Monday, 9 February 2009

Towards a Plausible Control Principle (Part 1)

In the next two posts I will be attempting to articulate a philosophical account of moral responsibility that (1) preserves the widespread intuition that one cannot be morally responsible for something that is not one’s fault, and (2) avoids Nagel's criticisms with respect to resultant and circumstantial luck. In this post, I will begin by attempting to arrive at what I take to be a plausible control principle.

According to Nagel, the problem of moral luck arises out of a conflict between our ordinary practice and a widely held intuition about morality. Nagel summarises the intuition in question as follows:
Prior to reflection it is intuitively plausible that people cannot be morally assessed for what is not their fault, or for what is due to factors beyond their control.
I will refer to the intuition that one cannot be morally assessed for what is not one’s fault as the pre-philosophical position. Nagel expresses the pre-philosophical position in the form of a disjunction, with “what is not their fault” as the first disjunct and “what is due to factors beyond their control” as the second. One may read these two disjuncts as being independent of each other, in which case they would constitute a pair of independent necessary conditions for moral responsibility. However, given the context, I believe it would be more natural to read the second disjunct as an elaboration of the first, in which case Nagel can be seen as supplying a single necessary condition for moral responsibility (albeit expressed in two different ways).

On this reading, Nagel is committed to there being a constitutive connection between X being one’s fault and X being under one’s control such that X is only one’s fault if and only if X is under one’s control. If one buys into the present reading—which equates X being’s one’s fault and X being under one’s control—then the pre-theoretical position is equivalent to the following control principle:
(CP1): A is morally responsible for X only if X is under A’s control.
I take the claim that X is under one’s control (at least as it features in the control principle) to mean that one was free not to do X. The paradigm case of something that is under one’s control is the act of raising one’s arm at will. I will refer to any act one may perform ‘at will’ as being under one’s direct control. This allows for the following revised version of the control principle:
(CP2): A is morally responsible for X only if X is under A’s direct control.
However, I do not believe that (CP2) is a plausible formulation of the control principle since we routinely hold individuals responsible for things they do not have direct control over. For example, we can imagine a doctor chastising a patient because he failed to lower his blood pressure as he was instructed to do on a previous visit. Of course, no one can lower their blood pressure “at will”. However, one can take indirect steps (such as exercise, making the appropriate changes to one’s diet, etc.) to lower one’s blood pressure, and this seems to be sufficient to make one responsible for lowering one’s blood pressure. Moreover, it is not clear that there is any reason why (in principle) there could not be moral cases like the physician case. I therefore propose that (CP2) be reformulated to include indirect control:
(CP3): A is morally responsible for X only if X is under A’s direct or indirect control.
In my next post, I will attempt to show how the control principle articulated here avoids the problems of resultant and circumstantial luck.

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