Lecture Supplement on Thomas Nagel’s "Moral Luck" [1976]

Copyright © 2002 Bruce W. Hauptli

1. Introduction:

In 1976 Bernard Williams published an article entitled "Moral Luck," and Thomas Nagel replied to that article with this essay."1We have already studied Williams’ critique of utilitarianism,2and you can read a selection from his more "positive theory" in the text (see the selection from his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy in our text).3Williams is not a moral objectivist. As Nagel points out in his review of Williams’ book Moral Luck:4

the transcendent [or objectivist] impulse in ethical theory comes out both in claims about the universal content of morality and in claims about its supreme authority in our lives. Williams challenges both these claims (whether in their utilitarian or in their Kantian forms), but he is unsure how to divide his opposition between the two. A challenge with respect to [universal] content would say that any morality must be grounded in the dominant attitudes and feelings of the person whose morality it is and therefore cannot be impersonal. A challenge with respect to [supreme] authority would say that because morality is grounded in only some of our motives, it should sometimes be overridden by others that are more important to us: not just motives of self-interest, but altruistic concern for particular persons or the commitment to achieve or pursue some special project or aim….
  The ambivalence appears…[in the first chapter] which deals with the question whether actions can be assessed retroactively in virtue of outcomes that were not and could not have been foreseen with certainty in advance. Can luck determine whether or not what we have done is justified or not, and if so, is that a truth internal to morality or a limitation on it? Williams argues that it is not possible always to act in such a way that one will have no reason to reproach oneself, whatever happens.5
In his "Moral Luck," Andrew Latus’ discussion of one of Williams’ examples (which Nagel minimally outlines in this essay) helps us understand what moral luck is according to Williams and Nagel. Consider …the lorry driver who "through no fault of his" runs over a small child. [Williams] rightly says that the driver will feel a sort of regret at the death of this child that no one else will feel. The driver, after all, caused the child’s death. Furthermore, we expect agent regret to be felt even in cases in which we do not think the agent was at fault. If we are satisfied that the driver could have done nothing else to prevent the child’s death, we will try to console him by telling him this. But, as Williams observes, we would think much less of the driver if he showed no regret at all….6 Latus goes on to note that: The mere fact that we do sometimes judge people for things that happen due to luck does not indicate that we should judge people for things that happen due to luck nor that we intend to. The problem Nagel points out, however, is that when we consider the sorts of things that influence us [296] "Ultimately, nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control." That is, everything we do seems at some level to involve luck. Nagel makes a helpful comparison to the problem of epistemological skepticism. Just as the problem of skepticism emerges from the clash of our intuition that knowledge should be certain and non-accidental with the fact that few, if any, of our true beliefs are entirely certain or free from accident, so: [296] The erosion of moral judgment emerges not as the absurd consequence of an over-simple theory, but as a natural consequence of the ordinary idea of moral assessment, when it is applied in view of a more complete and precise account of the facts.7 Latus characterizes Nagel’s overall thesis in this essay as follows: Nagel identifies the problem of moral luck as arising from a conflict between our practice and an intuition most of us share about morality. He states the intuition as follows: [295] 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.8 He then gives us a rough definition of the phenomenon of moral luck: [296] Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck. Clearly cases of moral luck fly in the face of the above stated intuition about morality. Yet, Nagel claims that, despite our having this intuition, we frequently do make moral judgments about people based on factors that are not within their control. Clearly "moral luck" may be good or bad—depending upon the character of the factors which are beyond one’s control. For the lorry driver, the child’s presence in the road is "bad" moral luck. If I successfully navigate my car home without incident after having to many glasses of wine at the Faculty Club, I have been the recipient of "good" moral luck. Am in not, however, negligent? Clearly I am (very) lucky that I didn’t encounter a child in the road the way the lorry driver did!

     Well, what does all this have to do with Kant’s moral theory? After all, he is not a consequentialist! What could "luck" have to do with Kantian morality? According to Nagel, Williams’ critique of objective ("impartial") moral theory goes too far. He mentions William’s essay "Persons, Character, and Morality"9 (which is included in our text) maintaining that:

Williams argues against Charles Fried that it is mistaken to want a justification for saving one’s wife rather than a stranger from drowning—instead of flipping a coin, in an either/or situation. He objects that if the rescuer thinks it is permissible to save his wife, that gives him "one thought too many." In the same essay, Williams claims that there may be certain ground projects in a person’s life that are a condition of his wanting to go on living at all, and that it cannot be reasonable to demand that he give up such projects in the name of impartial morality, whether utilitarian or Kantian….10 Nagel goes on to maintain that: while the demands of some forms of impersonal morality on individual motivation do seem excessive, it is much harder than Williams makes out simply to deny jurisdiction to the impersonal standpoint with regard to our most fundamental feelings and commitments.11
  …I believe most of us are impelled to try to lead our personal lives and form our basic aims in a way that can be reconciled with an impersonal standpoint from which everyone is judged alike.12

