Moral Luck: Nagel and Aristotle

In his essay “Moral Luck” from Mortal Questions, Thomas Nagel calls into question moral agency and judgement. He claims that moral luck creates a paradox that concerns our moral intuitions of agency and moral assessments of agents and their actions. Moral luck addresses moral responsibility, as agent’s and their actions seem to be a product of factors out of their control. In his ethical treatises, Aristotle states that the desired goal, or end, of all human action is happiness, and outlines how one can live a life of happiness, considering both internal and external determinants, including luck. I claim that the differences in Nagel’s and Aristotle’s views of moral luck are a result of their respective differing philosophical frameworks. Nagel is concerned with the source and factors that contribute to the production of moral decisions, while Aristotle is concerned with the process and outcome of decisions made, and how they can affect ethics. In this essay, I will compare Nagel’s and Aristotle’s views concerning moral luck and elaborate how Aristotle’s philosophical framework contributes to his disinterest in attacking the debate surrounding free will.

Our basic moral intuitions lead us to regard agents as worthy of praise or blame for factors that are only within their control. This notion, called the Control Principle, allows us to see how the problem of moral luck arises (Nelkin). Moral luck can be broadly defined as when the actions of an agent are dependent on factors beyond their control, but the agent and their actions, are still treated as objects of moral judgement despite this lack of control. Nagel distinguishes four ways in which moral assessments of an agent are subjected to moral luck.

The first distinction is constitutive luck, which is concerned with the internal character traits of an agent — “the kind of person [they] are… inclinations, capacities, and temperament” (Nagel 28). Much of what determines our character proceeds from causes entirely out of our control. Our upbringing, our guardians, our genetics, our environment, etc. are all essential components to who and what we are, yet we have no choice in the matter, and thus, no responsibility. Given two people in the same circumstance, one might opt to fight and the other might cower in fear and run. Such is an example of constitutive luck, as we might blame the agent who displayed cowardice despite their predispositions that were out of their control.

The second distinction is circumstantial luck, which is a luck in the circumstances or situation that one finds oneself in. Morally assessable actions (or moral tests) may arise out of circumstances we find ourselves in, that we as moral agents aren’t responsible for creating. Moreover, one couldn’t have been assessed if the circumstance never arose; we can’t judge latent capacities to act during moral tests, we can only judge the actions agents actually commit. Nagel provides an example: “Ordinary citizens of Nazi Germany had an opportunity to behave heroically by opposing the regime. They also had an opportunity to behave badly, and most of them are culpable for having failed this test. But it is a test to which the citizens of other countries were not subjected” (34).

The third distinction is resultant luck, which refers to the outcome of one’s actions. We morally assess agents differently depending on the outcome of their actions, though their actions were otherwise identical and the outcome was determined by factors out of their control. One conspicuous example is driving under the influence. Although we hold two drunk drivers responsible for their negligence, if one was involved in a crash that resulted in the fatality of another driver, we (justifiably) view them harshly, but not as harshly as one who wasn’t in a fatal car crash. Had no fatality occurred, we might condemn them for making a vacuous decision and suggest they make better choices, but we would not necessarily regard them as morally deplorable. Yet there is no difference in action, only outcome; the agents had no control over the presence of the other driver whom they did (or didn’t) crash into.

The fourth distinction is causal luck, which is a luck in “how one is determined by antecedent circumstances” which Nagel says raises the issue of free will. Since one cannot be held responsible for the antecedents that produce the influences of our actions, the “area of genuine agency, and therefore of legitimate moral judgement seems to shrink under this scrutiny to an extensionless point” (Nagel 35). Put simply, since everything, including ourselves and our actions, has a cause, we cannot be held responsible for any of our actions since we are products of antecedent causes that are all entirely out of our control. Causal luck, conceptually, is the broadest and vague.

Next, I will discuss Aristotle’s conceptions of moral luck, and identify overlap and divergence with Nagel’s conceptions. According to Aristotle, nature is the internal source of motion and change that has regularity and purpose, it is the cause of what occurs universally, while luck (or chance) tends to be a deviation from the pattern and deals with particular cases of things. In his Physics, Aristotle notes the role that luck (chance) plays in good fortune and happiness: “necessarily chance is in the sphere of moral actions. This is indicated by the fact that good fortune is thought to be the same, or nearly the same, as happiness, and happiness to be a kind of moral action since it is well-doing.” (Physics. II. 5. 197b).

