Duck Duck Book

34 – moral luck
06.25.2006, 12:00 am
Filed under: articles, philosophy & psychology

"Moral luck" / Thomas Nagel, from the book: Mortal questions / Thomas Nagel.
Cambridge [Eng.] ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1979, pages 24-38.
[MCL call number: 170 N147m; one copy, no holds]

Thomas Nagle's terse essay introduces and discusses the central questions of moral luck — the idea that chance, or luck, is some of what makes us good and virtuous, or evil and immoral.  Nagle gives several examples of situations in which the way people tend to judge someone's actions are largely tied to circumstances that are beyond the control of the person acting. 

We have all had experiences of this type.  I, for example, often turn on the wrong burner on my electric stove.  This can be an annoyance (when there is nothing on the burner I've mistakenly lit, and when someone in the kitchen notices my error), or a minor disaster (as the time when I filled the house with smoke and burned the patina off my favorite cast iron frying pan). "Moral Luck" is Nagle's attempt to tease out some of the concerns related to this sort of circumstance, and consider them in the light of moral responsibility.  Reading this essay, you may wonder whether I was in fact, more negligent when I burned my frying pan than I am when I just use up a little extra electricity and perhaps slow down the production of breakfast by 90 seconds.  It is an interesting thing to consider even when the risks are so low as to include only a scorched pan.

If you're interested in this subject but you're not yet ready to cozy up with a book that's all about philosophy, or if you wonder what other ivory tower types think about moral luck, there's a straightforward discussion of the concept and the major philosophical arguments about it in "Moral Luck," by Andrew Latus (from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, 2005).

N.b.: The essay "Moral Luck" was reprinted in Free Will, edited by Gary Watson (Oxford [Oxfordshire] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1982) and in Moral Luck, edited by Daniel Statman (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1993).  The latter also includes Bernard Williams' essay of the same title.  Nagel's book Mortal Questions has been translated into several languages (at least Chinese, French, German, and Spanish) and was reprinted in English in 1991 by Canto. 

[thanks, Kristian]