The non-problem of moral luck

The Good Place - trolley dilemma

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)

106 thoughts on “The non-problem of moral luck

  1. brodix

    There is a reason why consciousness is considered the executive function. No, it doesn’t make all the decisions, just the ones that bubble up that far. That doesn’t mean it has no function. Yes, a lot of people do just go with their gut and rationalize it afterwards, if they feel the need, but that doesn’t mean every decision is completely decided beforehand. Many people do consciously weigh the options and their own conflicted feelings, before making decisions. Life is complicated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. brodix


    “I theorize this computer to be motivated by means of a reward dynamic, or value, and a punishment dynamic, or anti value.”

    Exactly. Good and bad are the basic biological binary of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. It is a bottom up process. Bacteria, the cells in our bodies, all of life works by this binary, just as at the base of computer programing is the binary of on and off.

    The problem is that as social creatures, we function somewhere in the middle, with those multitudes of bottom up impulses, along with top down social, cultural and civil structures, with their own compasses of moral, cultural and civil dos and don’ts, that we have to reconcile.


  3. Robin Herbert


    I don’t see how a realisation that my friends and family were more giving than I gave them credit for, is new information about how the world actually is. It is not as though I had not previously realised that people can be giving. All I gained was a clearer understanding of my own place in that world.

    So if, when you say “information about how the world actually is”, you include a new understanding or perspective on our own place in that world gained through rethinking of existing information, then I don’t see how your position differs from Massimo’s.

    Let us say that I lock myself in my bedroom with no television, radio or internet devices and turn out the lights. No new information is coming to me from the outside world. I sit down and think about the things I already know and gain a better understanding of them and then decide to alter my values on that basis.

    Would you agree that, in the scenario described above, I might change my values?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. brodix


    “Yes, I would have likely been a Nazi had I grown up in Nazi Germany, I would have likely approved of rape if I had grown up in a society where rape is routinely used for social control.”

    I might have as well, but only if I had some other mother than the one I had.


  5. Robin Herbert


    Nobody doubts you can make decisions, have volition and so forth.

    So what is it that someone doubts? That is what I am trying to find out.

    If I went to my boss and said “We have a huge problem” and he asked “What is the problem?” and I said “I have no idea” then he might reconsider my employment.

    That is basically the position of the no-free-willers. Dennett and Harris agree that what the “Average Joes” believe about our own volition is “preposterous”. But neither of them seem to be able to explain what it is that they think we believe and why they think it is preposterous or to agree on what we ought to be believing instead.

    The question is how that works — and nobody knows.

    Sure. So how are Coyne, Harris, Dennett etc, etc so incorrigibly convinced that science is refuting something or other about our mental processes?

    “What is your alternative to determined or not determined (a.k.a., random)?”

    There is still that unsupported assertion that “not determined” is the same thing as “random”.

    But, again, what exactly is the problem that would require me to have an alternative? If I were to stipulate, as seems likely, that all that there is consists of some combination of deterministic and random elements, what problem does this cause for the everyday view of the way our volition works and on what basis do you think this causes the problem?

    As I said before, even the “hard incompatibilist” cited by garthdaisy did not think the Humean challenge to free will worked.


  6. ejwinner

    you’re considering your trajectory into incoherence.

    I did not make any direct connection between your anti-capitalist remark and Marxism, only noting that your remark reminded me of the utopianism of a certain kind of Marxism and the kind of utopianism you seemed to be offering with your suggestion of a blameless/praiseless society.

    Emotions (‘gut feelings’) are responses to the environment that only persons can feel. They motivate only in response to the environment, and require socialization and sensitivity to one’s social experience. Physiology certainly is involved, but it cannot guide emotions, because it cannot directly interact with the social environment.

    “Your thinking brain does not decide your actions but rather justifies them a microsecond after they have occurred. So soon after in fact that most people think their thinking mind made the decision.” Well that’s what people are going to do. That’s how we experience the world, and how we engage social reality, as persons making decisions. You can wave chemicals at us all you want, that’s not changing the fundamental human experience of social reality. Your utopia is not arriving – that trolley has been derailed. When humans first formed what we call society or community, they needed to structure a shared reality to that society, and this sense of shared social reality that we have inherited is what demands of us to function as persons with responsibility, making choices as best we may. There is no liberating us from that, for that is who we are – that is what we are, as human beings.

