Hard Luck: How Luck Undermines Free Will and Moral Responsibility

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Incompatibilists regard determinism as at odds with free will, whereas compatibilists think the two can coexist. Moral responsibility does not necessarily equate to legal responsibility. A person is legally responsible for an event when a legal system is liable to penalise that person for that event. Although it may often be the case that when a person is morally responsible for an act, they are also legally responsible for it, the two states do not always coincide. Depending on how a philosopher conceives of free will , they will have different views on moral responsibility. Metaphysical libertarians think actions are not always causally determined, allowing for the possibility of free will and thus moral responsibility.

All libertarians are also incompatibilists; they think that if causal determinism were true of human action; people would not have free will. Accordingly, libertarians subscribe to the principle of alternate possibilities, which posits that moral responsibility requires that people could have acted differently. Phenomenological considerations are sometimes invoked by incompatibilists to defend a libertarian position. In daily life, we feel as though choosing otherwise is a viable option.

Although this feeling doesn't firmly establish the existence of free will, some incompatibilists claim the phenomenological feeling of alternate possibilities is a prerequisite for free will. Jean-Paul Sartre suggested that people sometimes avoid incrimination and responsibility by hiding behind determinism: " A similar view has it that individual moral culpability lies in individual character.

That is, a person with the character of a murderer has no choice other than to murder, but can still be punished because it is right to punish those of bad character. How one's character was determined is irrelevant from this perspective. Robert Cummins, for example, argues that people should not be judged for their individual actions, but rather for how those actions "reflect on their character".

If character however defined is the dominant causal factor in determining one's choices, and one's choices are morally wrong, then one should be held accountable for those choices, regardless of genes and other such factors. In law, there is a known exception to the assumption that moral culpability lies in either individual character or freely willed acts.

The insanity defense —or its corollary, diminished responsibility a sort of appeal to the fallacy of the single cause —can be used to argue that the guilty deed was not the product of a guilty mind. The argument from luck is a criticism against the libertarian conception of moral responsibility. It suggests that any given action, and even a person's character, is the result of various forces outside that person's control.

It may not be reasonable, then, to hold that person solely morally responsible. For instance, a person driving drunk may make it home without incident, and yet this action of drunk driving might seem more morally objectionable if someone happens to jaywalk along his path getting hit by the car.

This argument can be traced back to David Hume. If physical indeterminism is true, then those events that are not determined are scientifically described as probabilistic or random. It is therefore argued that it is doubtful that one can praise or blame someone for performing an action generated randomly by his nervous system without there being any non-physical agency responsible for the observed probabilistic outcome.

Hard determinists not to be confused with Fatalists often use liberty in practical moral considerations, rather than a notion of a free will. Indeed, faced with the possibility that determinism requires a completely different moral system, some proponents say "So much the worse for free will! What has this boy to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not his own mother; he was not his own grandparents. All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay.

Paul the Apostle , in his Epistle to the Romans addresses the question of moral responsibility as follows: "Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, researchers in the emerging field of neuroethics , argue, on the basis of such cases, that our current notion of moral responsibility is founded on libertarian and dualist intuitions. For example, damage to the frontal lobe reduces the ability to weigh uncertain risks and make prudent decisions, and therefore leads to an increased likelihood that someone will commit a violent crime.

Greene and Cohen also argue that the legal system does not require this libertarian interpretation. Rather, they suggest that only retributive notions of justice , in which the goal of the legal system is to punish people for misdeeds, require the libertarian intuition.


Many forms of ethically realistic and consequentialist approaches to justice, which are aimed at promoting future welfare rather than retribution, can survive even a hard determinist interpretation of free will. Accordingly, the legal system and notions of justice can thus be maintained even in the face of emerging neuroscientific evidence undermining libertarian intuitions of free will.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman maintains similar ideas. Eagleman says that the legal justice system ought to become more forward looking. He says it is wrong to ask questions of narrow culpability, rather than focusing on what is important: what needs to change in a criminal's behavior and brain. Eagleman is not saying that no one is responsible for their crimes, but rather that the "sentencing phase" should correspond with modern neuroscientific evidence. To Eagleman, it is damaging to entertain the illusion that a person can make a single decision that is somehow, suddenly, independent of their physiology and history.

