Prospectus: Part 2

 Posted by on 11 December 2007 at 8:29 am  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Dec 112007

This post contains Part 2 (“The Problem of Moral Luck”) of my dissertation prospectus, written in pursuit of my Ph.D in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and submitted to my committee in early December 2007. The full prospectus is available in PDF format and as an MS Word file. Comments and questions are welcome. While they won’t change the prospectus, they might be of use as I write the dissertation over the next year.

The Problem of Moral Luck

Nagel’s case for pervasive moral luck begins with a brief survey of “the ordinary conditions of moral judgment,” particularly the “control condition” for moral responsibility.[5] Appealing to the primitive intuition that “people cannot be morally assessed for what is not their fault, or for what is due to factors outside their control,” Nagel observes that “the appropriateness of moral assessment is easily undermined by the discovery that the act or attribute, no matter how good or bad, is not under the person’s control.”[6] So “a clear absence of control, produced by involuntary movement, physical force, or ignorance of the circumstances, excuses what is done from moral judgment.”[7] The problem of moral luck arises from the attempt to consistently apply that control condition in our everyday moral judgments. When we look closely, Nagel claims, we find that “what we do depends in many more ways than [commonly thought] on what is not under our control,” yet the “external influences in this broader range are not usually thought to excuse what is done from moral judgment, positive or negative.”[8] So the problem of moral luck is that our ordinary moral judgments routinely violate the control condition: people are praised and blamed for matters beyond their control.

Nagel classifies the various cases of moral luck as resultant, circumstantial, or constitutive luck–based on that which is affected by luck.[9] In cases of resultant luck, a person is morally judged partly based on the outcome of his action despite his lack of control over that outcome, such as in cases of inherently risky action (e.g., inciting bloody revolution), failed attempts (e.g., shooting someone but not killing him as intended), and negligence (e.g., text messaging while driving).[10] In cases of circumstantial luck, the person’s moral record depends on accidental circumstances, as when a person faces a difficult moral test to which others are never put or when a would-be wrongdoer finds his deed already done for him by others.[11] In cases of constitutive luck, a person is praised or blamed for aspects of his moral character imposed upon him by his upbringing or his genes, for example.[12] These cases seem to show that our standard moral judgments of a person–whether for his products, his choices, or his character–are often substantially based on accidental factors outside his control.

Notably, the problem of moral luck does not merely present us with a limited set of puzzling cases about moral responsibility.[13] Luck is a pervasive influence in human life. No one controls the particular family, culture, nation, or era of his birth. No one controls his genetic endowments. Few people have any significant power to influence the economic conditions, political institutions, or moral climate that shape their lives. Our actions often have far-reaching, unexpected, and unpredictable effects in the world. Such external forces seem to influence the thoughts, actions, qualities, and products for which a person is morally judged. If that’s true, then the problem of moral luck undermines attributions of moral responsibility generally, not just in a few select cases. That’s why Nagel claims that “if the condition of control is consistently applied, it threatens to erode most of the moral assessments we find it natural to make.”[14]


[5] Nagel 1993, p. 58.

[6] Nagel 1993, p. 58.

[7] Nagel 1993, p. 58.

[8] Nagel 1993, p. 58.

[9] I plan to ignore Nagel’s fourth category of “causal luck,” since it concerns the broader question of free will versus determinism. Some commenters on moral luck have suggested alternative schemes of classification, but none are more illuminating than that of Nagel. See, for example, Ollila 1993, pp. 19-21. These three kinds of moral luck will be explained in greater detailed in later sections.

[10] Nagel 1993, p. 60. Cases of resultant luck are also found in Williams 1993, pp. 38-9 and Feinberg 1970, pp. 32-4.

[11] Nagel 1993, p. 60. Cases of circumstantial luck are also found in Feinberg 1970, pp. 34, 191-2.

[12] Nagel 1993, p. 60; Feinberg 1970, p. 36.

[13] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

[14] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

Go to Works Cited or the Proposed Bibliography.

