Moral Responsibility, Luck, and Compatibilism


In this paper, I defend a version of compatibilism (about determinism and moral responsibility) against luck-related objections. After introducing the types of luck that some take to be problematic for moral responsibility, I consider and respond to two recent attempts to show that compatibilism faces the same problem of luck that libertarianism faces—present (or cross-world) luck. I then consider a different type of luck—constitutive luck—and provide a new solution to this problem. One upshot of the present discussion is a reason to prefer a history-sensitive compatibilist account over a purely nonhistorical structuralist account.

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  1. 1.

    For simplicity’s sake, the rest of the paper will mainly be concerned with moral responsibility and will only occasionally mention free action; however, what I say about actions for which agents are morally responsible will also apply to agents’ free actions (provided that by “free action” we are not talking about something over and above meeting the freedom-relevant condition on moral responsibility).

  2. 2.

    This has led some contemporary compatibilists to offer solutions to the problem of present luck on behalf of libertarians (and themselves). For a development of the challenge to contemporary compatibilism, see Vargas (2012), and for a response on behalf of libertarianism, see Fischer (2012, chapter 6, 2014).

  3. 3.

    I do, however, address this challenge elsewhere (Cyr Manuscript C).

  4. 4.

    Nagel calls this type of luck “constitutive” (1979: 28), and Mele calls this general type of luck (of which constitutive luck is an instance) “remote deterministic” (2006: 77).

  5. 5.

    Or, if one prefers talking about agents’ counterparts, an agent in a deterministic world may perform some action in that world but her counterpart behave differently in a nearby possible world as a result of circumstances over which neither has any control. For stylistic purposes, I will not continue to mention counterparts.

  6. 6.

    For a few examples of the luck argument (or luck challenge), see Hume (2000), Haji (1999), Mele (1995, 2006, 2013b), and Almeida and Bernstein (2003). The “rollback argument” (van Inwagen 2000) and “Mind argument” (van Inwagen 1983) are closely related.

  7. 7.

    Neal Tognazzini, to give just one example, says that he need not analyze the concept for his purposes (2011: 98). Levy makes note of this tendency, saying that “luck itself—as opposed to problems centered around luck—has rarely been focused on…Within the free will and moral responsibility debate, too, there has been little sustained attention to the nature of luck” (2011: 11–12).

  8. 8.

    I do not wish to take a stand on what type of control is needed for moral responsibility, nor to what degree one must exercise control over an action in order to be responsible for it, but it is worth noting that the various problems associated with luck that I consider here cut across the various accounts of what kind or degree of control is required for moral responsibility.

  9. 9.

    Fischer and Ravizza, for example, say that it is this “control condition” that “specifies that the agent must not behave as he does as the result of undue force; that is, he must do what he does freely. Alternatively, one could say that the agent must control his behavior in a suitable sense, in order to be morally responsible for it” (1998: 13).

  10. 10.

    Levy gives a different example and explains why such an insignificant state of affairs cannot count as lucky: it cannot be a matter of luck “whether I have an odd or even number of hairs on my head at 12 noon, because we generally reserve the appellation ‘lucky’ for events or processes that matter” (2011: 13).

  11. 11.

    Levy is not the only one to see that modality should feature in one’s characterization of luck. The present (or cross-world) luck challenge developed by Mele (2006), while not explicitly analyzing ‘luck’ as modal, makes use of a modal characterization of luck. Driver (2013) argues that we should analyze ‘luck’ modally, and Pérez de Calleja (2014) assumes a modal account of luck.

  12. 12.

    Levy’s modal account appeals to many nearby worlds, but he clarifies that by this he means large proportions of nearby worlds. Still, it is unclear how large the proportion of worlds in which the action does not occur must be in order for the action to count as lucky, and worries about vagueness loom large. I will not press this objection here, though, and will stick to cases in which it is intuitively clear whether or not the proportions of worlds are sufficiently large.

  13. 13.

    Levy sometimes talks as though these conditions are merely sufficient for an action to be lucky—see, e.g., his definition of chancy luck (2011: 36)—but it is clear from his presentation (and the title of the second chapter of his book) that he aims to give an account of what luck is. For this reason, I take these conditions to be both necessary and sufficient for an action’s being lucky.

  14. 14.

