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Thomas Nagels Moral Luck Philosophy Essay

The concept of “moral luck” has been assessed by many forbearers, It is the idea that that the actions people make depend on factors out of their control, yet we continue to treat them as the object of moral judgment. In Nagel’s “Moral Luck,” Nagel identifies the problem moral luck as a conflict between our actions and principles that most share about mortality. He brings up a plausible idea that people cannot be morally judged for what is not their fault, or by factors that are out of their control.

Although we know that there are certain things in life we cannot for see, we do make moral judgments about people based on factors out of their control. Suppose a drunk driver kills a child, we would call him a murderer but if the little girl had not been playing on the road at the wrong time we would call him a fortunate driver. On the other hand, when someone tries to do something noble like save someone from a burning building but drop them which causes them to land to their death, the act was still good in and of its nature but people will not give him the same admiration if he would have saved the person successfully. The unfortunate rescuer could not have for seen any obstacles in her rescue. Nagel sees this as, “the problem of moral luck.” A persons moral standing should not be affected by luck or chance, and the fact that luck plays such an essential role in determining whether a person is “good” or “bad,” morally, in the eyes of his peers is an inaccurate judgment.

We may wonder if the problem Nagel presents is better thought of as a problem of luck or if it’s really about control. Nagel’s concern is whether luck plays a role in determining a person’s moral standing or things that are out of one’s control are affecting her moral standing. The answer is both. Luck should be present where control is lacking; they are one in the same. This is significant because although we may call it luck with lack of control there are times when we have some idea of what will happen. For example, if the sun rises tomorrow, it will be completely of anyone’s control but we wouldn’t go so far as to say we are lucky that it happened, there is a likelihood that it would happen regardless of anyone having control over it or not.

The problem with moral luck is that there are times when luck does, in fact, make a moral difference. Two kinds of differences discussed in Nagels essay. The first is the case of the unfortunate driver, (the driver who killed a child) is no worse a person than the fortunate driver. Likewise, as we cannot hold the fortunate driver responsible for the death of a child we cannot hold the unfortunate driver responsible for the death of the child since they were just made different by luck. The question of moral worth then comes into play. Does luck make a difference in a persons’ moral worth, or in what one is morally responsible for? It is not quite clear which side Nagel is taking. He briefly refers to the problem of moral luck as a “fundamental problem of moral responsibility,” but mostly, his worries are about blame. Will the unfortunate driver himself be rated morally worse than the fortunate driver? Nagel indulges in both ideas, asking if the unfortunate driver is more to blame and if he is a worse person than the fortunate driver. Although these questions are asked inseparably, we cannot make sense of the idea of holding someone morally responsible of killing when they have not and lowering their moral rating. Essentially, there is very little that occurs in our lives that we have full control of the outcome so how can we place an accurate moral judgment on an individual that has no complete control of the outcome of their decisions.

Nagel points out that there are four different types of luck that play into our moral decisions. The phenomenon of constitutive luck is what kind of a person you are, not only what you do deliberately but what you are inclined to do and what is in your nature. Another is luck of circumstance which is the kinds of problems and situation one encounters. The last two have to do with causes and effects of actions. Luck in the way ones actions and projects turn out and luck in which how one is determined by past experiences.


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