I aim to show that deontologists have resources to mitigate or eliminate the concerns posed by constitutive moral luck, even granting the premises that are said to lead to the problem. Consequently, I will assume that one’s acts affect one’s moral standing, one’s constitution affects how one acts, and factors beyond one’s control affect one’s constitution. I also accept the deontological intuition that one’s moral standing is under one’s control. As such, the argument that follows is different from most attempts to answer problems of moral luck since it neither questions the role of luck nor the moral significance of control.
I need three further premises (beyond those that generate the problem of constitutive moral luck in the first place) to get the argument going. Though the argument that follows focuses on the impact that acting rightly has on moral standing, analogous points (suitably inverted) would apply for acting wrongly.
The First Premise
The first premise is a definition of luck. A state of affairs can only be said to be lucky if it is one among multiple possible states of affairs, one lacks control over whether it obtains, and one has reason to prefer it over the other possible states of affairs. (Hartman 2017; Rescher 1993, 1995). “The core concept of luck is the idea of things going well or ill for us due to conditions and circumstances that lie... beyond our cognitive or manipulative control.”Footnote 7 (Rescher 1990, p. 7). In the six-sided die game described at the start of this article, the possible states of affairs include throwing a winning roll or throwing a losing roll. One has little control over how the roll turns out, yet one has reason to prefer the winning roll. How the roll turns out is therefore a matter of luck. Suppose instead, though, that one must first toss a coin to determine whether one will play the six-sided or sixty-sided game. One has little control over how the toss turns out, but luck is not in play because one has no reason to prefer playing one game or the other. The expected payout of the two games is the same. Of course, one would prefer to win $60 rather than $6, but the coin toss would determine the game, not whether one will then go on to win.
Some have argued that the notion of luck in one’s constitution is incoherent. (Hurley 1993; Rescher 1990, 1993). While these critics may grant that there are better or worse constitutional traits to have, they deny that it is coherent to speak of alternate possible states of affairs in which the same person is very differently constituted. There are two responses available. One is specific to the dialectical posture of this article. I am not arguing that there is a problem of moral luck. Rather, I assume that the premises that some people think lead to the problem of constitutive moral luck are true. I am arguing against the inference from those premises to the purported problem.
The second response to the those who are skeptical of luck in constitution is more substantive. Recall that constitutional traits are inclinations, tendencies, and temperaments that incline one to behave in particular ways. The sum total of these may be essential to who one is. For some people, there may even be isolated constitutional traits that are essential to who they are. It may be incoherent to speak of luck with respect to these constitutional traits or with respect to the sum total of one’s constitutional traits. However, with respect to the rest, I am persuaded by the reply that asking about non-essential constitutive traits one-by-one—e.g. would you choose to be more courageous than you are—avoids the concern. (Latus 2003). If I am unkind, but not essentially so, I can coherently entertain possible states in which I am kinder. It is on this basis that I can, without risking incoherence, wish I were kinder, or even aspire to become kinder.
The Second Premise
The second premise I need is that one’s constitutional traits increase the likelihood that one will act in accordance with them, but they do not necessitate that one will so act. A person who is unkind has feelings and impulses that, by inclining her to perform unkind acts, increase the likelihood that she will act unkindly. (Enoch & Marmor 2007). Yet she may still, on any occasion, choose to do something kind.Footnote 8 As Galen Strawson (1994, p. 20) would describe this premise (and then criticize it), “one’s self is, in a crucial sense, independent of one’s character or personality or motivational structure.” This is a common understanding of the relationship between constitution and action: “Such qualities as sympathy or coldness... provide the background against which obedience to moral requirements is more or less difficult.” (Nagel 1976, p. 144). As such, acting rightly “may be easier for some than for others, but it must be possible to [act rightly] by making the right choices, against whatever temperamental background.” (Ibid., p. 145).
Though this second premise is well-situated within the literature on constitutive moral luck, it could do with some clarification. Since the premise is about the relationship between constitution and will, at issue is the line between constitutive moral luck (the present topic) and causal luck (luck in the causal determinants of one’s will). I have said that constitutional traits are such things as inclinations, temperaments, and impulses. In common experience, these all come in degrees of strength. At one extreme, they can be trivial inner proddings that are easily dismissed as one chooses what to do. At the other extreme, they can exercise an iron grip over the will by raising some possible courses of action to undismissible salience: inclination bleeds into obsession, temperament shades into compulsion, and impulse becomes irresistible. Obsession, compulsion, and irresistible impulses are matters of causal luck because they determine what one will do. Constitutive luck, by definition, is about traits that fall short of this extreme. They exert pressure on one’s will, but do not determine it.