Prospectus: Part 1

 Posted by on 10 December 2007 at 5:06 pm  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Dec 102007

This post contains Part 1 (“Overview”) of my dissertation prospectus, written in pursuit of my Ph.D in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and submitted to my committee in early December 2007. The full prospectus is available in PDF format and as an MS Word file. Comments and questions are welcome. While they won’t change the prospectus, they might be of use as I write the dissertation over the next year.


The problem of moral luck is best understood as a clash of common beliefs about moral responsibility and moral judgment. On one hand, people commonly think that a person cannot be justly praised or blamed for his actions unless he controls them. So if a man releases a critical pulley rope on a construction job due to a sudden heart attack, leaves the scene of an auto accident because he’s spirited away by kidnappers, or breaks a vase when knocked over by a strong gust of wind, his lack of control over his bodily movements should absolve him of any moral blame. The same is said of character traits and the outcomes of actions: a person may be justly praised and blamed only to the extent that he exerts control over them. On the other hand, ordinary moral judgments of persons routinely vary based on the actual goods or evils caused by the person, even when partly or wholly beyond his control. For example, the drunk driver who kills two pedestrians is blamed far more than the drunk driver who merely collides with a telephone pole, even if their driving was equally reckless. The only difference in what they’ve done is due to luck, yet they are blamed unequally by themselves and others. Similarly, the coward in Hitler’s Third Reich who betrays his Jewish neighbors to the authorities is responsible for contributing to genocide, whereas a man of identical character in America today might never be guilty of worse than failing to defend his wife from his sniping parents. These two men differ radically in their moral records solely based on the accidental circumstances of their births.

The problem of moral luck is the apparent conflict between the idea that a morally responsible agent must control his actions and the standard practice of blaming people more simply for causing worse results. As developed most clearly and forcefully by Thomas Nagel, the proposed category of moral luck attempts to highlight a range of cases in which “a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment.”[1] Matters of luck arguably influence all that a person is morally judged for, not only his choices and actions but also his character. Consequently, Nagel claims, “ultimately, nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control,” meaning that the consistent application of the principle that responsibility requires control threatens most if not all our ordinary moral judgments.[2]

My thesis, in brief, is that the problem of moral luck stems from a faulty understanding of the conditions of moral responsibility. A person need not solely determine all of that for which he is morally judged, as Nagel supposes. Instead, a person is properly held responsible for his voluntary acts. When a person acts voluntarily, (1) he has the power to act or not and (2) he knows what he’s doing. That Aristotelian understanding of the conditions of moral responsibility is not only consistent with standard intuitions but also grounded in basic facts about human capacities and about the purposes and demands of moral judgment. When developed in sufficient detail and extended to responsibility for a person’s products and qualities, that theory can effectively solve the puzzling cases of moral luck raised by Nagel and others, such that moral responsibility clearly tracks a person’s voluntary actions, products, and qualities.

The basic structure of this prospectus (and ultimately, of the dissertation) is fairly simple. First, I will describe the basic problem of moral luck as developed by Nagel and others. I will scrutinize the standard attempts to solve the problem of moral luck, as well as Nagel’s implicit understanding of the kind of control required for responsibility. I will also consider why the problem of moral luck as formulated by Nagel seems intractable. Second, I will develop a broadly Aristotelian theory of moral responsibility based on an analysis of the nature, purpose, and demands of moral judgment and the nature of human agency. Third, I will further develop and refine that theory of moral responsibility in the course of applying it in turn to each of the three basic kinds of moral luck: resultant luck, circumstantial luck, and constitutive luck. My analysis will show that the seemingly hopeless clash of intuitions in the various cases of moral luck can be satisfactorily resolved by a proper theory of moral responsibility, albeit perhaps not always quite as expected.

