First, it is important to distinguish several types of luck, because Fleming seems to have benefitted from different types of luck, each requiring a different response. Let us begin with constitutive luck, as Nagel calls it (Nagel 1991, p. 33). Dana Nelkin outlines constitutive luck as follows: “Since our genes, care-givers, peers, and other environmental influences all contribute to making us who we are (and since we have no control over these) it seems that who we are is at least largely a matter of luck. Since how we act is partly a function of who we are, the existence of constitutive luck entails that what actions we perform depends on luck, too.” (Nelkin 2013b) In this sense, Fleming was born with a basic set of attitudes, maybe with a natural curiosity and attraction to the experimental sciences. If those attitudes were beyond his control, why praise him for them? Firstly, it should be emphasized that many philosophers concede that there is a certain influence on one’s character (Hanna 2014, p. 694; Sand 2018, p. 167; Smith 2005). When Nagel introduces constitutive luck, he writes ambiguously “[t]o some extent such a quality may be the product of earlier choices; to some extent it may be amenable to change by current actions.” (Nagel 1991, p. 33) That there is a certain extent to which a character is amenable, is a crucial concession, even if it remains largely a matter of luck. That it is not completely a matter of luck, is in fact the only concession needed. Secondly, it should be pointed out that scientific skills such as those for which Fleming received most praise by biographers and contemporaries–his acute, unbiased power of observation and a keen eye to expect the unexpected in an experiment (Macfarlane 1984, p. 262)–are hardly the qualities that one can inherit. An inherited scientific curiosity does not help one telling apart a dirty petri dish from one that contains an important antibacterial substance. These skills have to be learned and continuously trained, which requires diligence and effort (Copeland 2017; McKinnon 2014).
More significant than constitutive luck is resultant moral luck characterized by Nagel as luck “in the way things turn out” (Nagel 1991, p. 28), which is most strikingly present in the drunken driver case. Another often discussed example of resultant luck introduces the two assassins George and Georg: both attempt to murder Henrik, but Georg’s bullet is caught by a (massive) bird passing its way, while George succeeds murdering him (Zimmerman 2002, p. 560). In Fleming’s case, resultant luck enters the story when the Oxford group surrounding Florey and Chain pick up his work on Penicillin and prove its efficacy in clinical trials. Their research obviously affected the clinical impact of Fleming’s initial findings and defied his control entirely. Without other scientists’ contribution, his scientific achievements would have been far less momentous.Footnote 8 Obviously, Fleming’s research has also been affected by the circumstances that occurred during his summer holidays in 1928.Footnote 9 If the mould had remained absent from the petri dish, he would not have had the opportunity to discover Penicillin in the first place, and hence, this discovery could not have resulted in medical revolution. Nagel calls this type of luck circumstantial moral luck and it obviously has a close connection to resultant moral luck (Hanna 2014, p. 695; Nagel 1991, p. 34). Circumstantial luck is often discussed with reference to the following case: Judge A would freely accept a bribe, if someone would offer him one. So would judge B, but only B gets one offered and actually accepts it (Hartman 2016, p. 2847).
Returning now to the paradox of moral luck, one might argue that Fleming’s moral standing is unaffected by the workings of luck. In this manner, I claim that he would be equally praiseworthy, had he not discovered Penicillin, because whatever his praiseworthy qualities they are exactly the same from this counterfactual viewpoint. This also suggests that he is just as praiseworthy as other actual scientists with the same epistemic skills and scientific virtues. Similarly, George and Georg have the same “mark on their moral ledger” (Concepcion 2002, p. 456), despite one of them succeeding and the other one failing because of luck. These claims are implications of the Control Principle (CP) to which a majority of philosophers in the moral luck debate appeal (Concepcion 2002, pp. 459–460; Enoch and Marmor 2007, p. 407; Zimmerman 2002, p. 560). I have touched upon this principle above as a deeply ingrained conviction of common-sense morality, because Nagel introduces it in this way (pp. 25–27). It might be more fundamental than the term “common sense” suggests. It certainly has enormous intuitive appeal (Enoch and Marmor 2007, p. 407). The standard formulation of CP is as follows (Nelkin 2013b):
CP We are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control.