Attributes that might go under the headings “strength of character” or “willpower” could also straddle the line between causal and constitutive luck.Footnote 9 A student who routinely finds herself drinking and playing videogames on Wednesday night rather than studying (perhaps despite realizing that studying is all things considered preferable) may be said to “lack willpower.” If the student drinks and plays videogames just because she has strong (but ultimately resistible) inclinations to do so, then these are garden variety constitutional traits. Suppose instead that her will is weak in a way impacts the effort she can or does exercise to overcome her inclinations. Perhaps there are upper bounds to the effort of will she can exert so that inclinations of lower intensity (inclinations that other agents could overcome) end up determining her will. Or perhaps she can exert her will less frequently than other people, so that she must “choose her battles” and lose against wayward inclinations once her willpower is expended. These scenarios raise issues of causal rather than constitutive luck because they have outcome determinative force over what the student does. An irresistible inclination determines one’s will, regardless of the reason for it being irresistible. Similarly, a limit on the reserve of will one has to expend in overcoming inclinations determines how often one can succeed (i.e. how many functionally irresistible inclinations one will encounter) even if it does not antecedently fix to which inclinations one will succumb.
One might worry that the premise presently under discussion conflicts with one of the initial premises needed for generating the problem of constitutive moral luck. If “it must be possible to [act rightly] by making the right choices, against whatever temperamental background,” does constitution still affect action in problematic ways? Nagel certainly thought so because he accepted both premises. Even if a constitutional trait does not determine what one will do in any given instance, it must prod one to act in accordance with it. It would be hard to make sense of inclinations, tendencies, and impulses that never affected how one acts. Even if constitution never determines individual actions, luck in constitution will still seem morally problematic since its effects will be apparent across sets of actions. Playing chess without my queen does not necessitate that I will lose, but if I aim to win, it is preferable to start with all my pieces. Analogously, a constitution that inclines toward, rather than away from, right action may still seem morally preferable.
The Third Premise
The third premise is that the gains to one’s moral standing from acting rightly are smaller if one’s constitution already disposes one so to act, and they are greater if one’s constitution disposes one against so acting.Footnote 10 Kant controversially articulated a position in the vicinity of this premise when he described examples of people who overcome contrary inclination to act from the motive of duty. For example:
[I]f nature had put little sympathy in the heart of this or that man; if (in other respects an honest man) he is by temperament cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others . . . would he not still find within himself a source from which to give himself a far higher worth than what a mere good-natured temperament might have? By all means! It is just then that the worth of character comes out, which is moral and incomparably the highest, namely that he is beneficent not from inclination but from duty. (Kant (Gregor trans.) 1785, Ak. 4:398-399).
Kant’s discussion is controversial (Benson 1987; Stocker 1976), as is exegesis of it. Some interpreters read Kant in a way that is broadly sympathetic to my third premise, so that inclinations that favor right action are an impediment to realizing moral worth. (Henson 1979). Others disagree. (Herman 1981).
Regardless of Kant exegesis,Footnote 11 the third premise has its own intuitive appeal. In non-moral domains, we commonly recognize the superior value of a victory won through struggle or adversity in comparison to a victory that comes easy. We cheer louder for the athlete who wins through hard training than we do for the athlete whose natural gifts carry her over the finish line. We cheer louder still for the athlete who overcomes unusual setbacks—an illness or a disability—to succeed. We recognize the superior achievement of the self-made millionaire over that of the heiress.
This pattern carries over to the domain of moral assessment. (Nelkin 2016). We often feel that the person who struggles against her constitution to do the right thing has accomplished a greater moral victory when she succeeds than the person who casually does the right thing from natural inclination. The point is best made by illustration, and examples abound. Consider Neville Longbottom, a young wizard from the Harry Potter books. Precisely because the books introduce him as timid and soft-spoken, we celebrate (and the Hogwarts School of Wizardry administrators award) his isolated acts of courage, e.g. standing up to his friends. Contrast that with Harry Potter’s continuous string of courageous acts—from joining Hogwarts as an outsider to outrunning dementors—all of which heighten our sense of adventure but few of which distinctly increase our esteem. For a more classic example, consider Magwich, the violent felon in Dickens’ Great Expectations who, after escaping prison, secretly devotes his life to helping a young orphan he chances to meet. Of the many selfless benefactors throughout Dickens’ novels, Magwich’s actions stand out as morally transformative because of the thieving and murderously self-centered constitution we know him to have.
This third premise may seem to conflict with the intuition some have about the exceptional moral standing of an individual who, through an arduous journey of self-development, manages to cultivate inclinations and dispositions to act rightly. Insofar as the argument here is presented on behalf of deontologists and not virtue ethicists, this Aristotelian intuition will resonate less forcefully with my intended audience. (Nelkin 2016). Even so, the tension between the third premise and this Aristotelian intuition is not so great as it may at first seem. Consider by way of illustration an individual who begins with a bad constitution, but who through effort and repetition, manages to habituate herself to act rightly and thereby acquire a better constitution. Such an individual is, according to the Aristotelian intuition, doing very well, morally speaking. The result is no different according to the third premise. By continuously overcoming her bad inclinations in order to act rightly, the individual is also doing very well morally speaking from this deontological perspective. The difference between the two ways of accounting for moral worth is more a matter of timing than a matter of total assessment. Under the Aristotelian intuition, moral standing increases as the individual comes closer to cultivating the right dispositions. According the third premise advocated here, the steepest gains to moral standing come early on, when the individual acts rightly and contrary to inclination.
