Thursday, 8 December 2011

Nagel's Moral Luck

Here's a quick philosophical sketch of a concept that I think is useful when discussing consequentialist theories of ethics (theories where the moral value of an act is determined by its consequences, like utilitarianism).  If I'm missing an important aspect of this, feel free to correct me.

Thomas Nagel's concept of 'moral luck' is exactly what it sounds like: when how moral you are is determined by luck.  Intuitively, we think that we can decide (at least in theory) what the right action is before we act, and if stuff happens that's out of our control, then that's not our fault, right?  Not according to consequentialists: they argue that if the consequences of your action are bad then your action was bad - regardless of what your intentions were.

Here's a fairly uncontroversial example: two smokers are walking at night, each down a different street in a different city.  Both smokers take a last drag and toss their cigarette into someone's front garden - but while the first smoker's cigarette lands in a puddle of water and gets put out, the second smoker's cigarette lands in a spilled puddle of kerosene and sets the whole garden and house alight, killing everyone inside.  We would tend to regard the first smoker's act as an asshole move, but nothing too serious, and certainly not criminal.  The second smoker, though, is the kind of guy who gets used in cheesy anti-tobacco PSAs.  What's the difference between the two?  Just luck.

This, says Nagel, presents a problem for consequentialists. How can they provide an intuitive explanation for not considering both smokers equally?  There are various ways of dealing with this - expected value consequentialism, drawing a distinction between blame and moral responsibility - but I contend that the problem's larger than Nagel makes out.  In my next post I'll explain how.


  1. In one class that spent some time on moral luck, we discussed some vehicular examples that I'll offer.

    For one, consider (relatively) small risks like running a yellow light, texting or talking while driving, or driving after having had, say, two drinks. One of these actions usually has no consequences. But once in a while, the selfsame action causes a crash, and perhaps fatalities. Based on luck.

    Another example we discussed was a big truck driving down a street, and a small child darting out from between parked cars right in front of the truck.

    (This brought up another interesting issue: it seems that no one would blame that truck driver. But at the same time, we expect the driver to be really torn up, don't we? If she coolly remarked about not being blameworthy, we'd think she was some kind of moral monster. Interesting...)

    P.S. I heard that you got a Theremin. Sounds fun.

  2. Ivan, your comments about 'moral monsters' and our ethical expectations remind me of Michael Stocker's paper 'The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories'. If you haven't read it, you should (or at least you should browse a summary). Stocker argues that anyone who follows consequentialist or deontological rules fully necessarily sacrifices something human.

    And yes, the Theremin is awesome. One day I'll head down there and try my hand at the old Doctor Who theme.

  3. Is it really "just luck"? The yard in which the second smoker's cigarette lands has a pool of kerosene. Those homeowners were a bit more than negligent to have open air kerosene ponds in their yard, no?

  4. It's good to hear from you, Jack! Yes, the 'pool of kerosene' thing in my example was a little forced - see Ivan's comment for a better example, or imagine that the kerosene fell from a passing government drone. In any case, while the blame might lie to some extent with the homeowner or the government, the consequences from the perspective of the smoker are determined by luck.