He describes what scientists have learned from brain damaged patients, and offers the case of a school teacher who exhibited escalating pedophilic tendencies on two occasions—each time as results of growing tumors. Derk Pereboom defends a skeptical position about free will he calls hard incompatibilism. In his view, we cannot have free will if our actions are causally determined by factors beyond our control, or if our actions are indeterministic events—if they happen by chance. Pereboom conceives of free will as the control in action required for moral responsibility in the sense involving deserved blame and praise, punishment and reward.

Without libertarian agent causation, Pereboom thinks the free will required for moral responsibility in the desert-involving sense is not in the offing. For instance, causally determined agents who act badly might justifiably be blamed with the aim of forming faulty character, reconciling impaired relationships, and protecting others from harm they are apt to cause.

Pereboom proposes that a viable criminal jurisprudence is compatible with the denial of deserved blame and punishment. His view rules out retributivist justifications for punishment, but it allows for incapacitation of dangerous criminals on the analogy with quarantine of carriers of dangerous diseases. Order by , and we can deliver your NextDay items by.

In your cart, save the other item s for later in order to get NextDay delivery. We moved your item s to Saved for Later. There was a problem with saving your item s for later. You can go to cart and save for later there. Average rating: 0 out of 5 stars, based on 0 reviews Write a review. Neil Levy. Tell us if something is incorrect. Add to Cart. Free delivery. Arrives by Friday, Oct Pickup not available. The concept of luck plays an important role in debates concerning free will and moral responsibility.

Neil Levy presents an original account of luck and argues that it undermines our freedom and moral responsibility no matter whether determinism is true or not. About This Item We aim to show you accurate product information. Manufacturers, suppliers and others provide what you see here, and we have not verified it.

Moreover, many people think that these conditions are quite demanding. If we do not know whether sufficient conditions for free will again, understood here, as is usual, as a necessary condition for moral responsibility are satisfied, then it seems that we do not know whether agents are indeed morally responsible. It is true that compatibilists often deny that the sufficient conditions for moral responsibility are demanding.

But it is a mistake to think that supercompatibilists do not set down demanding conditions for moral responsibility. Consider the luck objection: the standard objection to libertarian theories that indeterminism in the causal route from cognition to behaviour regarded by libertarians as a necessary condition of moral responsibility makes our behaviour unacceptably subject to luck Mele Given that many people think that neural processes are indeterministic, supercompatibilists must face the luck objection along with libertarians.

It is very far from clear that there is a satisfactory response to the luck objection, so once again we should think that our confidence that agents are often morally responsible is misplaced. Further, there are threats to moral responsibility other than those stemming from the luck objection that the supercompatibilist must confront.

Recent philosophers have suggested that naturalism Waller , a kind of luck that is a feature of our world whether it is deterministic or indeterministic Levy , an unsatisfiable need of self-creation Strawson , or contingent facts about how the brain happens to work Caruso entail that we lack the freedom needed for moral responsibility. Again, there are responses to each challenge available, at least some of which are plausible.

But it also seems plausible that no one can confidently conclude that we know that every one of these challenges fails. Given the range of challenges to the existence of the kind of freedom required for moral responsibility, I think we find ourselves in the following situation: while almost all of us are confident that we and our fellow agents are routinely morally responsible for actions, we do not know that the necessary conditions for this kind of freedom obtain.

That should lower our confidence that we have this kind of moral responsibility. In a number of papers, Benjamin Vilhauer , has argued for an analogous conclusion on parallel grounds. Vilhauer argues that anyone who takes the possibility of free will scepticism seriously, where taking free will scepticism seriously is thinking that such scepticism is intellectually respectable enough to be worth engaging with, is committed to thinking that harsh punishment is unjustified.