    Pérez de Calleja says that, at least on Mele’s construal, “present luck requires indeterminism by definition,” so she uses ‘cross-world luck’ as a broader term, one that can refer to the parallel of present luck in a deterministic context (2014: 123, n. 8). As she notes, ‘present luck’ and ‘cross-world luck’ are often used synonymously, and that is how I use them here. To many (including Levy), present luck is luck at or around the time of action, and if there is a way for agents in a deterministic world to encounter luck at or around the time of action, then that counts as present luck. When I discuss Pérez de Calleja’s argument, however, I will stick to her terminology (using ‘cross-world luck’) for simplicity’s sake.

  15. 15.

    For a different argument for the claim that present and constitutive luck are not as ubiquitous as Levy thinks, see Hartman (2017, chapter 3).

  16. 16.

    For two influential structuralist accounts, see Frankfurt (1971, 1988) and Watson (2004).

  17. 17.

    Both camps should agree, however, that sometimes agents who do not satisfy even the structuralist’s conditions can be indirectly morally responsible for what they do. To use a common example, if an agent is driving while drunk, she does not satisfy even typical structuralist conditions at the time of her driving, and yet she may be morally responsible for her driving (or certain consequences), depending on whether or not she was morally responsible for becoming drunk and not taking proper precautions. Given that any plausible account should admit this possibility, in this sense both historicist and structuralist accounts are history-sensitive. For more on this point, see McKenna (2012: 156). (In Sect. 4, my response to the problem of constitutive luck will require a more robust sort of history-sensitivity, but we can set this aside for now.).

  18. 18.

    In fact, in Sect. 4, I will propose just such a version of structuralism.

  19. 19.

    To be clear, Levy grants that, were it not for present luck, historical compatibilism would not be undermined by luck-related worries; Levy thinks that the problem of constitutive luck can be dealt with by appealing to taking ownership of one’s endowment, but that responsibility for such taking ownership is undermined by present luck. As I will argue, it is plausible that there are cases in which an agent takes ownership of her endowment but is not subject to present luck.

  20. 20.

    On this view, taking ownership is a diachronic activity that involves reflecting on one’s values, dispositions, etc. and acting in accordance with them or not. Another (also diachronic) type of response (in defense of historical compatibilism) is given by Fischer and Ravizza (1998) and defended by Fischer (2006, 2012) and Tognazzini (2011), and this response attempts to escape the problem of constitutive luck by appealing to agents' ownership of the operative reasons-responsive mechanism. I do not tailor my response here to the details of Fischer and Ravizza’s response, but what I say here can, mutatis mutandis, be applied to Fischer and Ravizza’s.

  21. 21.

    I am not claiming that agents in deterministic worlds are never presently lucky, but rather that it is not the case that they are presently luck in every case of taking ownership for their endowments. For Levy’s argument against historical compatibilism to succeed, it would need to be the case that every possible occasion at which an agent (in a deterministic world) takes ownership of her endowment, her responsibility for this is undermined by present luck. Since, as I argue here, there are plausible (and quite ordinary) cases of agents taking ownership of their endowments which are not subject to present luck, Levy’s argument does not succeed.

  22. 22.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this important worry.

  23. 23.

    If Charles’s action does not satisfy the lack-of-control condition, why did we bother with the modal condition in the first place? As I see the dialectic, the proponent of the problem of present luck for compatibilism attempts to show that compatibilists are wrong about the possibility of agents in deterministic worlds exercising the control required for freedom and responsibility, and they aim to do this by arguing (1) that agents in deterministic worlds are subject to present luck and (2) that luck precludes the requisite control. Using the account of luck accepted by the proponents of the problem of present luck, I have argued that agents in deterministic worlds are not always subject to present luck. Of course, such agents may nevertheless lack control over their actions (though I have provided some reason here to think that they do not lack control), but unless this lack of control stems from these agents’ being subject to luck, this is a separate issue—one that gives up the original objection (from present luck).

  24. 24.

    For the most notable example of such a libertarian account, see Kane (1996, 1999).

  25. 25.

    As long as we take Pérez de Calleja to be showing merely that it is possible for causally determined agents to be presently lucky, I agree. And I do in fact take this to be Pérez de Calleja’s aim, as she thinks there can be cases in which determined agents are not presently lucky (2014: 120). But I do not think it follows from this that cross-world luck is a problem for compatibilists, and certainly not that it is a problem for compatibilists in the same way that it is a problem for libertarians, since the challenge for libertarians is that any agent who satisfies libertarian conditions on non-derivatively morally responsible action will be presently lucky.

  26. 26.

