What Would a Stoic Do? On moral luck

Back in 1979 philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a landmark paper entitled “Moral Luck.” In it, Nagel argued that we should be much less cocky about our own moral integrity when judging other people, for the simple reason that the fact that we are acting morally and they aren’t may reduce to a difference in external conditions, not in the fiber of our respective characters.

For instance, people sometime seem to think that they would obviously not have allowed Hitler or Mussolini to rise to power, that they would have certainly stood up and be counted in opposition to a tyrannical regime. But Nagel argues that it is far more likely that most of us would have acted in precisely the same fashion as millions of Germans and Italians did at the time. We are just lucky that circumstances have not tested us. (Yet, one might argue, given the current political landscape in the US at least.)

While Nagel is not a Stoic (that I know of), this certainly fits with the Stoic idea that one doesn’t blame others for what they do, precisely on the ground that we seldom know enough about them to really arrive at a sound judgment of their actions:

“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Enchiridion 45)

More recently, Robert J. Hartman has published an article in Aeon magazine on the very same topic, entitled “Moral luck: How to tell a bad person from a person who did a bad thing.” The article is related to the promotion of Hartman’s new book, In Defense of Moral Luck: Why Luck Often Affects Praiseworthiness and Blameworthiness (Routldge, 2017).

Curiously, the article does not actually mention Nagel (I don’t know about the book, I haven’t read it yet). In it, Hartman imagines a series of hypothetical situations to get across the fact that we have conflicting intuitions about moral luck. He then considers several philosophical responses to this apparent paradox, and defends one in particular. Since one of the positions considered, and discarded, is the virtue ethical one, I will present Hartman’s argument and then suggest that the Stoic response is actually the most valid among those on offer.

Consider, says Hartman, two people, named Killer and Merely Reckless. They both go to a party, they drink too much, and they get into their cars, on the way home. However, a pedestrian happens to cross Killer’s path, the latter loses control of his car, and ends up killing the pedestrian. Merely Reckless, meanwhile, makes it home and goes to sleep, having not had the bad luck of a sudden encounter with a pedestrian.

Our intuition — and indeed our laws — are such that Killer is considered more blameworthy than Merely Reckless. But why, really? They both made the same wrong judgment of getting into their cars while drunk. The only difference between the two cases was luck. Why would a mere matter of chance change our moral calculus? Sure, the consequences of those actions turned out to be very different, but the intentions and actions of the two moral agents, and therefore their moral responsibility, one would think, were the same. Normally, we don’t punish people for being unlucky.

This is the paradox, in a nutshell. Hartman introduces three more hypothetical individuals to further refine his argument: Fumbles, who is also drunk and attempts to drive, but loses his keys on the way to the car and ends up taking a taxi instead; Night Blind, who has the same character and beliefs of the others, but suffers from a condition that makes it impossible for her to drive at night, thus not presenting her with the chance to encounter the unexpected pedestrian in the first place; and Works Tonight, again with the same character and beliefs of the others, but who missed the party (and hence the potential encounter with the pedestrian) because he was asked by his boss to stay at work and skip the party. I will refer you to Hartman’s article for the details, but you can easily guess which possible objections each character is designed to forestall. The conclusion remains the same: the difference between killing or not killing the pedestrian, for all people in the story, comes down to luck, not character.

Why does this matter? Because in order to begin to dissolve the paradox, Hartman distinguishes between two types of moral evaluation: being to blame for bringing about an event vs being a bad person. Arguably, at least on the basis of what we know of the story, none of the five individuals mentioned above is a (really) bad person. But one of them did bring about a particular event (the killing of the pedestrian) which is morally blameworthy.

I have no objection to the distinction Hartman draws here (between a given action and a given character), and in fact I find it useful. But now let’s proceed to his analysis of how different philosophical positions would balance the two types of moral evaluation.

* The skeptical response bars luck from affecting moral responsibility in all cases. Every kind of luck must be factored out of moral evaluation. None of the five people is morally responsible, despite the unfortunate outcome of Killer’s specific actions.