Following this formulation, luck, which is presumably opposed to control (Enoch and Marmor 2007, p. 407), is indeed “irrelevant for moral responsibility.” (Zimmerman 2002, p. 559) When claiming that Fleming is just as morally laudable as his hypothetical counterpart, who does not discover Penicillin, I presume that CP entails the idea that it would be mistaken to assess two people who are equal in all regards differently, if the results of their actions (or their actions) differ due to luck’s workings. This means, that a judge who would freely accept a bribe but never gets one offered is as blameworthy as one who freely accepts a bribe and also that both assassins George and Georg are equally blameworthy although only one of them succeeds with murdering Henrik, because they develop the same evil plan and attempt to execute it equally determined. Hence, I adhere to the following corollary of CP, which is CPC:
CPC Two people ought not to be morally assessed differently if the differences between them are due only to factors beyond their control.
CP and CPC mutually entail each other. The concept of control features large in both principles, despite being contentious. If control is understood narrowly as the irrevocability of a process instigated by an agent, then very few things are within our control, maybe only our volitions (Khoury 2018). Even bodily movements are not necessarily within our control in this sense, as an epileptic seizure can interfere with acting at any time. However, living together in societies were hardly possible, if our actions would systemically fail for such reasons. For the present context, it is sufficient to note that people control their volitions and their actions at least partially, as suggested above, by directly influencing the likelihood of succeeding or failing.
While many philosophers find the principles CP and CPC intuitively appealing, they have not escaped criticism. The most recent and sophisticated criticisms of CP and its corollary have been brought forward by Nathan Hanna and Robert Hartman (Hanna 2014; Hartman 2016). Discussing their objections will strengthen my position and help to understand and alleviate some difficulties accompanied with the kind of counterfactual reasoning employed before. Hanna defends an example of circumstantial luck which supposedly directly undermines CP:
Jimmy promised his spouse to stop eating at the local McDonald’s. But he knows that the following is true.
M If Jimmy were driving by the local McDonald’s while it is open, he would succumb to temptation and break his promise.
Jimmy is intent on not breaking his promise and he exploits his knowledge of M towards this end. He regularly avoids driving by the McDonald’s while it’s open. Call these circumstances c. Does M make Jimmy culpable to some degree? If so, to what degree? To the first question, I say no because Jimmy deliberately avoids c to avoid breaking his promise. […] To me at least, it seems inappropriate to take him to be culpable on the basis of M, partly because of his intentions and behaviour with respect to c. […] Even if my claim that M doesn’t make Jimmy culpable to same degree were false, though, this wouldn’t entail anything specific about how culpable M makes him. I’d still deny that M makes him as culpable as a promise-breaker. (Hanna 2014, p. 686)
Later, Hanna reaffirms his conviction that it seems particularly implausible “to say that [Jimmy] is as culpable as a promise-breaker […].” (Hanna 2014, p. 688) For the following reasons, I do not find this counterexample convincing.Footnote 10 Hanna asks, whether M makes Jimmy culpable to some degree, assuming that those who oppose circumstantial moral luck must affirm this. Hanna is convinced that if Jimmy would drive by the McDonald’s and, thus, break his promise despite his deliberate effort to avoid this from happening, defenders of CP must assert that he is just as culpable as a promise-breaker. If one denies—as I do—that circumstances make a difference for moral assessment, one has to affirm this. But this is far from obvious. Compare this to the judges case: Even though B never acts upon his intent to accept a bribe, because he never gets one offered, he can be considered just as wicked as A, who accept the offered bribe. Judging them equally bears on the fact that they entertain the same malicious intent to accept a bribe. Circumstances M, in contrast, are not something for which Jimmy is culpable. Hanna’s description suggests that Jimmy’s behaviour under circumstances M is rather compulsive: Driving by the McDonald’s necessitates