    Pérez de Calleja takes the original Bob from Mele (2006: 73–74) and introduces Bob* and Bob** for her own purposes (2014: 115).

  27. 27.

    Indeed, when put in these terms, the challenge from present luck as Levy and Pérez de Calleja raise it seems less like the original problem of present luck (for libertarianism) and more like challenges from circumstantial or constitutive luck. For a recent discussion of how compatibilists can argue that circumstantial and constitutive luck do not undermine moral responsibility, see Hartman (2016), though I will develop a new line on constitutive luck in the next section.

  28. 28.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting that I address this response.

  29. 29.

    This point is related to Pérez de Calleja’s (2014: 120–121) point that agents can satisfy typical compatibilist sufficient conditions on free actions (such as Fischer and Ravizza’s conditions on “guidance control”) even when their actions are cross-world lucky.

  30. 30.

    As I mentioned in note 2, Fischer (2014) is offering a solution to the problem of present luck on behalf of libertarians (and on behalf of his own view, given that he takes moral responsibility to be compatible with indeterminism as well as determinism), and it is worth noting that compatibilists who opt for this strategy are left unable to utilize the main challenge to their prominent dialectical rival. As I argue elsewhere (Cyr Manuscript A), however, compatibilists like Fischer can supplement the problem of luck with another challenge in such a way as to challenge libertarianism without challenging their own view.

  31. 31.

    See Strawson (1986) for a classic formulation of this so-called “regress argument.”.

  32. 32.

    Since Waller thinks that we can have free will without being morally responsible, his view is an exception to my claim in note 1 that what I say about morally responsible action will also apply to free actions.

  33. 33.

    See Levy (2011: 109) for this expression. This type of response adapts part of Mele’s defense of “daring soft libertarianism” (2006, ch. 5) into a defense of compatibilism against the problem of constitutive luck. Although I do not consider it here, there is another type of response to the problem, namely the response that I mentioned in note 20, given by Fischer and Ravizza (1998) and defended by Fischer (2006, 2012) and Tognazzini (2011). Objections to compatibilism in general (as opposed to a particular compatibilist account) will need to address both types of responses.

  34. 34.

    What follows is my own preferred way to deal with the problem of constitutive luck, but an alternative (that seems to me to be equally as promising) appeals to degrees of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness rather than to degrees of moral responsibility itself.

  35. 35.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to say more about this dialectic and about why we should take little agents like Tony to be even slightly morally responsible.

  36. 36.

    It is also very widely accepted that morally responsible agents must satisfy an epistemic condition on moral responsibility, though some (including Mele) do not think that this condition is distinct from the control condition. See Mele (2010) for discussion of this point. If there is a distinct epistemic condition, however, and if can be satisfied to various degrees, then I think that an agent’s moral responsibility can come in degrees in virtue of her satisfying this condition to various degrees, in a way that is exactly parallel to what I will say concerning moral responsibility coming in degrees in virtue of the control condition being satisfied to various degrees. Aristotle introduces these two conditions (control and epistemic) for voluntary action in Nicomachean Ethics 1109b30–1111b5. For more on the “Aristotelian” conditions, as they are often called, see Fischer and Ravizza (1998: 12–14).

  37. 37.

    Perhaps it will make it clearer what I have in mind to consider an example of two agents who satisfy part of Fischer and Ravizza’s control condition on moral responsibility to different degrees—for further discussion of this point, see Coates and Swenson (2013) and Nelkin (2016). Fischer and Ravizza’s account of the control condition has two components: to satisfy the condition, the agent’s mechanism “that actually issues in the action must be the agent’s own…and…this mechanism must be responsive to reasons…” (1998: 62). As they go on to argue, however, the latter component (the agent’s mechanism’s responsiveness to reasons) can come in degrees. One’s mechanism is moderately reasons-responsive if it “is regularly receptive to reasons and at least weakly reactive to them” (1998: 81); but one’s mechanism can also be strongly reasons-responsive, in which case if the agent’s mechanism that actually issues in an action “were to operate and there were sufficient reason to do otherwise, the agent would recognize the sufficient reason to do otherwise and thus choose to do otherwise and do otherwise” (1998: 41). Thus, to borrow an example from Fischer and Ravizza (1998: 69–70), if Brown’s actual-sequence mechanism is regularly receptive to reasons and is only weakly reactive to reasons not to take a certain drug (which is to say that he would only react to a sufficient reason to do otherwise in a small number of worlds), then he is moderately reasons-responsive and can be morally responsible for taking the drug. Now consider Brown’s older brother, Brown*, who is not weak-willed like Brown; in fact, let us imagine, Brown* sometimes has the same desire for the same drug but will abstain whenever there is sufficient reason not to take the drug (and, let us further imagine, this is because he recognizes sufficient reasons and thus chooses not to take the drug and then does not in fact take the drug). There is a clear sense in which Brown* satisfies Fischer and Ravizza’s control condition to a greater degree than Brown does.