* The character response is that people fundamentally deserve praise and blame only for their character traits. According to this view, Killer, Merely Reckless and Fumble deserve equal blame because they have the same character. Night Blind is blameless, but only because of circumstances affecting her constitution. (Hartman doesn’t mention Works Tonight, but I would assume he is as blameworthy as the first three, since luck affected his specific actions, not his constitution.)

*The acts response is that people fundamentally deserve praise or blame only for what they actually do. Killer and Merely Reckless are equally to blame for their actions, despite their different outcomes. Everyone else is blameless because they did not actually get into the car (though for various reasons, some affecting their actions, others their constitution).

* Finally, the moral luck response is that some kinds of luck in results, circumstance and constitution affect the praise and blame a person deserves. This yields a chain from the most morally blameworthy to the least for our people, in this fashion: Killer > Merely Reckless (because only the first one actually kills) > Fumbles (because only MR actually gets in the car and drives drunk) > Night Blind (because the latter doesn’t even think about getting into the car). Again, Works Tonight is left out by Hartman, and I think this is telling, because the moral luck response just doesn’t know what to do with him.

Hartman prefers the moral luck response, finding one fault or another with the remaining three possibilities. I will again direct the reader to the full article for his reasoning. But it seems to me instead that the character response, which of course is the virtue ethical one, is the best. Let’s analyze it from the Stoic point of view, taking Stoicism as a representative example of virtue ethics.

The Stoic take, I think, would be rather simple. All the people with the same character are equally imperfect moral agents. That, contra what Hartman suggests, includes Night Blind, since not being able to drive at night is not a character trait (though it is a physiological one). That’s because luck truly has no moral valence. Indeed, we should actually pity Killer, rather than differentially blame him. After all, he didn’t do anything different from the others, and yet the horrible consequences of his actions will daunt him for the rest of his life. This, it should be obvious, is not an excuse for drinking and driving, but only a call to be forgiving of our fellow human beings when the only difference between what they did and what we would have done is only and exclusively a matter of (bad) luck.

There is one serious objection to the Stoic / virtue ethical / character response: just like a physiological impairment outside of her control is what distinguishes Night Blind from the rest, isn’t also “character” one of those things outside of our control? Isn’t it the result of a genetic lottery (chance) and the environment in which we happen to be raised (also chance)? Or, as Socrates famously asked: can virtue be taught? (My answer: yes, to a point.)

In this regard the Stoics had a well thought out developmental theory of moral progression, summarized for instance by Cicero:

“It is the view of those whose system I adopt, that immediately upon birth (for that is the proper point to start from) a living creature feels an attachment for itself, and an impulse to preserve itself and to feel affection for its own constitution and for those things which tend to preserve that constitution. … Infants desire things conducive to their health and reject things that are the opposite before they have ever felt pleasure or pain; this would not be the case, unless they felt an affection for their own constitution and were afraid of destruction. … [Hence] man’s first attraction is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of ‘conception’ — in Stoic phraseology ennoia — and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake.” (De Finibus III.5-21)

That is, we begin life as selfish individuals concerned about our own preservation, then naturally (i.e., instinctively) expand our concern to our care takers, but then gradually begin to deploy reason to further enlarge our moral sphere, in a fashion famously described by Hierocles. That is, our characters are something that begins with the combined lottery of nature and early nurture, but is then more and more shaped by our own choices and practices. (This, of course, is related to the issue of free bill, volition and causality, discussed from the Stoic perspective here.)

That’s what makes the difference between Night Blind and a sixth character in our story — which is my invention, not Hartman’s: Making Progress. Making Progress used to be a wild party animal, getting drunk and then, thoughtlessly, getting into her car to drive home. However, at some point she happened on a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses, read it, and gradually began to practice Stoic philosophy. Her newly found ability to reflect on her motives and actions, her appreciation of the dichotomy of control, and her striving to be as virtuous a person as she can be, have led her to decide ahead of time whenever she goes to a party: either she is going to drink but not drive, or the other way around. That is a morally praiseworthy choice, I should think.

Now suppose Making Progress is leaving a party, has not taken a single drink, and is perfectly alert when she gets into the car and begins the drive home. Nevertheless, a pedestrian crosses the street at the last minute, impossible to see for Making Progress because of the lighting conditions. She hits the pedestrian, who dies as a result of the accident. I would hope we all agree that Making Progress is absolutely not to blame for the death of the pedestrian, she (and more so the pedestrian) was just really, really unlucky.