The dissertation will rely on Aristotle’s ethics and moral psychology as a general framework for the development of a robust theory of moral responsibility. While I intend to generally steer clear of substantive moral questions, the work will presuppose a teleological rather than deontological approach to ethics, meaning that “the moral propriety of actions depends on their relationship to [the] overarching end” of the agent’s own flourishing.[3] It will also rely on an incompatibilist understanding of free will as the agent’s power to perform or not perform some action, independent of prior conditions.[4]

In the following sections, I sketch the core arguments of my analysis of the problem of moral luck. I have chosen to do so in considerable detail because that enabled me to develop my account of moral responsibility clearly enough to test it against the core cases of moral luck.


[1] Nagel 1993, p. 59. Bernard Williams (1993) and Joel Feinberg (1970) were also instrumental in the development of the problem of moral luck.

[2] Nagel 1993, p. 59.

[3] Smith 1999, p. 361.

[4] My view of free will seems similar to agent-causation, but I’ll need to do some further reading to conclude that definitively.

Go to Works Cited or the Proposed Bibliography.

Dissertation Prospectus

 Posted by on 10 December 2007 at 7:41 am  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Dec 102007

On Friday, I submitted my dissertation prospectus (or proposal) to my committee. Hooray! My committee will likely meet for my defense in late January.

It took rather longer to write the prospectus than expected, mostly because I found that I had to develop my views and arguments in some depth to determine whether they actually solved the problem at hand. So now, although the prospectus is somewhat long at 55 pages, I’m extremely clear about what I’ll be doing in the dissertation. Plus, I’ve already done tons of work that otherwise I’d have done in writing the dissertation itself. So I’m quite pleased with what I’ve done so far, and I’m eager to begin work on the dissertation proper.

My dissertation topic is moral responsibility, particularly “the problem of moral luck.” The problem of moral luck challenges, via a series of seemingly compelling cases, our ordinary claims that a person is morally responsible for his choices, for the outcomes of his actions, and for his character. The problem was most powerfully developed by Thomas Nagel in his article entitled “Moral Luck.” (You can download a PDF of that critical article if you wish to read it). The basic goal of my dissertation is to develop a general theory of moral responsibility able to solve the problem of moral luck. In so doing, I’m articulating the nature and limits of a person’s moral responsibility, as well as defending our ordinary moral judgments of praise and blame as just and necessary.

Here’s my brief summary of my thesis from the prospectus:

My thesis, in brief, is that the problem of moral luck stems from a faulty understanding of the conditions of moral responsibility. A person need not solely determine all of that for which he is morally judged, as Nagel supposes. Instead, a person is properly held responsible for his voluntary acts. When a person acts voluntarily, (1) he has the power to act or not and (2) he knows what he’s doing. That Aristotelian understanding of the conditions of moral responsibility is not only consistent with standard intuitions but also grounded in basic facts about human capacities and about the purposes and demands of moral judgment. When developed in sufficient detail and extended to responsibility for a person’s products and qualities, that theory can effectively solve the puzzling cases of moral luck raised by Nagel and others, such that moral responsibility clearly tracks a person’s voluntary actions, products, and qualities.

If you’d like to read the prospectus, you’re welcome to do so. Here’s the PDF file and the Word file. Comments and questions are welcome, of course. They won’t change the prospectus, but they might be of use to me for the dissertation. (If you cite page numbers, please cite those of the PDF file.)

I’ve also decided to post the prospectus slowly on NoodleFood over the next ten days; I’ll post one section per day, starting today. So if you wish to read it that way, that’s all well and good too.

All in all, I’ve very much enjoyed my work on my prospectus. On a day-to-day basis, that’s largely due to my much-improved work habits. More broadly, however, I’m pretty well convinced that what I have to say about moral responsibility is (1) true, (2) interesting, and (3) substantially original. Philosophy work doesn’t get any better than that!