that he will be eating there. Unlike the judges, who deliberately entertain malintent, Jimmy’s behaviour—like the behaviour of addicts—is beyond his control and no one is culpable for things beyond control. Therefore, advocates of CP do not have to regard Jimmy as culpable as a promise-breaker. Thus, the example is in relevant respects different from the judges case, where circumstances provide an opportunity to actualize a malicious intent and, hence, do not matter for moral assessment. Jimmy does not act upon bad intentions under circumstances M: He is determined by them. This suggests more generally the ambiguity of the concept “circumstance”: Some circumstances are better conceived as opportunities, others as determinants. In some circumstances, for instance, when one’s life is threatened, almost everybody would perform morally dubious actions. But that does not taint everybody morally dubious, because circumstances which leave one without reasonable alternatives excuse the behaviour in question (Fischer and Tognazzini 2011, p. 388 f). Such circumstances deprive moral assessments of their fundament. It is rather dubious of Jimmy that he makes a promise, of which he knows he cannot keep, if certain circumstances occur. Judging him on this ground, however, is independent from circumstances M.
Hanna continues his criticism with another direct attack on CP. He argues that assessing people’s real moral standing on the basis of counterfactual reasoning has counterintuitive implications (Hanna 2014, p. 688). He recalls an example from Thomas Nagel (Hartman 2016, p. 2850; Nagel 1991, pp. 33–34), whose core idea is essentially this: We would all act very differently, if circumstances were different from those in which we are coincidentally, actually living in. People who are currently considered as ordinary and mild-mannered would become collaborators of an evil regime and contribute to genocide, if they had grown up in a political dictatorship such as Nazi Germany. This is certainly possible and defies individuals’ control. If counterfactuals like this are the basis of moral appraisal, then most people’s moral standing is quite different from how it is ordinarily assumed to be. This is counterintuitive: We do not think of mild-mannered people as having the same moral standing as regime collaborators.
While it is plausible that many of us would collaborate with an evil regime, we do not know exactly who would. This epistemic limitation puts a halt to Hanna’s argument before any counterintuitions to CP even emerge. Generally, one can assume that possible worlds must be sufficiently similar to the actual world in order to allow for a plausible moral assessment across them. Assuming that we would act very differently in counterfactual worlds, does not entitle us to draw a conclusion about how differently we would act. In contrast, the possible world in which Georg’s bullet is hindered by a bird is similar enough to entitle us to draw the same conclusion about his moral blameworthiness than about his actual sibling George who kills Henrik. Also judges A and B are conceived in such way, that one can safely assume that both would accept bribes. Here, epistemic limitations do not undermine judgments based on CP and CPC. Regarding counterfactual worlds that are fundamentally different than ours, a person’s moral standing remains necessarily opaque (Enoch and Marmor 2007, p. 422 f.). Despite its limited scope, this is where Rescher’s epistemic argument has a proper place. The restriction to sufficient similarity between counterfactual worlds neither undermines CP nor CPC. In fact, presuppositions about true counterfactuals are prior to moral assessments and, therefore, pose a menace not only for deniers of moral luck. Counterfactuals are an essential part of our metaphysics of agency, which makes determinism so dubious in the first place (Keil 2007, pp. 118–119). An ascription of responsibility for an action presupposes that the agent could have done something different, if only omitting the act. The agent is evaluated in light of these alternatives, which are presumably true counterfactuals.
In this section, I have defended the Control Principle, which is the view that people’s moral standing is unaffected by luck despite contrary inclinations in ordinary contexts. Fleming would be morally praiseworthy to the exact same degree, had he not discovered Penicillin. This is dubious, because he would still be treated differently. He would not have received the Nobel Prize. This will be discussed in more detail in the following section.