The difficulty is to achieve some kind of integrity in human life without either overwhelming its personal core with a pervasive impartiality or bulldozing the impersonal standpoint in the name of what one personally must do. Both these reactions to the problems Williams so vividly poses have the flavor of reactions to oneself: on the one hand, guilt about the personal or selfish; on the other hand, rebellion against impersonal admonitions of conscience. The discovery of an alternative that we can live by I take to be the task of ethical theory.13

     In his introduction to Nagel’s article, Louis Pojman offers a slightly different gloss on Nagel’s article. He maintains that Nagel questions the whole Kantian way of looking at morality, which presumes we are all, qua rational, equal participants in the moral enterprise who have equal opportunity to be moral."14 In his "Kantian and Deontological Ethics," Pojman contends that [254] "Nagel’s article challenges our traditional way of viewing ethics as being beyond accident and luck. The challenge before us is to assess the validity of Nagel’s arguments and examples."15

     I want the reading and discussion of Nagel (and Taylor) to help us think critically about the roles of objective principles and "impartial standpoints" in our moral theorizing.

II. Nagel’s Paradox:

I think that Latus is helpful in understanding what Nagel is saying, but I believe he ultimately doesn’t get Nagel’s view quite right. I think it will be helpful to begin well into Nagel’s article where he maintains:

300 If one cannot be responsible for consequences of one’s acts due to factors beyond one’s control, or for antecedents of one’s acts that are properties of temperament not subject to one’s will, or for the circumstances that pose one’s moral choices, then how can one be responsible even for the stripped-down acts of the will itself, if they are the product of antecedent circumstances outside of the will’s control?

The area of genuine agency, and therefore of legitimate moral judgment, seems to shrink under this scrutiny to an extensionless point. Everything seems to result from the combined influence of factors, antecedent and posterior to action, that are not within the agent’s control.

300-301 The problem arises, I believe, because the self which acts and is the object of moral judgement is threatened with dissolution by the absorption of its acts and impulses to the class of events. Moral judgment of a person is judgment not of what happens to him, but of him. It does not say merely that a certain event or state of affairs is fortunate or unfortunate or even terrible. It is not an evaluation of a state of the world, or of an individual as part of the world. We are not thinking just that it would be better if he were different, or did not exist, or had not done some of the things he has done. We are judging him, rather than his existence or characteristics. The effect of concentrating on the influence of what is not under his control is to make this responsible self disappear, swallowed up by the order of mere events.

What, however, do we have in mind that a person must be to be the object of these moral attitudes? While the concept of agency is easily undermined, it is very difficult to give a positive characterization….

I believe that in a sense the problem has no solution, because something in the idea of agency is incompatible with actions being events, or people being things. But as the external determinants of what someone has done are gradually exposed, in their effect on the consequences, character, and choice itself, it becomes gradually clear that actions are events and people things. Eventually nothing remains which can be ascribed to the responsible self, and we are left with noting but a portion of the larger sequences of events, which can be deplored or celebrated, but not blamed or praised.

Given this, it is fairly clear that Nagel is pointing to a paradox. If we are to understand the paradox, and his response to it, we need to go back to the beginning of the article however.

3. The Text:

Nagel begins by pointing out that [295] "Kant believed that good or bad luck should influence neither our moral judgment of a person and his actions, nor his assessment of himself." As we have seen, the Kantian theory does not include a consideration of the situations, circumstances, character, or consequences when it engages in moral evaluation—all that is relevant is the agent’s motivation (and whether or not the agent is subjectively motivated by respect, or reverence, for the objective moral law. The Kantian evaluation of agents, then, clearly conforms to the intuition "that people cannot be morally assessed for what is not their fault, or for what is due to factors beyond their control."

     Nagel uses a variety of examples, however, to draw attention to the fact that [295] "…what we do depends in many…ways…on what is not under our control…." Thus he distinguishes between the reckless driver who hits a pedestrian and one who doesn’t, pointing out that the difference

296 "…depends on the presence of the pedestrian at the point where he recklessly passes a red light. What we do is also limited by the opportunities and choices with which we are faced, and these are largely determined by factors beyond our control." Nagel believes that the examples he offers illustrate the following general point: "Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgement, it can be called moral luck. Such luck can be good or bad. And the problem posed by this phenomenon, which led Kant to deny its possibility, is that the broad range of external influences here identified seems on close examination to undermine moral assessment as surely as does the narrower range of familiar excusing conditions."      Thus, in effect, we intuitively believe that people should not be held responsible for what is beyond their control, yet the more we examine people and their actions, the less we seem to be able to find factors which are within their control. Yet we do seem to want to take moral luck into consideration, and here the air of paradox arises.