Aristotle states generally that happiness consists of an active life of virtue, which require having virtuous qualities and dispositions (Nelkin). We gain insight into Aristotle’s philosophical framework, his teleological- and process-oriented inquiry, when he states that he seeks to “identify the end with certain actions and activities; for thus it falls among goods of the soul and not among external goods”; the end being happiness, while the activities and actions being the processes leading to the end (EN I. 7. 1098b). While Aristotle looks for the most self-sufficient form of happiness, he alludes to circumstantial luck when he states that one can’t help but need external goods, for it is impossible “to do noble acts without the proper equipment” (EN I. 8. 1099a). To be happy, one needs friends, health, sustenance, money, etc. but to a degree, these things are out of our control — we need a world that cooperates to acquire them. Aristotle also states that, for some, there are external events of great magnitude in life that can ultimately affect an agent’s happiness, and by the same token, an agent’s activities (since happiness is an activity according to Aristotle), which is a stance that parallels Nagel’s moral luck. Aristotle cites Priam of Troy, a virtuous figure of the Trojan War who suffered many misfortunes before coming to a tragic death (EN I. 10. 1100b). One may simply not be able to attain the essential components that happiness requires because external circumstances refuse to cooperate. The same could be said of moral tests; one’s good-intentions may be influenced by external circumstances, through no fault of the agent, affecting their moral quality in the same way Priam of Troy was subjected to unlucky external events that affected his happiness.

Aristotle refers to constitutive luck, stating that there are things that affect one’s happiness like “good birth, goodly children, beauty,” but happiness can still be attained through some form of study and effort which makes it accessible to anyone whose capacity for virtue is otherwise unimpaired (EN. I. 8-9. 1099a-1099b). Aristotle concludes that it’s reasonable for happiness to be acquired in this way, rather than by luck because in nature things are arranged as well as they can be (i.e. nature does nothing in vain). On the surface, his conclusion that one can still attain happiness through study or effort might seem to oppose moral luck to a degree, but is consistent because it aligns with our conception that some have latent capacity for virtue which can be cultivated by practice and habituation, while it still accounts for the notion that some are simply incapable of becoming virtuous (e.g. impaired by constitutive luck).

Aristotle addresses the fact that some have an intrinsically good-natured disposition (constitutive luck) not cultivated by any study or effort, but denies that it is determined by luck:

“If, then, there are some people well endowed by nature… and desire what they ought and when they ought, these persons will succeed even though they lack wisdom and reasoning… People of this kind are fortunate — people who without reasoning succeed most of the time. It will follow that the fortunate are so by nature” and not luck, since they are different causes according to Aristotle (EN. VIII. 2. 1247b).

This is where Nagel and Aristotle diverge; I argue that Nagel would agree with Aristotle that they are fortunate by nature, but as it relates to the agent the cause could be classified as luck because their degree of fortune is based on determinants entirely out of their control. For Nagel, luck is a relational term that can be used as a classification of source, while Aristotle views luck only as a cause. This reflects each philosopher’s mindset; Nagel is ultimately source-oriented and concerned with moral responsibility, while Aristotle is focused on the process and ends of actions, and how this ultimately affects livelihoods. Aristotle treats luck as one of many potential causes of happiness, in the same way that nature, intelligence, or divine providence are (Johnson 259).