One can grant this third premise—that the positive contribution to a person’s moral standing from acting rightly is inversely related to the strength of her inclination so to act—without committing to any precise view on what ratio relates one’s constitution to an act’s contribution to one’s moral worth. My argument for the Strong Thesis—that constitutive luck is morally irrelevant—requires that the ratio be the exact inverse proportion (the “Inverse-Proportion Assumption”). For example, a person whose inclination to act rightly is twice as strong as another’s would gain half as much as the other in moral standing for performing the same right act. If the ratio were ever so lightly more or less than an exact inverse proportion, there would be space for problematic constitutive moral luck to rearise.
The exactitude of the Inverse-Proportion Assumption is very demanding and will likely raise eyebrows. It seems too precise, too convenient... too good to be true. Still, there are three points to be made in its favor. Admittedly, none is dispositive. However, together, they might make the Assumption seem marginally less fantastical than the alternatives.
Though this first point smacks of bootstrapping, it is no small consideration that (as I argue below) the Inverse-Proportion Assumption permits an appealing solution to the problem of constitutive moral luck. The solution is appealing among alternative approaches because it preserves uncompromised all the basic intuitions that are said to lead to the problem—that one’s constitution is (to an extent) out of one’s control, that constitution affects action, that action affects moral standing, and that one’s moral standing is under one’s control. Other approaches might ultimately reject (or attempt to explain away) one of these basic intuitions, or embrace incoherence in our moral commitments (Nagel 1976), or lead to responsibility skepticism (Strawson 1994). Before rejecting the Inverse-Proportion Assumption, we should reckon with what hangs in the balance, because something else would have to give way: our belief that we are morally responsible agents, the coherence of our basic moral commitments, or the truth of the three premises that generate the problem of constitutive moral luck. The costs of rejection can make the Inverse-Proportion Assumption an easier pill to swallow.
Second, I believe that part of what makes the Inverse-Proportion Assumption feel farfetched has less to do with the mathematical relation it posits and more to do with our discomfort when talking about constitution and moral standing in mathematical terms. In other nearby value-laden domains where numbers are more familiar, analogues of the Inverse-Proportion Assumption are much easier to digest. The parable of the Widow’s Mite (Mark 12:41–44) makes sense because we perceive there to be some sort of inverse relationship between the amount of alms one should (in a religio-moral sense) give and the personal burden that each unit of currency represents to the giver. For the widow, each mite represents a large personal burden, yet her two mites are more significant (again, in a religio-moral sense) than the much greater sums that the rich people in the parable contribute. Suppose that donating a single mite entails only 1/10,000th of the personal burden for a rich person as it does for the widow. How much must the rich person give in order to realize the same religio-moral significance as the widow’s two? While there are multiple of plausible answers, it would not overly strain credulity to propose an exact inversely proportional measure. The rich person would have to donate exactly 20,000 mites to realize the same religio-moral significance. And a slightly richer person for whom donating a single mite is only 1/11,000th as burdensome as for the widow would have to donate 22,000 mites.
We have no established currency for moral standing or constitutional traits, and so talking about precise numerical relationships between them can feel alien or uncouth. It may engender the sort of skepticism that Robert Hartman (2019, p. 3190) recently expressed: “I am dubious that weighting difficulty in proportion to degrees of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness could ever be precise enough to grant everyone equal moral opportunities.” Two observations may help stave off doubt. First, in order to accept the Inverse-Proportion Assumption, we do not need to be able to weigh precise degrees of moral standing or strengths of constitution. We do not even need to articulate suitable units for measurement. The Inverse-Proportion Assumption may be true and we may have reason to believe it even if we lack the moral technology to test it. Second, posing a problem of constitutive moral luck but then objecting to the Inverse-Proportion Assumption solely because of its mathematical orientation risks setting different standards for problem and solution. Setting up the problem of constitutive moral luck requires comparing strength of constitution and moral standing between different people. If measurement and basic arithmetic can motivate the problem, they should be available to solve it as well.
Lastly, however farfetched the Inverse-Proportion Assumption may seem, the alternatives—once articulated in mathematical terms—will seem at least as farfetched. If the ratio is not an exact inverse proportion, what is it? Does moral standing from right action increase in inverse proportion to the square of the strength of constitutional traits favoring it? Is the relationship inversely proportional to 1.2 times the strength of one’s constitution? Or inversely proportional but with a kicker of + 5.3? None of these sounds particularly appealing. While absence of a reason to believe an alternative is not a dispositive reason to concede the Inverse-Proportion Assumption, it does lower the theoretical costs of concession.
If the Inverse-Proportion Assumption is false—the ratio is inverse but not exactly inversely proportional—then my ambitions in this article must be correspondingly moderated. Constitutive luck would still be morally relevant, but less relevant than typically supposed. This is the Weak Thesis, which I discuss further in part 5.