     To help us examine this problem, Nagel distinguishes:

Constitutive luck16 —[297] "…the kind of person you are, where this is not a question of what you deliberately do, but of your inclinations, capacities, and temperament."

Circumstantial luck—"…the kinds of problems and situations one faces."

Causal luck—"…luck in how one is determined by antecedent circumstances."

Resultant luck—"…luck in the way one’s actions and projects turn out."

-Nagel uses the truck driver example to illustrate the latter sort of luck. He points out that what makes the truck driver case a case of moral luck is that [297] "…he would have to blame himself only slightly for the negligence itself if no situation arose which required him to brake suddenly and violently to avoid hitting a child. Yet the negligence is the same in both cases, and the driver has no control over whether a child will run into his path."

-297-298 Nagel also uses cases of "decision under uncertainty" as examples of this sort of luck discussing the cases of Anna Karenina, Gauguin, and the Decembrists.

[298-299] Discussing causal luck, Nagel maintains that [298] "if the object of moral judgment is the person, then to hold him accountable for what he has done in the broader sense is akin to strict liability, which may have its legal uses but seems irrational as a moral position.

The result of such a line of thought is to pare down each act to its morally essential core, an inner act of pure will assessed by motive and intention. Adam Smith advocates such a position in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but notes that it runs contrary to our actual judgments."

-Nagel notes that Kant intends to be utterly thoroughgoing in claiming that we should ignore any qualities of temperament and personality as well as any consequences or surrounding circumstances as we engage in moral evaluation. [299-300] Nagel uses discusses the moral choices confronting ordinary citizens of Nazi Germany as he considers circumstantial luck. He concludes that [300] "a person can be morally responsible only for what he does; but what he does results from a great deal that he does not do; therefore he is not morally responsible for what he is and is not responsible for. (This is not a contradiction, but it is a paradox.)"

[300] Nagel then takes up constitutive luck, though he admits that his discussion here is sketchy. He maintains that:

-"If one cannot be responsible for consequences of one’s acts due to factors beyond one’s control [that is if there is resultant luck], or for antecedents of one’s acts that are properties of temperament not subject to one’s will [that is, if there is causal luck], or for the circumstances that pose one’s moral choices [that is, if there is circumstantial luck], then how can one be responsible even for the stripped-down acts of the will itself, if they are the product of antecedent circumstances outside of the will’s control?"

-In a passage already cited, he continues by saying that the moral self here seems to be shrinking down to an "extensionless point." There seems to be nothing left which is in the agent’s control (and, thus, nothing left to be responsible for. Paradox seems to be the product.

     Nagel maintains that the paradox arises [300]: "…from the nature of moral judgment itself. Something in the ordinary idea of what someone does must explain how it can seem necessary to subtract from it anything that merely happens—even though the ultimate consequence of such subtraction is that nothing remains." Here I will not repeat the earlier discussion of pp. 300-301 (2. The Paradox, above), instead I will build on it. It should be noted, however, that Nagel recognizes that his discussion here is merely suggestive, and he does not contend that he can fully address the paradox (and I will not try to go beyond Nagel’s sketchy suggestions).

     Nagel maintains that there are two perspectives from which we may "view ourselves:"

from the outside—as portions of the world (things and events), and

from the inside—as agents.

     He contends that [301] "it is this internal view that we extend to others in moral judgment—when we judge them rather than their desirability or utility. We extend to others the refusal to limit ourselves to external evaluation, and we accord to them selves like our own. But in both cases this comes up against the brutal inclusion of humans and everything about them in a world from which they cannot be separated and of which they are nothing but contents. The external view forces itself on us at the same time that we resist it."

     In short, there is a "tension" between our "viewing" ("considering," "taking," "assuming," etc.) ourselves as selves (seeing ourselves "from the inside"), and our "viewing" (etc.) ourselves as things or events (seeing ourselves "from the outside"). While there is this tension, it seems right to say that we can properly be "viewed" (etc.) from both perspectives!

According to Nagel,then

301 "once we see an aspect of what we or someone else does as something that happens [that is, "from the outside"], we lose our grip on the idea that it has been done and that we can judge the doer and not just the happening. This explains why the absence of determinism is no more hospitable to the concept of agency than is its presence….Either way the act is viewed externally, as part of the course of events.