While it’s unclear whether Aristotle is concerned about resultant luck like Nagel, he discusses its existence and regards it as caused by divinity, if not by intelligence or nature, and only appears as being caused by luck in the sense that we call them ‘lucky’: “For some actions come from impulse and from people who choose to act, and other actions do not, but quite the contrary. And in those cases if people succeed in things in which they seem to have reasoned badly, we say that they have also been fortunate,” (EE. VIII. 2. 1247b). Some people are fortunate in outcome, especially the inebriated driver who went home unscathed compared to the driver involved in the crash, despite the fact they were both voluntarily induced into a state of irrationality. For Aristotle, sustained good fortune despite “bad reasoning” is caused by divine providence. If our uninjured driver regularly drives under the influence and comes out unscathed every time, while the driver involved in the crash had only driven inebriated this once, Aristotle may conclude that our repeat offender is safeguarded by divine providence. For Nagel, the cause would be resultant luck — both are morally reprehensible for their negligence (one probably more so than the other for repeat offenses) and there should be no difference in our evaluations of their action. Nagel notes that this clashes with our intuitions on moral judgement, we feel that since one driver’s action resulted in a death it is worse, despite their inability to control whether they had someone to hit or not. Here lies a tension between our intuitions and Control Principle, which creates the problem of moral luck.

In Nicomachean Ethics Book 5 Chapter 3, Aristotle discusses a person’s capacity to aim at happiness as dictated by their nature and character. Aristotle states that the good appears according to a person’s moral renown. If one is of high moral stature, things will appear to them as they should, they will see what is truly right and just. The reverse is also true; if one is base, their choices will reflect the fact that they’re aiming at the wrong targets. He broaches the idea that one must be “born with an eye, as it were, by which to judge rightly and choose what is truly good” (EN. III. 5. 1114b). Aristotle finds this morally irrelevant, they are still acts chosen by the agent, regardless of the source, through deliberation and choice. Aristotle’s ultimate aim in his ethical treatises is to discover what moral principles govern and should govern our activities and lives, while Nagel, in “Moral Luck,” dissects our conceptions of moral responsibility, challenging the very notion of agency and responsibility.

Aristotle’s conceptions of deliberation and choice encounter an issue when we realize that agent’s deliberative processes are affected by causal luck, or caused by determinants that find their origins outside of the agent:

“Is luck the cause of the very fact of desiring what one should when one should? If so, will it be the cause of everything? For it will be the cause also of thought and deliberation. For even if someone deliberated after having deliberated, he did not deliberate in turn about that; there is a certain starting point. Nor did he think, having thought before thinking, and so on to infinity… What else is there, then, save luck? Thus, everything will be by luck” (EN. VIII. 2. 1248a).

Aristotle attempts to avoid an infinite regression by concluding that there must be some prime (or unmoved) mover whose natural state is motion and change. The prime mover would cause all changes in the natural world, including our cognitive processes and their antecedent causes. He doesn’t pursue the issue any further, especially since it seems to be a problem without a solution outside of his prime mover. Aristotle’s concern seems to be the same as Nagel’s, but Nagel concludes the opposite of Aristotle. Nagel views the problem of causal luck, and moral luck as a whole, as having no solution because agency seems to shrink as causes are exposed. It seems as if the agent had no choice but to act the way they did once one takes into account all antecedents that lead up to the action. Nagel states that “the idea of agency is incompatible with actions being events, or people being things… Eventually nothing can be ascribed to the responsible self” and actions can longer be praised or blamed, but instead should be celebrated or deplored (Nagel 37). I believe that Nagel’s stance can be illustrated by Sam Harris in his Free Will, when he discusses the role luck plays in our lives. Harris states that our “wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control” (Harris 5).

The ideas that Nagel eventually bundles into moral luck have troubled philosophers, including Aristotle, for millennia, as they have overarching implications for moral and ethical philosophy. How one approaches the problem of moral luck, ultimately affects the conclusions they draw. The different philosophical frameworks that Nagel and Aristotle attack moral luck with is the main driver in their differing ideas. Ultimately, Nagel is concerned with the source of one’s actions and free will, while Aristotle, as a result of his teleological- and process-orientation, is disinterested in contributing to the debate over metaphysical freedom as it is insignificant for ethical inquiry. Intention is useful for ethics, whatever its origin; whether it is an illusory notion or not, we view ourselves and others as having intent, it is the very basis of how we judge behaviors and actions.




Works Cited

Harris, Sam. Free Will. Free Press, 2012.

Johnson, Monte Ransome. “Luck in Aristotle’s Physics and Ethics.” Bridging the Gap between Aristotle’s Science and Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 254-75.

Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions. Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Nelkin, Dana K. “Moral Luck,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 10 April 2013. Accessed 17 March 2018.

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