Monday, 24 November 2008

Williams on Moral Luck (Part 4)

In this post, wish to examine Williams' account of retrospective justification as its own special type of justification, independent of the type of justification implicated in justified action (as defined in my previous post).

Williams does not describe, at length and in a systematic way, what makes retrospective justification different form other types of justification. However, he does identify the Gauguin case as being special in that his decision involves a life-defining project. Williams unpacks this idea by noting that the evaluative standpoint Gauguin occupies once he has become an artist is quite different from that which he occupied when he first made the decision to travel to Tahiti. This suggests the following possibility for making sense of what is special about retrospective justification. Let us suppose that Gauguin was a stockbroker before he became an artist. I will refer to the perspective from which Gauguin would assess his own life at the time he decided to travel to Tahiti as that of Gauguin the stockbroker. The perspective of Gauguin the stockbroker contrasts with that of Gauguin after he has become a famous artist. I will refer to this second perspective as that of Gauguin the artist.

Following Williams, we can suppose that Gauguin the artist feels some regret about the decision of Gauguin the stockbroker to leave his family. Nevertheless, Gauguin the artist also recognises that if Gauguin the stockbroker had not acted as he did, then Gauguin the artist would not exist. Thus, although Gauguin the artist regrets the immoral actions of Gauguin the stockbroker, he is nevertheless grateful that Gauguin the stockbroker acted as he did.

By Williams’ lights, the gratitude of Gauguin the artist points to a special type of justification, which is both success-dependent and fundamentally retrospective. The fact that Gauguin the artist feels grateful is taken to show that he thinks the action was the right course or (in some meaningful sense) justified. However, since the perspective from which Gauguin the stockbroker’s decision is justified only comes to exist many years after the decision was made, there was no way for the justification in question to exist contemporaneously with the decision. In brief, the justification in question must be retrospective since it is located in a perspective that did not exist at the time the relevant action was performed. This presents us with an intelligible difference between the type of justification at play in Williams’ example, and the type of justification we earlier identified with justified action.

But how does this relate to Williams’ claim that if we hold to (M1) we are forced to give up (M2)? Williams observes that even those of us who subscribe to the moral requirement to take care of one’s family may feel grateful for Gauguin’s achievements. However, since his achievements came at the cost of fulfilling his moral obligations, our gratitude is taken to be evidence that we sometimes rank non-moral considerations above moral ones. This conclusion flies in the face of (M2); the claim that moral considerations are supreme. Moreover, we are forced to accept it so long as we hold to (M1), the claim that morality is luck-free, since this precludes the possibility of retrospective moral justification.

In sum, Williams maintains that there will always be cases in which retrospective justification takes priority over all others, a fact that our gratitude for Gauguin’s achievements illustrates. Since moral judgements cannot be retrospective (a la M1), then on such occasions they will always take second place (contra M2).

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