Update: Now that I’ve posted the whole prospectus, here are the links to the ten individual sections:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Works Cited
Proposed Bibliography

Platonic Conservatism

 Posted by on 27 February 2006 at 6:31 am  Conservatism, Philosophy, Politics
Feb 272006

A few weeks ago, Paul sent me to a lengthy TCS article by philosopher Edward Feser on “The Metaphysics of Conservatism.” The article consists of some downright disturbing discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of the various forms of modern conservatism. Feser clearly grounds the core of conservatism in Plato’s mystical metaphysics and intrinisicist epistemology. Since I’ve heard the critiques of neo-conservatism from Objectivist scholars like Yaron Brook and John Lewis, that’s not news to me. Still, I was pleased to hear those ideas from the horse’s mouth.

After some lengthy discussion of philosophy, the author distinguishes between three kinds of modern conservatism: Realist Conservatism, Reductionist Conservatism, and Anti-Realist Conservatism.

“Realist Conservatism” … affirms the existence of an objective order of forms or universals that define the natures of things, including human nature, and what it seeks to conserve are just those institutions reflecting a recognition and respect for this objective order. Since human nature is, on this view, objective and universal, long-standing moral and cultural traditions are bound to reflect it and thus have a presumption in their favor.

Reductionist Conservatism … might be defined as a variety of conservatism that agrees with Realist Conservatism in affirming that there is such a thing as human nature and that it is more or less fixed, but which would ground this affirmation, not in anything like an eternal realm of Forms, but rather in, say, certain contingent facts about human biology, or perhaps in the laws of economics or in a theory of cultural evolution. The Reductionist Conservative is, accordingly, more likely to look to empirical science for inspiration than to philosophy or theology. He is also bound to see grey in at least some areas where the Realist Conservative sees black and white, since facts about economics, human biology, and the like, while very stable, are not quite as fixed or implacable as the Forms. But he is less likely to see grey than is the Anti-Realist Conservative…
[The Anti-Realist Conservative] might be characterized as someone doubtful that any relatively fixed moral or political principles can be read off even from scientific or economic facts about the human condition. Whereas Realist and Reductionist Conservatives value tradition because there is at least a presumption that it reflects human nature, the Anti-Realist Conservative values it merely because it provides for stability and order.

As you might have noticed, this division of conservatives is itself highly Platonic, in that these three types of conservatism are defined in terms of Humean deviation from Platonism. Absolutism varies inversely with empiricism. Still, the categories do seem to capture the varieties of intrinsicism and subjectivism found in modern conservatism. Although I’m no expert on such matters, it does correspond to much of what I’ve seen from conservative intellectuals over the years.

As for the substance of his argument that modern conservatism is rooted in ancient thought, let me indicate just some of the mental gymnastics required to make that case.

For example, the article basically ignores the quasi-communist totalitarian dictatorship of The Republic, even though Plato regarded that state as the natural outgrowth of his mystical metaphysics and intuitionist epistemology — and rightly so. As otherworldly entities, the Forms will be distant from the thoughts of most people. Lacking the special training of philosophy, ordinary people are easily deceived by the imperfect, changing, and sordid appearances of this world — not to mention led astray by their passions. So a good society would have to be rule paternalistically by a special caste of those truly in touch with the Forms — conservative intellectuals, no doubt. Although the details of Plato’s ideal state — such as women, children, and property in common — would be rejected by modern conservatives, the basic ideal of a rigidly paternalistic state flows directly from Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology. Feser ignores that rather large element of Plato’s philosophy, perhaps unwilling to admit just how paternalistic his conservative ideal would be.

Even worse, Feser grossly misrepresents Aristotle’s philosophy so as to claim him as a source for modern theocratic politics. For example, he attempts to use Aristotle’s hylomorphism (i.e. the idea that substances are unions of form and matter) to justify a total ban on abortion, euthanasia, and the like. When he makes this argument, he’s already mentioned that “Aristotle also emphasized the idea that a substance — a statue, a tree, a human being — is a composite of matter and form… And the soul, on Aristotle’s view, is simply the form of a living body. A human person, therefore, is on his view a composite of soul (or form) and body (or living matter).” That’s accurate. Yet consider what he does with those ideas:

… a person, being on the view in question a composite of soul (or form) and body (or matter), cannot be identified with either his psychological characteristics alone or his bodily characteristics alone. Moreover, since the soul is just the form of a living human body, for a living human body to exist at all is for it to have a soul, so that there can be no such thing as a living human body — whether that of a fetus, an infant, a normal human adult or a severely brain damaged adult — which does not have a soul, and which does not count as a person. For while even a human being who is damaged or not fully formed might not perfectly exhibit the form of the human body (any more than a hastily drawn triangle perfectly manifests the form of triangularity), he nevertheless does exhibit it, otherwise his body wouldn’t count as a living human body at all (just as a hastily drawn triangle is still a triangle, however imperfect). One corollary of this is that every single living human body, within the womb or without, severely damaged or not, counts as the body of a person and as a being having all the rights of a person, including the right to life.

The first sentence and a half of that quote is accurate. The rest is a logical leap to Platonic and Christian garbage. Perhaps most obviously, the claims about damaged or immature humans “not perfectly exhibit[ing] the form of the human body” is a highly Platonic analysis — and quite inconsistent with Aristotle’s approach. Also, Aristotle would not even recognize all the talk about a fetus as a “person” with “all the rights of a person, including the right to life,” since he had no concept of “rights.” Yet even if we make some allowances on those scores, nothing in Aristotle’s views about the metaphysical nature of the human organism supports the notion that abortion and/or euthanasia are morally wrong. If anything, Aristotle’s discussions of these matters in De Anima (DA) or Generation of Animals (GA) suggests precisely the opposite view.

As already mentioned, Aristotle does regard the soul as the form of a living human body. Yet souls are not limited to human beings, as in Christian dogma and as implied in the above passage. Rather, the soul is the form of any living body, whether human, animal, or even plant. Different kinds of living organisms have different kinds of souls, differentiated by natural capacities. So plants have a “nutritive soul” of growth and reproduction. Animals have a “sensitive soul” also capable of perception and locomotion. Humans have even more, namely the “rational soul” required for abstract thought. (See DA 2:3)

Since souls are not uniquely human, the mere possession of a soul cannot confer any special moral standing upon all and only humans, as Feser implies. Moreover, nor can the rational soul possessed by only humans do so, since not all humans have the capacity to reason. Some humans will only have a sensitive soul. Others are limited to a nutritive soul. As pertains to abortion, Aristotle explicitly says the soul of a human must develop from nutritive to sensitive to rational, albeit with some subtleties about actual versus potential. (See GA 2:1.) As for euthanasia, clearly a person suffering from degenerative brain disease may regress from a rational to sensitive to nutritive soul. That’s why they’re called “vegetables”!

Given Aristotle’s analysis of the metaphysical nature of organisms, it’s hardly surprising that he was no opponent of abortion, but rather allowed it in the early stages of pregnancy due to his metaphysical views. In his discussion of the best state in the Politics, he writes:

As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live, but that on the ground of an excess in the number of children, if the established customs of the state forbid this (for in our state population has a limit), no child is to be exposed, but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation. (Politics 7:16, emphasis added)

In contrast, Aristotle is opposed to suicide, but for reasons which have nothing to do with the nature of the human soul. (For more details on Aristotle on both abortion and euthanasia, including detailed textual references, see this helpful paper.)

In short, by leaping from hylomorphism about humans to moral and legal opposition to abortion and euthanasia, Edward Feser is engaged in that all-too-common practice in philosophy of “making stuff up.” (Yes, that’s technical terminology.) Even worse, he’s obviously relying upon the ignorance of his audience to do so: Although his claims about Aristotle are little more than logical leaps based upon gross misinterpretations, few of his readers are likely to know those technical details of Aristotle’s philosophy. Thus Edward Feser, like the philosopher-kings of Plato’s paternalistic totalitarianism, is perfectly willing to engage in whatever deceptions necessary to induce the rest of us lower beings to accept the rule of conservative intellectuals.


