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Moral Luck: A Partial Map

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 36, Number 4, December 2006
pp. 585-608 | 10.1353/cjp.2007.0006

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Luck varies from person to person, for two reasons. First, for something to occur as a matter of luck is for it to occur beyond the control of someone, and what is beyond one person's control may not be beyond another's. Second, luck may be either good or bad (or neutral — but in that case it is not very interesting), and what is good luck for one person may be bad luck for another.

Moral philosophers have paid a good deal of attention to luck in an effort to determine its relevance to moral judgments of various sorts. We may distinguish three broad classes of such judgments: aretaic judgments, having to do with moral virtue and vice; deontic judgments, having to do with moral obligation; and what I will call hypological judgments, having to do with moral responsibility. In the wake of Harry Frankfurt's ground-breaking discussion of the claim that moral responsibility requires control, most of the attention that has been devoted in recent years to moral luck has concerned hypological judgments in particular; deontic judgments and aretaic judgments have been given relatively short shrift. In this paper I will attempt a partial rectification of this bias; although I will not concern myself further with aretaic judgments, I will have a good deal to say about the relation between moral obligation and luck.

The plan of the paper is this. Section I: I seek to clarify the distinction between hypological and deontic judgments. The failure fully to appreciate this distinction explains in part, I think, the tendency in recent discussions of moral luck not to attend explicitly to the relevance of luck to deontic judgments. Section II: I draw five distinctions concerning how something may be within or beyond someone's control, three of which I select for further examination. Section III: I consider the question whether moral obligation and moral responsibility differ with respect to how they relate to luck in terms of the first of these three distinctions: my tentative answer is 'No.' Section IV: I consider the question whether moral obligation and moral responsibility differ with respect to how they relate to luck in terms of the second of these three distinctions: my answer is 'Yes.' Section V: I consider the question whether moral obligation and moral responsibility differ with respect to how they relate to luck in terms of the third of these three distinctions: my answer is again 'Yes.' Section VI: I consider the relevance of luck to moral dilemmas. Section VII: I return to the second of the three distinctions and note why it is that, in light of the discussion in Section VI, the difference between moral obligation and moral responsibility with respect to how they relate to luck in terms of this distinction is very deep — deeper than acknowledged in Section IV. Section VIII: I provide a summary of my findings.

As the foregoing plan indicates, what follows will be more in the nature of a survey than of a detailed exploration. This is because there is a lot of ground to cover, much of it hitherto wholly uncharted. The map that will emerge is therefore not only partial (since it entirely overlooks aretaic judgments) but large-scale. This may be disappointing, in that many important questions will not receive the close attention that they deserve. Nonetheless, I take my project in this paper to be a necessary preliminary to bringing these questions into sharper focus. My hope is that my findings will prompt and guide further investigation into the relevance of luck to moral judgments of all sorts.

I

It seems often to have been assumed that what is to be said about the relevance of luck to hypological judgments can be carried over wholesale to what is to be said about the relevance of luck to deontic judgments. This may be due to a second assumption, according to which one is morally responsible for having done something if and only if one had a moral obligation not to do that thing but did it nonetheless. This claim may seem especially tempting if one puts it entirely in the terminology of responsibility: one is (retrospectively) responsible for...



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