Vilhauer argues that taking free will scepticism has practical implications that other kinds of scepticisms scepticism about other minds or about induction, for instance do not have. The reason is that free will scepticism has direct implications for one of our central moral principles: that innocent persons should not be unjustifiably harmed. Whereas other scepticisms might threaten this principle itself by undermining our warrant for knowledge more generally, say, or our grounds for concern about other agents , free will scepticism leaves it untouched.

Taking free will scepticism seriously therefore leaves us with stronger epistemic reasons to be committed to this moral principle than to thinking that those who might be harmed by punishment deserve these harms. There are two differences worth highlighting, however. First, my argument is epistemic and pragmatic—turning on the confidence we are justified in having in whether sufficient conditions on moral responsibility are ever satisfied, and on the costs of being wrong about this—rather than addressing itself to those who take free will scepticism seriously.

But it has a narrower scope in another way. Vilhauer is concerned with moral responsibility generally: I am concerned with responsibility only in the context of health-related behaviour. Focusing on this context is not an unprincipled limitation. There are a number of important differences between the broader questions concerning moral responsibility that are the focus of the traditional debate and the question of individual responsibility for ill-health.

First, the moral responsibility debate is one that raises passions, because the stakes are so high. It concerns the responsibility of people who have done awful things and on how we best protect ourselves from them. The costs of implementing policies based on false views are potentially catastrophic in this domain. Second, the broad debate is a perennial one in philosophy and not one that is going to be resolved soon if ever. Third, and most importantly, our epistemic situation is different with regard to the broad and narrow debates.

While there is plentiful evidence that our current criminal justice system imposes harms on people, it is extremely hard to assess the balance of costs and benefits with regard to moral responsibility generally. Holding people responsible for their own ill-health is crucially different: the evidence suggests that the costs of doing so outweighs any benefits. Thus, while the preceding discussion has concerned moral responsibility, broadly construed, it has very different implications for our responsibility for our own health than it has for say the criminal justice system.

What I take myself to have succeeded in showing is that our confidence that we are morally responsible in all contexts should be lower than we tend to think. This fact—the fact that our confidence that agents are morally responsible should be lower than we tend to think—has particular implications for the kinds of contexts with which I am concerned in this paper.

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In these contexts, I will suggest that the benefits of holding responsible are likely smaller than the costs, and the costs of wrongly holding responsible are likely significantly greater than the costs of wrongly failing to hold responsible. In the next section, I will attempt to show that there is evidence that holding people responsible for their own health has all things considered bad consequences for policy and outcomes. We might want to hold people morally responsible for the harms constituted or caused by their own health outcomes in a variety of contexts.

We might want to allocate scarce resources say organs for transplant to people in a way that is sensitive to their responsibility, for instance. We might want to limit access to public support for addicts, in the belief that they do not deserve such support when some proportion of it might be spent on drugs.

Or we might think that each individual is responsible for his or her consumption decisions and oppose initiatives that require businesses to prompt them to make better choices say limitations on serving sizes, or nutritional information on menus, or the taxation of certain products to ensure that they are relatively more expensive or even to enforce such choices say limiting the amount of sugar in beverages on these grounds.

If agents are morally responsible for their choices and the consequences of their choices, these initiatives are less likely to be justifiable because they impose costs on people and because they limit their choices or even infringe on their autonomy. If on the other hand agents are not morally responsible for their choices and for the consequences of their choices, then the threshold for justifying these initiatives is lower. As a matter of fact, worries about responsibility and about closely related questions like autonomy have been central to opposition to initiatives like these.

Public opinion tends to regard obesity, for example, as a matter of personal or parental responsibility Hardus et al. Parents are held to be much more strongly responsible for the obesity of their children than are institutions, governments, or corporations Wolfson et al. More interestingly and worryingly, Wolfson et al. Those who blamed parents also exhibited weaker support for a ban on advertising unhealthy foods during television programmes directed at children.