Jun 202002

A while back, I was working on my lecture on metaphysics and epistemology for the Objectivism 101 course soon to be given at the TOC Summer Seminar. Working on that lecture reminded me that my own serious interest in Objectivism was largely sparked by Ayn Rand’s short description of her theory of concepts in “The Objectivist Ethics” (of VOS). At the time, I was immersed in the confusion and muddle of a very demanding philosophy of language course. The obviousness and simplicity of Ayn Rand’s account hit me like a sack of bricks:

A “concept” is a mental integration of two or more perceptual concretes, which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by means of a specific definition. Every word of man’s language, with the exception of proper names, denotes a concept, an abstraction that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a specific kind. It is by organizing his perceptual material into concepts, and his concepts into wider and still wider concepts that man is able to grasp and retain, to identify and integrate an unlimited amount of knowledge, a knowledge extending beyond the immediate perceptions of any given, immediate moment. Man’s sense organs function automatically; man’s brain integrates his sense data into percepts automatically; but the process of integrating percepts into concepts–the process of abstraction and of concept -formation–is not automatic. (VOS 21)

It was clear to me at the time — and is even more clear now — that this description was merely a beginning of a theory of concepts. But what a promising beginning it was — and still is!

So I’ve long wanted to write a book entitled How I was Seduced by Epistemology. Perhaps that will be the title of my autobiography when I’m a wrinkled old philosopher. In any case, with a title like that, the book cover will have to look like this:


The Varnished Truth

 Posted by on 12 March 2002 at 1:15 am  Ethics, Favorites, Honesty, Philosophy, Reviews, Self-Deception
Mar 122002

A few days ago, I finished David Nyberg’s book The Varnished Truth. I’m going to offer a brief review here, as well as a few offhand comments.

In recent years, defending dishonesty has become rather fashionable in the philosophical and psychological literature. Within the crowd of these defenders of dishonesty, The Varnished Truth stands out as perhaps the most interesting, savvy, and sophisticated work. Nyberg’s goal is to challenge the assumption that dishonesty is always wrong and to show how deception is often a critical aspect of moral decency. In making his case, Nyberg clearly demonstrates a grasp of much of the subtlety and complexity of honesty in daily life. His style of writing is also clear and engaging, with plenty of examples. And he often lays bare his philosophical presumptions for all his readers to see, if they care to notice.

The book also presents some interesting challenges to the conventional view of honesty, such as that honesty goes hand in hand with trust in relationships (140-6). Altruism is certainly no good foundation for the virtue of honesty, as Nyberg so successfully demonstrates.

The most frustrating aspect of the book is Nyberg’s cavalier attitude, his utter lack of appreciation for the seriousness demanded by the subject. He claims that his book is “serious but not scholarly,” but the book is not nearly serious enough. Mere footnotes do not make a book serious.

In many places, it seemed as if Nyberg’s intent was to create confusion in the minds of his readers. Generating such confusion by highlighting the complexity of an ethical issue is all well and good, so long as the goal is to present a theory which helps make sense of all of that complexity. But Nyberg offers no such theory; he even seems to think it foolish to attempt one. This focus on complexity was not all bad, for it motivated me to develop my basic theory that we ought to be telling the contextually relevant truth rather than the whole truth or the technical truth. (I’ll have to write about that later.)

Those familiar with the Objectivist theory of evasion ought to be particularly interested in the chapter on self-deception. Nyberg clearly understands self-deception as evasion in the Objectivist sense. But his metaphysical subjectivism and malevolent universe premise lead him to the conclusion that such self-deception is both necessary and proper. If I ever write a mainstream academic paper on the Objectivist theory of evasion, that chapter will certainly provide many quotes.

For those of you interested in the virtue of honesty, I would recommend The Varnished Truth as part of a “know thy enemy” and “understand the complexity” strategy. But be sure to also read the discussion of honesty in Tara Smith’s Viable Values (164-174). It’s absolutely the best analysis of the virtue of honesty from an egoistic perspective available.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha