Sunday, 5 October 2008

Williams on Moral Luck (Part 1)

In his paper, “Moral Luck”, Bernard Williams argues that scepticism about the freedom of morality from luck requires that we adjust our conception of morality. Specifically, there are two widely held beliefs about morality that Williams takes issue with:
(M1) Morality is immune to luck.
(M2) Morality represents the supreme value.
Williams maintains that (M1) is only important if (M2) also holds. He writes:
Even if moral value had been radically unconditioned by luck, it would not have been enough merely to exhibit it as one kind of value among others. Little would be affirmed unless moral values possessed some special, indeed supreme, kind of dignity or importance. (116)
Williams’ strategy is not to argue directly for the existence of moral luck, but rather to argue that as long as we hold that morality is immune to luck, we are forced to give up the idea that morality is of supreme importance. He begins by assuming (for the sake of argument) that moral justification is immune to luck. He then argues that there are special cases in which rational justification is luck-laden—namely, when rational justification depends on success. This allows Williams to set up a contrast between the type of justification that depends on success (and which therefore implicates luck) and the type of justification that does not. This may be described as the first stage of Williams’ argument.

In the second stage of his argument, Williams claims that there are special circumstances in which the type of justification that depends on success takes priority over the types of justification that do not. Since, perforce, success-dependent justification is luck-laden, then moral justification (which we have assumed to be luck-free) cannot be supreme on such occasions. Thus, Williams presents us with a dilemma; either morality is not immune to luck (contra M1), or morality is not the supreme value (contra M2).

Williams motivates the idea of success-dependent justification with an example loosely based on the life of the painter Gauguin. In Williams’ example, Gauguin abandons his family and travels to Tahiti to pursue his dream of becoming a great artist. Ex hypothesi, remaining home and taking care of his family is taken to be the morally recommended course. However, even if we grant that Gauguin lacks moral justification for pursing his artistic ambitions, there may still be other types of justification to be had in support of his actions. Williams stipulates that Gauguin has good reasons to believe that he has what it takes to be a great artist. Even so, given the inherent uncertainty built into Gauguin’s project, he could never know with certainty that he will succeed. In short, Gauguin’s “good reasons” do not guarantee success. Williams writes:
Whether he will succeed cannot, in the nature of the case, be foreseen; we are not dealing here with the removal of an external obstacle to something which, once that is removed, will fairly predictably go through. Gauguin, in our story, is putting a great deal on a possibility which has not unequivocally declared itself. I want to explore and uphold the claim that it is possible that in such a situation the only thing that will justify his choice will be success itself. If he fails…then he did the wrong thing, not just in the sense in which that platitudinously follows, but in the sense that having done the wrong thing in those circumstances he has no basis for the thought that he was justified in acting as he did; while if he succeeds, he does have a basis for that thought. (118)
Thus, according to Williams, there is a kind of justification that Gauguin can have that can only be described as retrospective. Moreover, Williams maintains that this retrospective justification is necessary to rationally justify Gauguin’s actions. Williams acknowledges that this justification may not be of the sort that would justify him in the eyes of others, as moral justification presumably would. Nevertheless, it remains a type of justification to be had.

In my next post I will consider an objection to Williams' notion of retrospective or success-based justification.

1 comment:

Lee W said...

This is a very ineresting take on morality which matches up with some thoughts that I have had recently. In my case the example is that this. A person makes an agreement to have dinner with his flatmates. Some days later he is invited out to do something that is a once in a lifetime opportunity that would prevent him from going to dinner with his friends, and causing him to break his word, however slight. According to Williams, as you have it here, the person would be justified in cancelling the dinner in the hopes of his alternative really being a new and amazing experience, but if it were to be nothing special, then he might have said that it was the wrong choice.

Whate I would add to this is that the person in my example, and Gauguin, would be justified in feeling bad about the the decision that they ended up making, even though it was the most justifiable decision at the time it was made, given their hopes.