  38. 38.

    See Nagel (1979) for further discussion of these other kinds of luck.

  39. 39.

    I have focused on agents’ first free actions in order to motivate the idea that, despite constitutive luck, agents can become morally responsible. I intend for the model I am proposing to be silent on some matters, such as whether (and how) agents become more responsible in light of previous actions for which they are morally responsible. It is worth noting, however, that I am not suggesting that agents only perform one action for which they are directly morally responsible and that all other morally responsible actions that they perform trace back to the one for which they are directly morally responsible. Just as an agent can be responsible for her first instance of taking ownership of her endowment, it is possible to reaffirm one’s stance toward one’s endowment by other actions for which one is directly morally responsible.

  40. 40.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this concern.

  41. 41.

    One may worry whether any history-sensitive position could rightly be considered a version of structuralism, since structuralists typically maintain that an agent’s history is irrelevant to her moral responsibility, but on the common understanding of structuralism. As I have defined structuralism, however, structuralists are only committed (qua structuralists) to the claim that whether an agent is responsible does not depend on her history. As it happens, I argue in other work (Cyr Manuscript B) that further reflection on constitutive luck, as well as on certain cases of manipulation that are typically used to motivate historicism, should lead us to reject historicism.

  42. 42.

    For more on McKenna’s defense of nonhistorical compatibilism, and for some challenges, see McKenna (2004, 2012) and Mele (2008, 2009, 2013a, c).

  43. 43.

    It is not clear to me that an instant agent like the one McKenna describes is metaphysically possible. Even if such an agent were metaphysically possible, the instant agent would, by definition, differ from the normal agent in certain respects, such as having many false beliefs. I will set aside these worries here in order to see what this type of hypothetical agent reveals about moral responsibility.

  44. 44.

    Since we are interested here in luck-related worries in deterministic worlds, we can stipulate that Suzie’s world is deterministic. Might she be presently lucky with respect to her first free action in just the way that Levy and Pérez de Calleja think deterministic agents are? Just as I said in my response to their arguments, while I grant that this is a possibility for deterministic agents, I do not think that it is inevitable, and we could build into Suzie’s case that such things as her mood, what comes to mind, etc. do not vary in a large proportion of nearby worlds. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this concern.

  45. 45.

    One might worry that my objection to McKenna’s proposed version of structuralism begs the question against this account, since I may seem to be simply denying that Suzie Instant is fully morally responsible for what she does. (Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this worry.) My view, however, is that, once we have reflected on the constitutive luck surrounding little agents’ first free decisions, we will see that the most plausible thing to say is that they are only morally responsible to a low degree; but then, as we go on to see, we should say the same concerning instant agents, for they are, in the relevant respect (i.e., with respect to constitutive luck), exactly like little agents. So I am not simply assuming that the rival account is incorrect, but rather I am providing an argument against it. As I see the dialectic, then, the burden is on the one who thinks that instant agents are morally responsible to a high degree to point out a relevant difference between the two cases.


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Special thanks to John Fischer and Al Mele for several rounds of comments on and conversations about this paper. Thanks also to Gabriel de Marco, Matt Flummer, Mirja Pérez de Calleja, Jordan Wolf, and the members of the Agency Workshop and at the University of California, Riverside, Zac Bachman, Dave Beglin, Patrick London, Meredith McFadden, Jonah Nagashima, and Michael Nelson, for helpful thoughts on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also to audiences at the 2013 Pacific APA, the 2012 Florida Philosophical Association meeting, the 2012 Alabama Philosophical Society meeting, and the Graduate Student Writing Workshop at Florida State University for comments on an earlier version of this paper. Finally, special thanks also to three anonymous reviewers for their thorough and very helpful comments on the paper. I was lucky (but not problematically so) to have so much help!

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Cyr, T.W. Moral Responsibility, Luck, and Compatibilism. Erkenn 84, 193–214 (2019).

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