Friday, 13 February 2009

Towards a Plausible Control Principle (Part 2)

In my previous post, I articulated the following control principle:
(CP3): A is morally responsible for φ only if φ is under A’s direct or indirect control.
I now wish to explore the implications of (CP3) for the problem of moral luck. I begin by considering what Nagel refers to as resultant luck, or luck with respect to how things turn out. Although Nagel acknowledges that most of our moral intuitions favour a version of the control principle, he maintains that we frequently make moral judgements about people based on factors that are not within their control.

For example, consider the case of two equally skilled gunmen who are equally determined to murder someone. While the first gunman succeeds, the second, due to factors outside his control, fails to kill his target. According to Nagel, we would hold the successful gunman to be deserving of greater blame than the unsuccessful gunman. Given that the difference between the two gunmen is due to factors outside of their control, the fact that we assess them differently entails that facts outside their control may make a moral difference. Since this fact about our moral assessments conflicts with our intuitions about such assessments (or so it is alleged), Nagel labels the moral luck problem a paradox.

I believe the account of moral responsibility articulated above provides a potential solution to Nagel’s paradox. First, I wish to grant Nagel’s claim that we tend to view the successful gunman as deserving of greater blame. This seems to follow from the fact that we hold the successful gunman morally responsible for something (i.e., killing another human being) that we do not hold the unsuccessful gunman morally responsible for. However, I maintain that this poses no challenge to the control principle. According to the control principle, one is morally responsible for φ only if φ is under one’s control, where control is understood as one being free to do otherwise.

Now, in the case of the successful gunman, it is clear that he was free to do otherwise. Thus, according to the control principle, the successful gunman is morally responsible for his actions. Luck only enters in the case of the unsuccessful gunman. Since, ex hypothesi, the fact that unsuccessful gunman missed is due to factors outside of his control, then his failure to kill his target is a matter of luck. But, and here is the rub, the unsuccessful gunman is not held morally blameworthy for missing his target. Nor is he held morally praiseworthy for missing his target. In fact, he is not held morally responsible for missing his target at all. On the contrary, he is only held morally responsible for the one thing he had control over—namely, his attempted murder. The upshot is that the present account (1) preserves the intuitively plausible claim that one is only morally responsible for φ if φ is under one’s control, and (2) allows for our differential treatment of the successful and unsuccessful gunman.

I believe the above resolution to the problem of resultant luck generalises to cases of circumstantial and constitutive luck. Roughly, circumstantial luck has to do with how being at the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time may influence the way one is morally assessed. Nagel gives an example of a person living in Germany during the Second World War who “behaves badly”. Undoubtedly, we would hold such an individual morally culpable for his actions. Nagel invites us to contrast this person with a German national who moves to Argentina for business just before the war. Stipulating that the expatriate would have acted the same way as the person who remained in Germany, Nagel observes that we would not hold the expatriate blameworthy for the actions of his counterpart.

The account of moral responsibility outlined above preserves our differential moral assessment of the German resident and expatriate. Recall, one of the necessary conditions for moral blameworthiness is that one be guilty of wrongdoing. Since, ex hypothesi, the expatriate has done nothing wrong, then he is not blameworthy for the actions of his counterpart. This acknowledgement may seem to pose a challenge to the control principle since the fact that the expatriate does not find himself in the same circumstances as his counterpart is due to factors outside of his control. But this appearance is misleading. We do not hold either of the two agents in Nagel’s example morally responsible for whether or not they happen to be in Germany during the war (a fact over which they are presumed to have no control) but for how they react to the circumstances they find themselves in (something they presumably do have control over).

Admittedly, the fact that they are faced with the particular circumstances with which they are confronted is a matter of luck. And since the difference in circumstances gives rise to a moral difference, then presumably luck has contributed to his difference. But the problem of moral luck is not simply that luck may make a moral difference. Rather, it is that our differential moral assessments appear to undermine the intuitively plausible control principle. But since both gunmen in Nagel’s example are only held responsible for what is under their control, the control principle is preserved.

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