And when it comes to luck, as Seneca reminds us: “Men make a mistake, my dear Lucilius, if they hold that anything good, or evil either, is bestowed upon us by Fortune; it is simply the raw material of Goods and Ills that she gives to us — the sources of things which, in our keeping, will develop into good or ill” (Letter XCVIII. On the Fickleness of Fortune, 2).

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10 replies

  1. Good article, Massimo. I’d only add this: one of the first accounts of the relevance of moral luck appears to be the question Socrates addresses to Cephalus at the beginning of Plato’s Republic (329e – ff.). There Socrates wanted to know if his host thought if his (good) behavior regarding his own wealth would be due to the fact Cephalus had been born a rich man or not. What do you think about that passage from Plato?

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    • Ds,

      “And I was filled with admiration for the man by these words, and desirous of hearing more I tried to draw him out and said, “I fancy, Cephalus, that most people, when they hear you talk in this way, are not convinced but think that you bear old age lightly not because of your character but because of your wealth. ‘For the rich,’ they say, ‘have many consolations.’” “You are right,” he said. “They don’t accept my view and there is something in their objection, though not so much as they suppose. But the retort of Themistocles comes in pat here, who, when a man from the little island of Seriphus grew abusive and told him that he owed his fame not to himself but to the city from which he came, replied that neither would he himself ever have made a name if he had been born in Seriphus nor the other if he had been an Athenian. And the same principle applies excellently to those who not being rich take old age hard; for neither would the reasonable man find it altogether easy to endure old age conjoined with poverty, nor would the unreasonable man by the attainment of riches ever attain to self-contentment and a cheerful temper.” “May I ask, Cephalus,” said I, “whether you inherited most of your possessions or acquired them yourself?” “Acquired, eh?” he said.”

      Socrates seems to be hinting at the Aristotelian position here, right? But a Stoic would say that riches may just as easily make an old man despondent and nasty, and therefore unvirtuous. Of course, riches are a preferred indifferent for the Stoics, and so is fame (in Themistocles’ case).

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  2. Great post, Massimo. I have one rather simple question.

    Let’s say we’re all stoics, living in Citium. Are we going to punish Killer? (for the sake of argument, let’s say the punishment is what it is in the US).

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    • Jpc,

      No, Stoics shouldn’t punish on the basis of outcomes, only of intentions. So Killer is going to get the same punishment as some of the others, for deciding to drive while drunk.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree we should pity the killer, but ONLY if we would also get into a car drunk. If we wouldn’t ever do that, then we should be able to judge anyone who would get in the car drunk (if they were able to – e.g. including the night blind or working types who would have even though they didn’t) judge them for lacking in prudence. It’s not that they’re evil people, but that their behaviour demonstrates a lack of virtue. I think judging others’ behaviours in this way (as opposed to judging superficial characteristic) is an important part of helping people keep to the right path as well as reminding ourselves what’s right.

    I agree we can only be taught virtue to a point, so, because of that fact, we need legislation to keep the rest in line (and to keep ourselves in line during moments of weakness). For example, even though ride programs are against our fundamental freedoms, I think randomly stopping people to check for drinking is good for society, both to reduce fatalities and to increase prudent acts. BUT, something I’m curious about is if it’s just as virtuous to refrain from getting in the car because it might be harmful to another as it is to refrain from getting in the car because we might get caught with alcohol in our blood system. Both exercise prudence in the decision making, but one feels decidedly more self-centred about it. Do stoics differentiate?

    I do think there’s often an element of luck to our general virtuousness, however. I wrote about that with respect to some things Montaigne said here if you’re interested: http://apuffofabsurdity.blogspot.ca/2011/07/on-virtue-and-intention.html

    (Apologies if this is a duplication. I’m not sure if the other comment actually worked.)

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  4. Marie,

    “I agree we should pity the killer, but ONLY if we would also get into a car drunk. If we wouldn’t ever do that, then we should be able to judge anyone who would get in the car drunk”

    I can judge someone’s actions even at the same time as a pithy him. That’s what a good “ruling faculty,” to put it as Marcus does, is desirable (though for Stoics that’s to be directed primarily at one’s own self-improvement).

