Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame
By Diana Brickell
Does the pervasive influence of luck in life mean that people cannot be held responsible for their choices? Do people lack the control required to justify moral praise and blame?
In his famous article "Moral Luck," philosopher Thomas Nagel casts doubt on our ordinary moral judgments of persons. He claims that we intuitively accept that moral responsibility requires control, yet we praise and blame people for their actions, the outcomes of those actions, and their characters – even though shaped by forces beyond their control, i.e., by luck. This is the "problem of moral luck."
Philosopher Diana Brickell argues that this attack on moral judgment rests on a faulty view of control, as well as other errors. By developing Aristotle's theory of moral responsibility, she explains the sources and limits of a person's responsibility for what he does, what he produces, and who he is. Ultimately, she shows that moral judgments are not undermined by luck.
In addition, this book explores the nature of moral agency and free will, the purpose of moral judgment, causation in tort and criminal law, the process of character development, and more.
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Chapter One introduces Thomas Nagel's problem of moral luck, then surveys the three major types of moral luck – resultant moral luck, circumstantial moral luck, and constitutive moral luck. The problem of moral luck is not merely some small problem in ethics. It threatens to undermine any and all moral praise and blame of persons. It also provides the foundation for John Rawls' arguments for an egalitarian political order. This chapter concludes by surveying the book as a whole, chapter by chapter.
View or download the PDF of Chapter One.
Chapter Three critically examines Thomas Nagel's concept of "control," so crucial to his case for the existence of moral luck. Nagel claims that his view of control is the "intuitively plausible" condition for moral responsibility. Yet in fact, Nagel's view of control is unrealistic and impossibly strict. A few commentators on the problem of moral luck have noticed that problem, yet none made good use of it. To do so, a theory of moral judgment and moral responsibility must be developed from scratch, as is done in Chapters Four and Five.
View or download the PDF of Chapter Three.
Contents in Detail lists the page numbers for each chapter and its sections. This listing shows the structure of the book, as well as topics covered.
View or download the PDF of the Contents in Detail.
In a still-ongoing series of podcasts, Diana Brickell discusses Responsibility & Luck, chapter-by-chapter. In each podcast, she explains the main ideas of that chapter, discusses fresh examples, considers further implications, raises objections, and more.
- Podcast on Chapter One: What is the "problem of moral luck"? Why does it matter to ethics, law, and politics? What is its connection to John Rawls' egalitarianism? Why did I choose to write my doctoral dissertation on the topic? (22 May 2014)
- Podcast on Chapter Two: What are some of the common proposed solutions to the problem of moral luck? How and why do they fail? (5 June 2014)
- Podcast on Chapter Three: What does Thomas Nagel's control condition for moral responsibility really mean? Does it set an impossible standard? Have others noticed and capitalized on this problem? (19 June 2014)
- Podcast on Chapter Four: The purpose of a theory of moral responsibility is to limit moral judgments of persons to their voluntary doings, products, and qualities. However, moral judgments are not the only – or even the most common – judgments of people we commonly make. So what are the various kinds of judgments we make of other people? What are the distinctive purposes and demands of those judgments? What is the relationship between those judgments and a person's voluntary actions, outcomes, and traits? (17 July 2014)
- Podcast on Chapter Five: In Chapter Three of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle develops the outlines of a theory of moral responsibility. He argues that responsibility requires (1) control and (2) knowledge. What is the meaning of those conditions for moral responsibility? What do they require in practice? Are those conditions for moral responsibility sufficient? What gaps did Aristotle leave? What is required for a full and clear defense of moral responsibility for actions? (4 December 2014)
- Podcast on Chapter Six: Can an Aristotelian theory of moral responsibility solve the problem of moral luck? In particular, how does the theory of responsibility for actions handle the proposed cases of "circumstantial moral luck"? (15 January 2014)