Against luck-free moral responsibility


Every account of moral responsibility has conditions that distinguish between the consequences, actions, or traits that warrant praise or blame and those that do not. One intuitive condition is that praiseworthiness and blameworthiness cannot be affected by luck, that is, by factors beyond the agent’s control. Several philosophers build their accounts of moral responsibility on this luck-free condition, and we may call their views Luck-Free Moral Responsibility (LFMR). I offer moral and metaphysical arguments against LFMR. First, I maintain that considerations of fairness that often motivate LFMR do not require its adoption. Second, I contend that LFMR has counterintuitive implications for the nature and scope of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness and that LFMR is vulnerable to a reductio ad absurdum. Third, I state some common reasons for thinking that LFMR’s commitment to true counterfactuals of libertarian freedom is problematic, and I argue that if there are no such true counterfactuals and if LFMR is true, a person is praiseworthy and blameworthy at most for a tiny fraction of her actions. Fourth, I argue that proponents of LFMR cannot escape this skeptical cost by appealing to a different kind of counterfactual of freedom. Fifth, I develop an anti-skeptical motivation to affirm the idea that luck can affect moral responsibility.

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  1. 1.

    Steven Hales (2015) has recently argued that the concept of moral luck is itself problematic, because we have no good theory of luck. I, however, do not think that we need to know what luck is in order to inquire about relationship between control, praiseworthiness, and blameworthiness.

  2. 2.

    There are three other projects relevant to a systematic defense of moral luck: (i) to argue against other views of moral responsibility that imply the denial of moral luck, (ii) to offer direct arguments on behalf of moral luck, and (iii) to propose an error theory that accommodates insights from the errant views. I am currently undertaking all three projects.

  3. 3.

    The taxonomy belongs to Thomas Nagel (1979, p. 28). I leave out Nagel’s fourth category, causal luck, in order to avoid an initial commitment to either libertarianism or compatibilism.

  4. 4.

    Carolina Sartorio (2012) maps out several other kinds of resultant luck. I ignore that complexity, because my arguments target circumstantial and constitutive luck.

  5. 5.

    If there are true counterfactuals of freedom, Duncan Pritchard (2005, p. 260) and Nicholas Rescher (1990, p. 16) also affirm this view. Linda Zagzebski (1994, p. 407) explores a view like this but does not endorse it.

  6. 6.

    Zimmerman (2002, p. 573) leaves it open whether those counterfactual of freedom are compatibilist or libertarian.

  7. 7.

    As Zimmerman (2002, p. 575) notes, some constitutive properties may be essential, and so LFMR may not be entirely moral luck-free.

  8. 8.

    For more sophisticated versions of the control principle, see Zimmerman (2002, p. 565; 2011b, p. 130).

  9. 9.

    This formulation of the CCP is a slightly revised version of John Greco’s (1995, p. 89) formulation. Greco rejects the CCP.

  10. 10.

    Other philosophers note that fairness is an important motivation for luck-free accounts of moral responsibility. See, for example, Andrew Latus (2000, p. 166), Neil Levy (2011, pp. 9–10), Michael Otsuka (2009, pp. 374–375), George Sher (2005, p. 180), Daniel Statman (2005, p. 425), and Margret Urban Walker (1991, p. 16).

  11. 11.

    Peels (2015, p. 77) also adds a ‘significance condition’ that I neglect.

  12. 12.

    Peels (2015, p. 74) limits his discussion of moral responsibility to blameworthiness, and thus he does not consider whether agents are praiseworthy in virtue of counterfactual free acts.

  13. 13.

    An anonymous referee offers this objection: “The event of his parents (not) dying may be a matter of luck at the time at which it occurs or does not occur, but later on, at the time at which Ben is an average Samaritan or an evil person, the two worlds—in which he is a Samaritan and in which he is evil—are far apart, so it is no longer a matter of luck then.” But it seems implausible that evil Ben murders in a distant world. For Samaritan Ben and evil Ben are exact matches for laws and history until Samaritan Ben’s parents fail to get on the plane. Circumstantial luck, on Peels’s view, occurs when one could easily have faced a different morally significant decision and facing it is outside of one’s control. And it is circumstantially lucky for Samaritan Ben that his parents did not get on the plane, because they get on it in the majority of nearby possible worlds. So, Samaritan Ben could easily have been in a situation outside of his control in which he is flooded with negative emotions and has to make a choice about what to do with them. As a result, Ben’s counterfactual choice to murder counts towards his blameworthiness (cf. Peels 2015, p. 80).

  14. 14.

    I assume that praiseworthiness and blameworthiness do not cancel out one another. I thank Joel Archer for this point.

  15. 15.

    I thank an anonymous referee for this point.

  16. 16.

    Many philosophers take seriously the communicative function of blame. Michael McKenna (2012), for example, has a book length account of blame modeled on communication.

  17. 17.

