Monday, 20 October 2008

Williams on Moral Luck (Part 2)

In this post, I begin to look at a certain line of objection to Williams' notion of retrospective justification.

Putatively, to say that Gauguin lacks adequate reasons, at the time of making his decision, just is to say that he is unjustified. On this view, whether or not a decision is rationally justified is based solely on considerations that are available to one at the time one makes the decision. There is no “looking back”, or re-assessment in light of future contingencies. At best, a successful outcome can only vindicate one’s already justified decision. It cannot move it from a state of being unjustified to a state of being justified (in cases of success) nor move it from a state of being justified to a state of being unjustified (in cases of failure).

One way of highlighting the problematic nature of the notion of retrospective justification is in terms of a distinction between justified action and right action. In what follows, I will be discusses one reading of this distinction, which is based on a class discussion in Joseph Raz's "Problems in Legal Philosophy" seminar. I will refer to it as the uncharitable reading (for reasons I hope will become clear later).

According to the uncharitable reading of the distinction, right action is action for which there are adequate reasons; while justified action is action that one has adequate reasons to believe is supported by adequate reasons. On this view, whether a decision is justified is based solely on what an agent is aware of at the time of making the decision. However, one cannot know if a decision is the right one until all the facts are in. On this view, having adequate reasons to act is equated with a successful outcome.

Applying this distinction to the Gauguin case, we may say that travelling to Tahiti constitutes the right action since it is met with success. However, since Williams stipulates that retrospective justification is the only type of justification available to Gauguin, this implies that he did not have adequate reasons to believe his decision was supported by adequate reasons. In short, by Williams’ lights, Gauguin’s decision does not constitute a justified action. However, if this is right, it is not clear how the Gauguin case is different from any other case in which an agent performs an unjustified action and things happen to turn out favourably.

For example, we can imagine an agent, Mr. Jones, who selects the vice president of his company based solely on the fact that he likes her glasses. Even if the vice president turns out to be both competent and effective, we would not think that Mr. Jones decision was justified (retrospectively or otherwise). Moreover, to the extent that the two cases are relevantly alike, it is not clear that we would be any more inclined to regard Gauguin as justified (retrospectively or otherwise). Admittedly, Gauguin may feel a sense of relief that his decision to go against what was morally required of him was not all for naught. But this sense of relief falls short of constituting some alternative type of justification which may be said to make up for the moral justification Gauguin lacks. Williams’ argument, it appears, fails to meet its mark.

Unfortunately, I do not believe the uncharitable reading of the right action vs. justified action distinction gets things quite right. According to the uncharitable reading, right action (i.e., actions for which there are adequate reasons) is equated with successful outcome. This poses at least two problems. Firstly, this characterisation of right action seems to be at odds with Williams’ description of the Gauguin case:
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. (Moral Luck, p. 23)
By Williams’ lights, right action is not simply equated with successful outcome, but rather with a type of justification that Gauguin is (at least) able to offer to himself, if not to others. Thus, the uncharitable reading appears to beg the question against Williams since it characterises right action in a way that is already at odds with what Williams says about the Gauguin case.

Secondly, the equation of adequate reasons with favourable outcome is open to counterexamples. Consider the following example. Imagine that Professor Smith takes his students on a field trip in South America, and that they are captured by a band of guerrillas while hiking through the jungle. The leader of the guerrillas finds a pair of dice in Smith’s pocket and offers him the following choice. He tells Smith that he will roll the dice and that he has to predict whether it will come up snake-eyes or not. If his prediction is right, then his life and that of his students will be spared. But if his prediction is wrong, then he and all his students will be shot. Since Smith knows that the pair of dice is fair, he knows that the chance that they will come up snake-eyes is 1:36. Thus, given the laws of probability, Smith is clearly justified in predicting that the dice will not come up snake-eyes. Unfortunately, to the horror of Smith and his students, the pair of dice does in fact come up snake-eyes, contrary to Smith’s prediction.

Now, according to the uncharitable reading, Smith’s guess constitutes the justified action, but fails to constitute the right action. However, it simply gets things wrong to say that predicting that the dice would come up snake-eyes is supported by adequate reasons. Since, in our example, the pair of dice did come up snake-eyes, the act of predicting it would come up snake-eyes would have undeniably led to a favourable outcome. However, such a prediction would have represented a direct violation of the laws of probability. As such, it could not conceivably be the action supported by adequate reasons. This remains true, even after the dice comes up snake-eyes since the laws of probability remain the same throughout. In brief, the action supported by adequate reasons does not necessarily correspond with the action with a favourable outcome.

In my next post on this topic, I will attempt to articulate a more charitable reading of the distinction between justified action and right action.

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