just don’t make much sense. Instead of insisting on absolute control and thinking that there is a deep difference between persons and things, we should be comfortable with judging people more like we judge things.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2006.
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