Notes on Thomas Nagel’s “Moral Luck”


In his paper ‘Moral Luck’ Thomas Nagel argues against Kant’s idea that the moral will can and must be taken as the proper object of our moral judgments independently of the judgments we make about the consequences that issue from the actions of that will.  Against Nagel, I will defend Kant’s idea and claim that that the proper object of our moral judgments is the will and not the outcome of our willed actions.

Both Kant and Nagel agree that the outcome of one’s actions is largely beyond the control of the acting agent.   That is to say that a man may do everything that is within his power to do an action A and still do not-A.  A fireman may try with all his might to save a child dangling from a 22-story window but the result of his efforts may be that the child falls 22 stories to her death as the fireman’s grip gives out from sheer exhaustion.  In such a case, Nagel argues,  the fireman is morally blameworthy in a way that he would not have been had the child, for instance, weighed but a few pounds lighter such that the fireman’s grip on her would not have given way when it did.  In this second case, the fireman through no additional effort or power of his own, would be judged a hero.  And Nagel calls this ‘moral luck’. 

Moral luck, for Nagel, obtains (in the one measure) when circumstance conspires with the intentions of a good will so that the actual outcome of one’s action is in harmony with its intended outcome.  Luck enters the picture precisely because no agent is or could be in complete control of the circumstances in which and through which she acts.  Whether she does good or does bad is therefore, not something she can claim responsibility for.  Chance has the final say over what she does and thus over her moral assessment as an agent in toto.

Nagel explicates his theory of moral luck, or luck in relation to good action, by presenting it on analogy with epistemic luck, or luck in relation to true belief.   This analogy is helpful , for granting its validity, it allows us to apply a defense of the power of knowledge – call such a power the intellect – to a defense of the power of action – call it the will – such that if one defense  is successful, so is the other.  

Now, in epistemology, it is often held that on the justified true belief conception of knowledge, knowledge is impossible because no subject is in the position to know whether or not her beliefs are in agreement with the object that they are about.  Since no singular belief satisfies the JTB conception of knowledge, no singular act of believing is or could be an act of knowing.   From this, it is thought to extend generally such that there can in principle be no knowing subject, or stated differently, no subject with a power to know.  This can be named the ‘argument from fallibility’, it states that:

                A power vulnerable to malfunction is not a functional power.

In its epistemic form the principle states that an intellect vulnerable to false belief is not a knowing intellect.  In its moral form the principle states that a will susceptible to the production of wrong actions is not a moral will.  In its biological form the principle states that a behavioural trait susceptible to failure is not an adaptive trait.  I argue that this principle from infallibility, in all its abovementioned forms is false.  We will start with the last.

The fish has a behavioural trait which allows it to move itself through water. This trait is known typically as the ability to swim.  The fish is a good swimmer even if it becomes entangled in a fisherman’s net or if it is lifted from the water by an eagle and carried into the sky.  That the fish is afforded the opportunity to express its ability to swim is subject to luck but that the fish is able to swim is not subject to luck for luck is something that happens, and the ability to swim is not something that happens to the fish.  Rather, the power to swim is something that constitutes the fish as a fish.  A fish that has no such power is not a fish.  Thus, the fish is a good swimmer, even when it is prevented from swimming.

In the epistemic case, the human agent enjoys, through its intellect, the power to gain knowledge about its world and its own place in this world. Specifically, the intellect functions such that false beliefs once shown to be false will be corrected and the gap between the thought and the world repaired. The human intellect has this power even if circumstance dictates that now one believes falsely that-p.  That circumstance conspires to allow the agent to believe truly that p obtains or does not obtain is subject to luck but that the agent is able to know through this process of belief correction is itself not subject to luck.  As with the fish’s power to swim, the human’s power to know is not something that happens to the human – chance has no say in the matter – but something which constitutes the human as human.  A human that has no intellect is not a human.  Thus, the human has a power of knowledge even when it is prevented from knowing.

Now, in the moral case, the structure is no different. The good will is such that it acts according to principles productive of what it is right to do.  If, acting from the good will, an agent brings it about that something terrible occurs, then, though luck plays a role in the outcome of the action and the state of affairs that obtains, luck has no say in whether or not the acting agent’s will is good or bad.  The will is not something that happens to one, but rather it is constitutive of what that person is.  The morality of the agent cannot be assessed apart from the morality of the will.  Thus, she who acts from a good will who does wrong is no less moral than she who acts from a good will who does right.  And she who acts from a bad will who does right is no less morally blameworthy than she who acts from a bad will and does wrong.

