Monday, 10 November 2008

Williams on Moral Luck (Part 3)

The lesson to be learned from the failure of the uncharitable reading, limned in the previous post, may be put as follows: If the distinction between right action and justified action is to avoid begging the question against Williams, then our account of right action must make room for the concept of retrospective justification. The goal of the charitable reading, then, is to characterise right action in a way that is in keeping with what Williams explicitly says about retrospective justification, and then to use this common ground as a non-question-begging basis for criticising Williams’ argument. As we already noted, a non-question-begging notion of right action cannot be equated with mere successful outcome. This leaves us with three other possibilities: (1) right action just is justified action, (2) right action is a combination of right action and success, and (3) right action is its own special type of success-dependent justification. I will consider each of these possibilities in turn.

According to (1), Williams’ notion of retrospective justification simply equates right action with justified action. However, if we define right action as justified action, then there is nothing (in principle) to prevent Gauguin from being justified at the time in which he makes the decision to leave his family. Since justified action does not require success—only that the agent be justified at the time of making the decision—there is no need to wait until the outcome of his decision is known. This account of right action flies in the face of Williams’ insistence that the justification Gauguin has is only available if he is successful. Consequently, (1) fails to provide a common ground from which we may criticise Williams’ argument.

According to (2), we may define right action as the conjunction of justified action (i.e., action with adequate reasons) and successful action. On this picture, there may be cases of justified action that fail to constitute right action and there may be cases of successful action that fall short of right action. Since this definition of right action implicates success, it would (when applied to the Gauguin case) take on the retrospective nature of Williams’ justification. However, as we already noted, Williams stipulates that Gauguin’s justification is purely retrospective, which means he did not have adequate reasons for his decision at the time he made it. As such, Gauguin’s decision fails to constitute a justified action and therefore, according to (2), fails to constitute an instance of right action. Consequently, (2) also fails to provide a definition of right action that can accommodate Williams’ notion of retrospective justification.

The final proposal is that right action represents its own special type of justification, independent of justified action. If we define right action along these lines, then it is clearly able to accommodate Williams’ notion of retrospective justification. But what could this special type of justification possibly amount to? This will be the question of the next post on this topic.

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