The problem of moral luck cannot be understood without an account of the internal conception of agency and its special connection with the moral attitudes as opposed to other types of value."

Here, however, he ends his essay. He has maintained that there are two ways of seeing ourselves, and that the phenomenon of moral luck displays a "tension" or "paradox" which seems to arise as we try and occupy both perspectives. The tension is exacerbated by the fact that we tend to expect moral theories to take an objective perspective, and this seems, naturally, to take us away from the inside (and personal or subjective) point of view. To go down this road further, however, would require that we look at Nagel’s The View From Nowhere, and that is beyond our scope here.17

     Finally, look back at Kant.  He wants a pure (or good) will.  What does such a will do?  Well, it wills.  Most truly, however, its goodness is not concerned with agency in the world in which the agent lives—instead Kant is concerned with the absolute purity of the will itself.  It is clearly not consequences he is concerned with.  Nor is he, truthfully, concerned with individual people (with their specific projects, plans, goals, etc.).  Ultimately the only thing which the “good will” is supposed to care about is rationality.  It is supposed to be motivated by, and concerned with, respect for (or reverence for) reason itself—whether instantiated in human beings or in others.  On Nagel’s internal/external perspective spectrum, Kant is clearly coming down on the internal side, but it is not the internal side of a particular agent with a rich and full life, character, projects, etc.  Instead, it is an “objectified” internal conception of an agent—one who is neither male nor female; a citizen of this-or-that state; a parent or child; an individual with certain long run aspirations, grievances, or expectations; and one who is not a person who has particular friends and loved ones who are cared for especially (in contrast with the care for unnamed others)!  In short, it is a “abstract reasoner” which Kant envisages—one concerned to always autonomously will what can be consistently universalized for all such creatures.  Because the perspective is exclusively internal, luck must be ruled out.


1Cf., Bernard Williams, “Moral Luck,” The Aristotelian Society Supplementary v. 1 (1976).   Back

Bernard Williams, “Against Utilitarianism,” in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (fourth edition), ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002), pp. 192-210.  The selection originally appeared in Utilitarianism: For and Against, Bernard Williams and J.J.C. Smart (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1973).  Back

Cf., Bernard Williams, “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy” in Ethical Theory, op. cit., pp. 502-512.  The selection is a portion of Williams’ book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1985).   Back

Cf., Bernard Williams, Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1981).  Back

Thomas Nagel, “Williams: One Thought Too Many,” The Times Literary Supplement, May 7, 1982.  The essay is reprinted in Nagel’s Other Minds: Critical Essays 1969-1994 (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 1995), pp. 167-173, and this citation is from the reprint on pp. 168-169.  Emphasis has been added to the citation three times. Back

Andrew Latus, “Moral Luck,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p. 4 of 12.  Latus’ article is available at:
I accessed it on 11/01/02.  I recommend that students examining this source begin their reading with Section 2 on Nagel, and ignore the differences and similarities between Williams and Nagel until they have understood Nagel first.  Back

Ibid., p. 6 of 12.  Emphasis added to the passage, and in addition I have added the appropriate page references to the article in the Pojman text to the Nagel citations.   Back

Andrew Latus, “Moral Luck,” op. cit., p. 5 of 12, emphasis added to the passage as well as page references to the Nagel selection in the Pojman text.   Back

Bernard Williams, “Persons, Character, and Morality,” in Ethical Theory, op. cit., pp. 585-595.  The essay originally appeared in Identities of Persons, ed. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1976).  Back

10 Thomas Nagel, “Williams: One Thought Too Many,” op. cit., p. 170.  Back

11 IbidBack

12 IbidBack

13 Ibid., p. 171.  Back

14 Louis Pojman, “Introduction” to Thomas Nagel’s “Moral Luck” in Ethical Theory, op. cit., pp. 294-295.  Emphasis added to the passage.  Citations to Nagel’s article are from pp. 295-302 of this work.  Nagel’s essay originally appeared in The Aristotelian Society Supplementary v. 1 (1976).   Back

15 Louis Pojman, “Kantian and Deontological Ethics,” in Ethical Theory, op. cit., pp. 251-254, p. 254.  Back

16 I take the designations from Andrew Latus’ article, though they are strongly suggested by the Nagel text itself. Back

17 Cf., Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere (N.Y: Oxford U.P., 1986).  A selection in our text is helpful here--cf., "Value: The View from Nowhere," in Ethical Theory, op. cit., pp. 141-150.   Back

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