Louis CK, Luck, and Responsibility

moral luck


Two drivers are speeding.  In fact, one is following the other about 50 feet behind. A person steps out in front of the first speeding driver.  The pedestrian dies. Does one driver have more responsibility for the death than the other?

How did you answer?  

The idea of moral luck is that it is ethically appropriate to blame or praise someone disproportionately despite the fact that others behaved in precisely the same manner. The justifiably eminent thinkers, Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel  argue that humans are justified in blaming and praising even when the event in question occurred because someone was lucky or unlucky. So they would agree with you that the first driver, who just happened to be the first driver, and who happened to be speeding at just  the moment when a pedestrian entered the roadway deserves to be held responsible for the death of the pedestrian, while the lucky driver deserves nothing but a traffic ticket and a stern lecture. Louis CK seems to imply an embrace of moral luck as well because he embraces the moral appropriateness of the eventual punishment of whites because they were born white and their predecessors were cruel to non-whites.

I am fascinated with this argument because I am a devoted supporter of the Aristotelian “Control Theory” of responsibility that links choice/intent to responsibility.  This perspective is well-argued in Diana Hsieh’s Responsibility and Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame. In brief, luck  erases the appropriateness of blame or praise. One does not deserve credit for winning the lottery.  Similarly, one does not deserve blame because, while walking with your child under a tree, your child’s eye is damaged when a squirrel picks that moment when your child is directly under the tree to release a nut shell that happens to float into your unfortunate child’s eye.

There is a credible basis for punishing and praising lightly when luck is causal because the community wishes to signal its ethical norms.  The community wants to tell its members graphically: Here is where we stand!  However, that minimal exception does not move far in the direction of praising the concept of moral luck.

My distress with the moral luck argument is largely related to the horrible effects on human communities of theories of individualism that hold humans responsible for the direction their lives take, as if aleatory factors almost completely beyond the control of the person are easily overcome by hard work and careful choices. Moral luck can easily complement the tendency to argue that you deserve what you have and have what you deserve.  Those sentiments quash compassion and consequent sharing behavior.

Consider the effect of moral luck arguments on issues of sustainability.


Add a Comment