    My response is vaguely analogous to Bill Wringe’s (2012, pp. 128–131) attempt to vindicate the intuition that pre-punishment is impermissible by paying attention to the communicative function of punishment. On his view, the justification for punishment is that the hard treatment communicates to the wrongdoer on behalf of society that her conduct was wrong. This message is supposed to be a catalyst for remorse and re-integration. So, a successful instance of punishment is one in which the wrongdoer feels remorse, repents, and atones for her wrongdoing. But then, a successful instance of pre-punishment implies that the one punished is innocent, because if the one pre-punished hears the message, she will avoid committing the crime for which she is pre-punished. But since it is wrong to punish the innocent, pre-punishment is morally unacceptable.

  18. 18.

    For a theological objection to LFMR, see Hartman (2014, p. 83).

  19. 19.

    In the next section, I argue that LFMR is committed to libertarianism.

  20. 20.

    In the next section, I explore the view that character grounds true counterfactuals of freedom.

  21. 21.

    Those who affirm true counterfactuals of libertarian freedom typically object to the claim that such propositions need truth-makers. Alvin Plantinga (1985, p. 374) suggests that it is intuitively clearer to him that there are true counterfactuals of libertarian freedom than that all contingently true propositions must be grounded in a concrete state of affairs. Similarly, William Lane Craig (2001) argues that counterfactuals of freedom are merely one of several classes of proposition that may be true without truth-makers. More radically, Trenton Merricks (2007, pp. 146–169) argues for a theory of truth according to which no true proposition requires a concrete state of affairs to make it true.

  22. 22.

    Plantinga’s (1974, p. 178) response is to revise Lewis’s semantics so that counterfactuals of libertarian freedom can be true. Alternatively, Richard Gaskin (1993, pp. 427–429) rejects Lewis’s semantics, because it precludes true counterfactuals of libertarian freedom.

  23. 23.

    Some philosophers suggest that embracing responsibility skepticism is appealing in various ways. See, for example, Derk Pereboom (2014).

  24. 24.

    A potential problem for this claim is that the truth of compatibilism does not entail that the world is causally deterministic. As Manuel Vargas (2012, p. 420) observes, “contemporary compatibilists usually embrace a kind of ‘supercompatibilism,’ holding that freedom and responsibility are compatible with both determinism and indeterminism” (cf. Fischer 2012). If human actions are in fact indeterministic, true counterfactuals of super-compatibilist freedom may be just as contentious as true counterfactuals of libertarian freedom.

  25. 25.

    There is a relevant difference between causal luck and the other kinds of luck for Peels (2015) and Duncan Pritchard (2014, p. 605), because they believe that the modal condition is a necessary condition for luck. Since no causally determined action could easily have failed to occur, no causally determined action is lucky in virtue of its being causally determined. Thus, on this view of luck, the concept of casual luck is incoherent (cf. Levy 2011, p. 40). While I cannot defend my view here, I think that the lack of control characterization of luck is the only part of our ordinary usage relevant to assessing moral praiseworthiness or blameworthiness.

  26. 26.

    A potential problem with this proposal is that some libertarians such as Lara Buchak (2013, p. 25) and Leigh Vicens (2016) deny that a free act has an objective probability of occurring. Other libertarians including Timothy O’Connor (2009, p. 120) believe that a free act has an objective probability of occurring.

  27. 27.

    Hanna’s (2014, p. 690) version of the thought experiment puts the counterfactual’s antecedent in a different possible world. In my thought experiment, however, I stipulate that the antecedent of the counterfactual occurs in the future, because I think that it elicits a stronger ‘morally inadequate’ intuition. But as an anonymous referee points out, my version of the argument targets only the views of Zimmerman (2002) and Enoch and Marmor (2007), because, as Peels (2015) would retort, it is not the case that one could easily have been in a future circumstance. Interestingly, Hanna’s argument does apply to Peels’s view. So, perhaps the best anti-LFMR strategy is to divide and conquer.

  28. 28.

    I thank an anonymous referee for this point.

  29. 29.

    The metaphysically contentious counterfactual of libertarian freedom is this: if agent S were in circumstance c, S would directly freely x.

  30. 30.

    We need not include counterfactual acts influenced by actual character traits, because this is primarily the domain of circumstantial luck.

  31. 31.

    Enoch and Marmor (2007, p. 429) acknowledge that the character traits (or parts of character traits) for which one is morally responsible can be metaphysically vague. Insofar as it is vague whether a character trait is formed through directly free acts, it is also vague whether the agent is praiseworthy or blameworthy in virtue of the indirectly free counterfactual act that issues from it.

  32. 32.

    It does not follow that a proponent of moral luck must be a compatibilist. There might be additional considerations that rule out compatibilism but allow for extant moral luck of various kinds.


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I am grateful to Joel Archer, Donald Bungum, John Greco, Daniel Haybron, Brandon Rdzak, Jeremy Skrzypek, Eleonore Stump, and an anonymous referee for comments on some version of this essay. I am also thankful for questions from audience members at the ninth Felician Ethics Conference.

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Correspondence to Robert J. Hartman.

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Hartman, R.J. Against luck-free moral responsibility. Philos Stud 173, 2845–2865 (2016).

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  • Luck
  • Moral luck
  • Moral responsibility
  • Fairness
  • Counterfactuals of freedom
  • Michael J. Zimmerman