    “something I’m curious about is if it’s just as virtuous to refrain from getting in the car because it might be harmful to another as it is to refrain from getting in the car because we might get caught with alcohol in our blood system. Both exercise prudence in the decision making”

    Good question! And yes, Stoicism differentiates between those two. Prudence, within Stoic philosophy, is the ability to navigate complex ethical situations, not just complex situations more generally. If someone doesn’t get into the car because she is afraid of getting a ticket that’s good sense, but has nothing to do with ethics. Only the first case you present does.

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  5. What difference is there between deciding not to drive and not being able too? If there is any Night Blind is at a moral disadvantage, because Fortune has robbed her of the right choice.

    On the other side this leads to the argument that society can’t be just. Until we can be as certain of intentions (most of the time something rationalised post hoc) as we are of hard consequences we can’t impart a just punishment, and are, thus, spreading injustice. Of a set of 5 equally guilty characters, we punish only one because he left a mark, the others are free and blameless.

    In fact, for all we know there could be 20 drunk drivers at that party…

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  6. Antigrafo,

    “What difference is there between deciding not to drive and not being able too?”

    The first is one’s own decision, and therefore has moral valence. The second one is an accident, and so has no moral value.

    “Fortune has robbed her of the right choice”

    Why does it matter? She is not going to kill anyone, that’s what matters. She will have other opportunities to display her virtue.

    “Until we can be as certain of intentions (most of the time something rationalised post hoc) as we are of hard consequences we can’t impart a just punishment, and are, thus, spreading injustice.”

    No, it’s a recalibration of justice, not an inability to deliver it. Killer is still going to pay for the wrong decision of drinking and driving, and so are the others, if they are caught. But he is not (more) responsible than the others for the death of the pedestrian, so the punishment would be mild.

    Also, “punishment” is not a Stoic value. Stoics seek justice, but they understand that people do wrong out of amathia (https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/one-crucial-word/), so that restraint is necessary, but retribution is not.

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  7. The practical problem between moral valence and justice ‘per se’ was discovered by my little brother while he was in kindergarten. The teachers had a system by which the children were given a little sticker when they did well. One day, my brother came home very annoyed and claiming that the next day he was going to be very bad. When my mother asked what was the problem he said that the system was unjust: the bad children who did good on a given day got more stickers that the ones like him that were always good.

    My problem is that there is no way of knowing if Night Blind would drive under the influence if she could. If she would, it’s clear that Making Progress is acting better. But if she wouldn’t drive, or if she, given her disability, has never considered the question… I’m not so sure. She would be the good children who has never entertained the possibility of being bad (until now).

    In my opinion, if we have to say who is acting in a more moral way, and given that we cannot know what is in Night Blind’s mind, the only valid response is a very pyrrhonic “epoché”.

    As for the other question, I knew that “punishment” was not the right word, but considering that I was (poorly) aiming at how a Stoic would envision stoicism not as an individual system but as a social one: How would a Stoic judge consider the principle of restitution to the victim? How would it be different than punishment?

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  8. Antigrafo,

    Well, your little brother was simply treated unfairly. I’m guessing his teacher didn’t practice Stoicism…

    “My problem is that there is no way of knowing if Night Blind would drive under the influence if she could.”

    But it doesn’t matter. She is not going to be punished, so what difference does it make?

    “if we have to say who is acting in a more moral way, and given that we cannot know what is in Night Blind’s mind, the only valid response is a very pyrrhonic “epoché”.”

    That’s the recommended response by Epictetus anyway. If we all got away from the business of judging others this would be a far better place.

    “aiming at how a Stoic would envision stoicism not as an individual system but as a social one: How would a Stoic judge consider the principle of restitution to the victim? How would it be different than punishment?”

    The emphasis on restitution is peculiarly American, and it leads to the high degree of litigiousness of that society. Victims ought to be compensated if the damage is done by institutions or businesses (which are usually insured), but otherwise the guilty should simply be put in prison, with the aim of rehabilitating, not punishing them.

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