Wolfson et al. For instance, they supported proposals to mandate physical activity in schools. One way to read this pattern of results is as follows: respondents who attributed more responsibility to individuals rather than to external agents supported policies directed at the latter so long as these policies are not punitive. A policy is punitive when it imposes all-things considered costs on the agent targeted by it, where something is an all-things considered cost when in the absence of measures to impose it, the agent might achieve her goals without paying it.

Clearly, being sued successfully imposes costs on corporations; less clearly, but plausibly enough, being prevented from advertising also imposes all-things-considered costs on them. But requiring exercise in schools does not impose an all-things-considered cost on the schools. Of course, teachers must oversee the exercise and space must be provided for it. These things cost money.

But this may not count as the imposition of an all-things-considered cost to the school, because it is not an impost that it must take into account additionally to those it must expend in pursuit of its goals. It is not something that must be borne as the cost of achieving its goals; it is a constituent of achieving its goals. The finding that attributing responsibility to individuals is consistent with some limited proposals that target institutions is therefore consistent with thinking that this attribution is an obstacle to the development of social policies that address unhealthy behaviours.

Skepticism About Moral Responsibility (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Spring Edition)

Agents are disposed to think that punitive measures—those that impose all-things-considered costs—may only be directed at individuals and institutions that are responsible for harms. Certainly, corporations and their defenders appear to believe that a focus on the putative responsibility of individuals for their consumption decisions will allow them to avoid bearing burdens associated with addressing unhealthy behaviours. There is evidence that the tobacco industry deliberately used the rhetoric of personal responsibility to deflect calls for regulation Mejia et al.

The same rhetoric was adopted by the food and beverage industry, in a largely successful attempt to avoid restrictions on consumption or special taxes on their products Kersh and Morone ; Brownell et al. These industries themselves apparently believe that if they can increase the perception that individuals are responsible, they thereby bring it about that they are less likely to be held responsible themselves. Moral responsibility is not zero-sum. Suppose I know that my enemy is a recovering alcoholic and I contrive for him to be in a situation in which it is difficult for him to resist the temptation of alcohol.

Plausibly, I am responsible for some of any resulting harms, but that does not reduce his responsibility for them. Either bullet would have been sufficient to kill her; accordingly, each is fully responsible for her death. Responsibility can be shared without being reduced. However, the evidence above suggests that as a matter of fact , people often inappropriately treat responsibility as tending toward being zero sum.

That is, we tend to diminish though perhaps not to eliminate the responsibility of one agent or set of agents when we identify another agent as responsible for the same event. It is a commonplace that some of the events and states that are necessary for the occurrence of an event are much less likely to be ascribed the status of causes than others. A hackneyed example: we say that the lightning caused the fire, even if we recognize that there were many background conditions that had to prevail for the fire to occur.

The presence of oxygen is very unlikely to be identified as a cause, for instance. As Hitchcock and Knobe have suggested, we identify the cause by reference to norms: the cause of an event is an event or state of affairs that deviates from the background conditions we regard as normal so the ongoing drought is more likely to be considered the cause of the fire if we regard the lack of rainfall as a deviation from the norm, and lightning as an expectable occurrence. Because we take the environment which is pervasively shaped by corporations and the prevailing laws as a background condition, we tend to regard parents and individuals who act within it as the causes of unhealthy behaviours and downplay the role of those who shape the landscape in which they act.

Our intuitions about responsibility are downstream from our theories about causation: we attribute responsibility by asking first who caused an event. That being so, given that we are liable to attribute responsibility to actors who are salient to us, and not to those who structure the environment in which they act, and given our tendency to regard responsibility as tending toward zero sum, we are likely to overestimate individual responsibility for unhealthy behaviours and underestimate institutional or corporate responsibility.

First, there is a strong case for holding corporations and governments at least partially responsible for the harms in question. They or individuals with very significant decision making powers have not merely allowed conditions to prevail in which it is difficult for individuals to make healthy choices; they have actively campaigned to prevent changes to these conditions when these changes would affect their profits.