Let us consider some further examples:

A driver who hits a pedestrian while driving drunk or while speeding, is guilty in a way that a train conductor whose train kills a man who falls from the station platform onto the tracks is not.  In the one case, the driver is responsible for the jeopardy that the pedestrian unknowingly steps into when he steps into the road; in the other case, nothing the conductor does causes any threat to the life of the poor man who falls in front of his train. The disparity holds even though it can be noted that in neither case did the driver or conductor have any control over the presence of the victim.  If bad luck enters the picture in either case, it is not the bad luck of the drivers but of the victims and in no sense is it moral luck.

But if we remove the presence of the victims in either case, then it does appear that the drunk driver is ‘lucky’ in a way that the train conductor is not for though the drunk driver does wrong, nothing bad or tragic comes of it. In a sense, we might say, that ‘he gets away with it’. But why should we think that this is moral luck?  He may be lucky in the sense that he escapes legal culpability and the punishment and shame he might otherwise have acquired but morally speaking, the man has done wrong; he is immoral. A reckless driver, especially a flagrant and habitual one, whose driving never causes any deaths, is no less morally blameworthy than one whose driving does result in someone’s death. The blameworthiness is directed at the will not the consequences of the action.

Now, on another measure, Nagel thinks that the will itself, specifically the kind of will fortune bequeaths to us, is subject to luck. ‘What if one is born with a wicked will?’ we might ask.  Clearly in such a case the formation of this will is not under one’s antecedent control in the same way that the drunk driver’s choice to drive recklessly is. Therefore it is tempting to think that the agent is not responsible for the acts that issue from such a will. But we should resist this temptation.  For succumbing to it obscures the fact that it is the will that is the object of our moral judgments.  We should not look beyond it for an agent of whom we can say that the will is a mere attribute. And a bad will deserves all the blame we will heap on it. That the will and not the person is the proper object of moral, as opposed to say legal, judgment should explain why there is no moral difference between the drunk driver who kills a pedestrian and the drunk driver who does not. Similarly, a mother whose intentional negligence results in the harm of her child is no more morally blameworthy than a mother whose intentional negligence causes her child no such harm. They are both expressing an immoral will.  

All of this is to say that there is no such thing as moral luck. For luck is something that happens to one, while morality is no such thing.

I’d like to close by highlighting a tension that I do believe Nagel brings out very well in his paper and that is the following: whether or not one is acting from a good or bad will is often obscure until one has acted and the consequences of that action can be evaluated in broad daylight.

Gauguin leaves his family to become a painter.  How can we assess the morality of such an action unless we wait and see whether or not history deems his art to be worthy of such a sacrifice? 

Here is my answer:

Though the will may be revealed by the outcome of the action, the will is not determined by the outcome. The will is, instead, visible in the response the agent has to her initial action. If I feel truly guilty for my action after the fact, then I blame myself for having done wrong. But a will that blames itself for its past failings is a good will. Just as an intellect that corrects its past judgments when it sees that they have erred is, ipso facto, a power of knowledge. We judge a will properly if we judge it not by only one of its particular expressions but by its disposition to respond to its expressions in a way that manifests its teleological function.

Gauguin was not morally lucky that history has appraised him as a worthy painter. If his decision to quit his job as a merchant and abandon his family was the result of flippancy or boredom then the beauty of his art does not render his action in any way morally justified.  But if his decision was made from all the earnestness and necessity befitting of a good and honest heart then he is not morally blameworthy for that decision even if his art is rubbish.  It is not the beauty of his art that would morally justify his decision but rather that he decided as he did because he believed that it was the right thing to do, not the easy thing, not the pleasant thing, but the right thing.  That we are in no position to see into the morality of such a decision from our present point of view does not entail that there is no fact of the matter whether Gauguin acted morally or not when he picked up the paintbrush.  We however, can judge our own will by examining whether or not we strive towards the good, (a striving that includes correcting ourselves for our own past transgressions). A good will like a good intellect seeks not constant perfection but constant improvement.


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