The Good Place is an unusual comedy on NBC, featuring a professor of moral philosophy among its main characters. My friend Skye Cleary has interviewed the real life philosopher who consults for the show, Todd May of Clemson University, for the blog of the American Philosophical Association. The exchange is definitely worth a read. In this post I will make an argument that one can learn more about moral philosophy from watching a single episode of the show than by listening to a technical talk in that same field while attending the APA’s own annual meeting.
Episode five of the second season of TGP features a sophisticated discussion of the infamous trolley problem, a thought experiment in ethics that has by now generated a cottage industry among both philosophers and neuroscientists. I will not explain for the n-th time what the problem consists of, you can look it up on Wikipedia. Suffice to say that the more I study virtue ethics, the more I become skeptical of the value of much modern moral philosophy, with its indulging in more and more convoluted hypothetical situations that seem to be designed more to show off the cleverness of the people working in the field than to actually help the rest of us live an ethical life. It is no coincidence that the dilemma is always framed in terms of what a deontologist or a utilitarian would do, those two frameworks having gotten further and further away from any relevance to real life, contra to what either Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill surely intended.
At any rate, the episode in question features a theoretical lecture on trolleys by the resident philosophical character, Chidi (played by the excellent William Jackson Harper). One of those on the receiving end of the lecture is the demon-turning-good-guy Michael (played by the awesome Ted Danson). During the lecture, Michael becomes impatient with the theory, so he snaps his fingers and transports Chidi, his friend Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) and himself aboard an actual trolley, about to kill what appear to be real people. Michael then asks Chidi for a real-life demonstration: what is the philosopher going to do when suddenly faced with the dilemma, in the field, so to speak? Hilarity (and mayhem) quickly ensue. The episode is so good that I made my students watch it and comment on it.
Michael’s point is well taken: ethics is not (or ought not to be!) a theoretical exercise in cleverness, but a guide to navigating life’s real situations, and Chidi the philosopher — while very good in theory — fails spectacularly at it. I was thinking of that sit-com imparted lesson while attending a talk at the Eastern APA meeting last January, delivered by Philip Swenson of the College of William and Mary. In the following I will pick on Swenson a bit, not because his talk was bad (it wasn’t), but because it is an example of a way of doing philosophy that I increasingly object to, on ground of indulgence in irrelevant logic chopping.
Swenson set out to propose a solution to the “problem” of moral luck. He began, of course, with a couple of hypothetical situations:
Resultant luck case. Alice and Bill both go on walks along a riverbank. Both encounter a drowning child and attempt a rescue. They make the same choices and attempt the same actions. Alice’s rescue succeeds, but a sudden current prevents Bill’s attempt from succeeding, and the child drowns.
Circumstantial luck case. Alice goes for a walk along a riverbank and encounters a drowning child. She rescues the child. On a separate occasion, Claire goes for a walk along the riverbank. She does not encounter a drowning child. If Claire had encountered a drowning child she would have rescued the child.
What’s the problem? I mean, other than for the (fortunately hypothetical) child who occasionally drowns? Swenson is bothered by the fact that, in the first case, if we say that Alice is more praiseworthy than Bill, it looks as though we accept something apparently horrible called “resultant moral luck.” In the second case, if we say that Alice is more praiseworthy than Claire, then we accept something equally objectionable, called “circumstantial moral luck.” As Swenson puts it:
“Rejecting circumstantial moral luck appears to require a very significant revision to everyday moral judgment. Consider the plausible claim that a great many people all over the world are not so different from those who went along with the rise of the Nazis. Many people would have done similar things under similar circumstances. If we accept this and reject circumstantial luck then it looks as though some radical claim or other will follow.”
That would be, in case the reasoning isn’t clear, the radical claim that most of us are not as good as we think, and that if we had lived under the Nazi we would have been just as culpable as the majority of the German population of the time for the Holocaust. But it doesn’t end here, there is a third case to consider:
Constitutive luck case. Alice goes for a walk along a riverbank and encounters a drowning child. she rescues the child. On a separate occasion Daniel goes for a walk along the riverbank and also encounters a drowning child. Because Daniel is — through no previous fault of his own — cruel and uncaring, he refrains from rescuing the child. However, if he had possessed Alice’s naturally caring disposition, he would have rescued the child.
Swenson went on to remind the audience of the two classical “solutions” found in the philosophical literature for the problem of moral luck: “responsibility skepticism” (deny that anyone is ever praiseworthy or blameworthy at all), and the “responsibility explosion” (say that people are praiseworthy or blameworthy in virtue of what they would have done in various circumstances they never actually faced, equipped with character traits they never had).
He then goes on to present his own solution to the problem, which involves a strange calculation of moral desert levels, beginning with the assumption that the “expected desert level” for an agent is zero, and continuing with the notion that we can then assign points to different ethical situations according to a variety of criteria. I will not go into the details because they are irrelevant to my argument here. Which is that we should reject this whole approach to moral philosophy, period.
To begin with, I find bizarre the very idea that we should engage in some sort of morality ledger construction, keeping score of the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of people. Why? What the heck is the point? Are we some sort of god who has to decide on where to send people in the afterlife? (That, incidentally, is the premise of TGP show. And it’s very funny.) Take the first scenario, the case of resultant luck. It wouldn’t cross my mind for a second to say that Alice is more praiseworthy than Bill just because Bill did not succeed in his attempt at rescuing the drowning child. On the contrary, I am in awe of anyone who would attempt the rescue, regardless of whether s/he succeeds or not.
The circumstantial luck case is even more out there: there is no reason for us to consider Claire at all. If the circumstances were such as not to test her moral fiber, fine, why should that be an issue of any sort? Alice is to be praised for her attempted (and successful) rescue, the question of what Claire would have done simply did not arise, and that’s the end of that.
The last scenario, that of constitutive luck, is interesting, but only academically. To begin with, my view — contra Swenson’s stated hypothesis — is that adult human beings are morally responsible by simple virtue of being adults. That’s what it means to be an adult, regardless of the circumstances of one’s childhood. But if Daniel has an aberrant character because, say, of some developmental abnormality in his brain, or perhaps because a tumor is interfering with his moral decision making brain network, then fine, he is not to be blamed for his inaction. That’s no skin off of Alice’s nose, because moral desert is not (or should not be) a competition! Again, why the karmic obsession with keeping scores?
What about the choice between responsibility skepticism and the responsibility explosion? It seems to me that a society cannot function without a reasonable attribution of responsibility for the actions of its (adult, normally functioning) members. But one shouldn’t be carried away and start thinking of all possible hypothetical scenarios. Ethics should be concerned with what actually happens to real people, not with how hypothetical individuals would behave under (infinite) hypothetical circumstances. If you care about the latter, I suggest you’ve got your priorities seriously screwed up.
In the end, the “problem” of moral luck is not a problem at all. When Thomas Nagel wrote his now classical paper by that title, back in 1979, I took it to call our attention to the humbling fact that we may be far less moral than we like to think, and that that observation ought to make us more sympathetic toward the above mentioned ordinary Germans under the Nazi. To cure us of moral hubris, as it were. That is a very good practical lesson, nudging us toward being both less complacent about our own abilities and more charitable toward the shortcomings of others. But if the whole thing degenerates into an entirely impractical mathematical exercise in the assignment of praise and blame we have lost track of what ethics should be about. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it 19 centuries ago:
“If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)