He may be entirely responsible for any damage he causes, but I am due some blame too, it seems.

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  4. Second, even if we set aside the question of whether corporations or the individuals who constitute them are responsible for the harms in question, there is a very strong case for holding that we should respond to unhealthy problems by treating them as social problems that are best dealt with by altering policies. Admittedly, actual trials of sugar taxes have so far produced equivocal results Silver et al.

    However, we have excellent reason to be confident that changes to the environment in which people make consumption decisions can be effective in reducing obesity and, by implication, in responding to other lifestyle related diseases.

    1. Moral Responsibility Skepticism and Basic Desert

    The reason is this: obesity has become a major problem worldwide very recently, over timescales far too short to be explicable by changes in gene frequencies in human populations. This fact entails the high plausibility of explanations for the relatively sudden and very rapid growth of the problem which turn on the environment in which we find ourselves, such as the availability of cheap, tempting, and energy dense foods, and factors which affect how much we eat and how sedentary we are. While it remains an open question how we can best alter the environment to combat the problem and at lowest costs, in terms of restriction of individual liberties and unfair distribution of burdens , there can be little doubt that such alterations can be effective.

    As we have seen, attributing responsibility to individuals for their unhealthy behaviours, or to parents for the behaviours of their children, lowers support for policies that address the conditions in which these behaviours unfold such as the regulation of advertising aimed at children or the imposition of sugar taxes , insofar as these policies are seen as punitive. Even if corporations are not responsible for the unhealthy behaviours of individuals, these policies may be justifiable. In particular, they may be justifiable if no one is responsible for these behaviours, and no one therefore deserves to suffer the associated burdens.

    In the first part of this paper, I argued that high confidence that anyone is morally responsible for their actions is not justified. I noted, however, that given the potential costs of rejecting moral responsibility in the criminal justice system, and the fact that in this domain we may be required to act as if people are responsible, whether they are or not, it is far from clear that anything follows from this conclusion as far as policy or, indeed, our individual responses to wrongdoers is concerned.

    However, the conclusion might be action guiding with regard to responsibility in restricted spheres, such as the sphere of responsibility for ill-health. When we have good evidence that the costs of holding people responsible in these spheres are high and the costs of being wrong about that are relatively low , our low confidence that agents are responsible justifies taking action. The evidence reviewed above suggests that blaming individuals tends to reduce public support for measures designed to change behaviours, thereby reducing the likelihood that we respond appropriately.

    Our response to this fact should be modulated by our lack of high confidence that individuals are responsible for their choices. There are two reasons why evidence concerning the costs and benefits of holding individuals responsible should have different implications for different spheres of behaviour.

    The first is epistemic; the second pragmatic. First, our acceptance of claims is and should be sensitive to our confidence in them. Second, our acceptance of claims should also be sensitive to the stakes.

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    Maigret may permissibly act on his belief that his pipe is his pocket without checking if the costs of being mistaken are low and especially if the costs fall largely on him. Similarly, if we are not very confident that individuals are responsible for their choices, we have better reason to refrain from overtly attributing responsibility to them than if we are highly confident.

    Our reason to refrain from attributing responsibility is stronger still if we recognize that our doing so has costs. Thus, we have both epistemic and pragmatic reasons to take our low confidence that the conditions for moral responsibility are ever satisfied seriously in the sphere of responsibility for health outcomes. Other things being equal, our acceptance of claims ought to be sensitive to our degree of confidence in them. Other things being equal, our acceptance of claims should be sensitive to the stakes of being wrong.

    Given the evidence that our confidence should not be high, and the evidence that the costs of wrongly holding people responsible, in this domain, are likely to be greater than the costs of wrongly exculpating people from responsibility, we have good reason for refraining from attributing moral responsibility to individuals for their own ill-health. There are few or no genuinely decisive arguments in ethics.

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