Manipulation and constitutive luck


I argue that considerations pertaining to constitutive luck undermine historicism—the view that an agent’s history can determine whether or not she is morally responsible. The main way that historicists have motivated their view is by appealing to certain cases of manipulation. I argue, however, that since agents can be morally responsible for performing some actions from characters with respect to which they are entirely constitutively lucky, and since there is no relevant difference between these agents and agents who have been manipulated into acting from a character bestowed upon them by their manipulators, we should give up historicism. After presenting this argument and defending it against some potential objections, I briefly criticize the standard structuralist alternative and propose a new structuralist position that is shaped by reflection on constitutive luck.

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  1. 1.

    See especially Frankfurt (1988) and Watson (2004). In this paper, I am concerned with direct (or non-derivative) moral responsibility. Since everyone should agree that there is a distinction between direct and indirect moral responsibility, and since this distinction is a historical one, everyone should think that, in cases of indirect moral responsibility, whether or not an agent is morally responsible can depend on non-structural features of an agent. For more on this point, see McKenna (2012: 156).

  2. 2.

    It is worth making two notes about this argument from constitutive luck. The first is that it shares a key structural feature with the increasingly popular “manipulation argument” against compatibilism (see especially Pereboom 2001, chapter 4 and 2014, chapter 4). Both use a “no relevant difference” premise, but whereas the manipulation argument aims to use this premise as a bridge from the non-responsibility of manipulated agents to the non-responsibility of ordinary determined agents, my “no relevant difference” premise aims to construct a bridge from the responsibility of constitutively lucky agents to the responsibility of (certain) manipulated agents.

    Second, although I will continue to talk as though the historicist/structuralist debate is an in-house debate among compatibilists, the argument from constitutive luck has implications for all accounts of moral responsibility. Interestingly, although virtually all of the debate concerning whether moral responsibility is essentially historical has been a debate among compatibilists, even incompatibilist accounts of moral responsibility (i.e., libertarian accounts) may be divided into historicist and structuralist camps. (For more on this point, see McKenna 2016: 87-88. Kane’s 1996 libertarian account of freedom and responsibility is a nice example of a historicist libertarian account.) This is because it is possible for two agents to have identical psychological structures but different histories even if both agents inhabit indeterministic worlds. Given this, the argument from constitutive luck should persuade not only compatibilists but also libertarians to plump for structuralist accounts of moral responsibility.

  3. 3.

    This example is based on the one in Mele (1995: 145). Whereas I have been (and will continue to be) focused on moral responsibility, Mele typically focuses on freedom. Nevertheless, we are talking about the same features of agency, for, as Mele notes concerning his use of the term “free action” and its cognates:

    My interest is in what might be termed moral-responsibility-level free action—roughly, free action of such a kind that if all the freedom-independent conditions for moral responsibility for a particular action were satisfied without that sufficing for the agent’s being morally responsible for it, the addition of the action’s being free to this set of conditions would entail that he is morally responsible for it. (2006: 17).

  4. 4.

    Given its requirement that the agent have rationally formed a deliberative judgment, it may seem as though Mele’s proposal is really a positive (or a “mixed”) historicist account, requiring that morally responsible agents have a certain sort of history (and, on a mixed view, also lack a certain sort of history). But the requirement that morally responsible agents have rationally formed a deliberative judgment is one that can be satisfied at (or just before) the time of action and so, arguably, is part of the (perhaps slightly temporally extended) time of action that structuralists take moral responsibility to depend on. Thanks to John Fischer for encouraging me to address this point.

  5. 5.

    As I noted in Sect. 1, this argument from constitutive luck is structurally similar to the increasingly popular manipulation argument against compatibilism. But notice that, despite sharing the structural similarity of having a “no relevant difference” premise to bridge the first premise to the conclusion, it is not the case that proponents of one of these arguments must endorse the other. In fact, while I defend the argument from constitutive luck that I develop in this paper, I have argued elsewhere that compatibilists should reject the first premise of the manipulation argument against compatibilism. For my take on that argument, see Cyr (Manuscript).

  6. 6.

    One might think that this boundary at the beginning of our careers as agents (between actions for which we are not morally responsible and actions for which we are morally responsible) is a vague one. (We can all agree, of course, that agents gradually come to have the capacities necessary for moral responsibility; what we might disagree about is whether there is a precise threshold at which one performs one’s first morally responsible action.) While this would suffice to undermine my argument as I present it in the main text, the argument could, albeit with some clunkiness, be modified to refer to the first action outside of that zone of vagueness.

  7. 7.

    This is only a necessary condition on being entirely constitutively lucky, and this much should be uncontroversial.

  8. 8.

    Might we exercise control over the formation of our characters, not be morally responsible for the changes to our characters, and yet not be entirely constitutively lucky? I do not think this is possible, for if an agent is not morally responsible for bringing about a change to her character, then it does not make a difference to her constitutive luck whether her character was influenced by her own past actions (for which she was not morally responsible) or someone else’s or no one’s at all.

  9. 9.

    As an anonymous reviewer points out, the argument of this paragraph parallels an argument from Pereboom (2001: 48–49) against Kane’s (1996) historical libertarian account.

  10. 10.

    Thanks to Al Mele for suggesting this objection.

  11. 11.

    Thanks to Ben Matheson for suggesting this objection.

  12. 12.

    This example is based on one from Mele (2006: 129-130).

  13. 13.

    For a related but slightly different use of this example, see Section 4 of Cyr (2019) .

  14. 14.

    Of course, as Arpaly (2003: 128) explains, unlike the agents in these other examples, Beth’s autonomy is violated. But, as Arpaly (2003: 129) argues, it does not follow that, unlike the others, Beth is not morally responsible for what she does. See also Fischer (2012). Indeed, I would endorse Arpaly’s charge: “Anyone who wishes to argue that Beth is not morally responsible for her actions would need to explain why having been irrationally influenced by an evil human being exempts from responsibility in a way that having been influenced in a similar way by some unlucky chance of a force of nature does not” (2003: 129).

  15. 15.

    For example, see Fischer and Ravizza (1998: 235).

  16. 16.

    Here and in my own proposal I presuppose that moral responsibility comes in degrees. Some deny this presupposition, maintaining instead that praiseworthiness and blameworthiness come in degrees. What I say here could be adopted, mutatis mutandis, by someone who held this alternative view. Thanks to John Fischer for suggesting that I mention this variant. For a further development of my view, which I will only sketch here, see Cyr (2019).


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For comments on earlier drafts of this paper, I am grateful to John Fischer and Michael Nelson; the members of the Agency Workshop at the University of California, Riverside, especially Zac Bachman, Dave Beglin, Andrew Law, Meredith McFadden, Jonah Nagashima, and Debbie Nelson; my commentator at the 2017 Pacific APA in Seattle, Ben Matheson; the audience at that APA, especially Craig Agule, Garrett Pendergraft, Michael Robinson, Philip Swenson, and Neal Tognazzini; and to an anonymous reviewer for this journal. I am also grateful to Al Mele for discussion of the main argument of this paper.

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Cyr, T.W. Manipulation and constitutive luck. Philos Stud 177, 2381–2394 (2020).

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  • Constitutive luck
  • Historicism
  • Manipulation
  • Moral responsibility
  • Structuralism