    I can sense your frustration with that in the tone of your comments. (which stridency, I’ll point out, is itself unpersuasive.) It may be the case that the world would be a better place if, accepting your position, we would have a non-retributive justice system; an economics that does not seem to punish some for choices that they should not have faced; a politics which can be decided by determining the real interests to which our chemical process are directed, rather than through arguing differing points of view with those who think they have a choice in the matter; and so forth. But that is not going to happen. That isn’t who people are, that’s not how they experience the world.

    I would suggest abandoning any hope that ‘the revolution starts here.’ Revolutions can sometimes be a good thing, as long as those involved understand that their going to confront much the same mess as those tossed out. Big solutions often bring about bigger problems. Sometimes a bit better is all one can ask. At any rate, the proper translation of “Utopia” is “No Place.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. SocraticGadfly

    Garth: Our economic system has nothing to do with free will vs. determinism or broader issues of volition. Marx, after all, was himself, via Hegelian dialectic ideas, arguably a very hard-core determinist. (And very wrong.)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. wtc48

    Brodix: “The problem is that as social creatures, we function somewhere in the middle, with those multitudes of bottom up impulses, along with top down social, cultural and civil structures, with their own compasses of moral, cultural and civil dos and don’ts, that we have to reconcile.”

    I think I have finally grasped what you mean by references to “bottom up and top down.” It seems much the same as my concept of a schism — who knows how many thousands of years back in human prehistory? — when we began a process of negotiation between instinct and culture to direct the course of our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Philosopher Eric

    Actually your “basic biological binary of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental” is not how I’m defining “value”. I’m referring to something other than how bacteria and cells in our bodies function, as you’ve speculated. The theory is that it’s possible for a non-conscious form of computer to create rewarding and punishing existence for a conscious form of computer to experience. I consider this “value and anti value” to be the strangest stuff in the universe. But thanks for providing your own such definition as well. Furthermore you’ve illustrated that my approach isn’t already accepted in general (though I should disclose that my position has long founded the “side science” of economics, but failed to become widely accepted among scientists or philosophers today).

    I realize that time has probably expired for this edition, though the hope that I offer remains. Philosophers explore value by means of aesthetics and ethics today, though without a functional definition for “value”. Let’s see what would happen if one or more useful definitions for this term were developed. Doesn’t that seem like a sensible thing to try?


  10. garthdaisy


    “I don’t see how a realisation that my friends and family were more giving than I gave them credit for, is new information about how the world actually is.”

    This is where we disagree then because I think that is a perfect example of new information about the way the world actually is. A new belief about the way the world is doesn’t have to come from external sources. You can ponder information you already have, put it together in a different way, and come to a new realization or belief about the way the world actually is. In your previous view of the way the world is, you thought the level of giving by your friends and family was X. Now, after your pondering and realization, you have a new view of the way the world actually is. You came up with a new fact. The fact that the level of giving by your friends and family is actually greater than X.

    With that new belief about the way the world actually is, your subconscious moral instincts adjust your ought accordingly. Instincts to survive, procreate, cooperate, gain status in your tribe, care for and protect your friends and family, etc. all of these instincts that have evolved for millions of years tell you what ought to be based on what you believe about the way the world is.


  11. labnut

    The problem of free will, or volition(or whatever your favourite term might be) is easy enough to state.

    1) The deeper we look, the more apparent it becomes, that the laws of nature are strictly deterministic. And the further we look, the more apparent it becomes that there are no exceptions, anywhere, at anytime.

    2) Therefore, we conclude, all observable phenomena, are predictable and explainable, entirely by the laws of nature. Those exceptions that remain we confidently expect will be explained in the future.

    3) Therefore free will cannot exist since we are the product of the inexorable workings of the laws of nature, making the motion of all particles calculable.

    4) BUT, we experience something that certainly resembles free will. This should not be possible, given (1) and (2). However, this is a universal experience that is strong enough that the great majority of us believe we possess free will.

    We are mostly agreed that (4) is a profound contradiction of (1) and (2) but we disagree about how to resolve that contradiction. Many resolve the contradiction by denying we have free will and saying our experience is a mirage. I call them the illusionists. Others obfuscate the issue with complex arguments and these are the compatibilists. There are variations of these two positions and they have their own technical terms, which don’t matter for the purposes of my argument.

    Underlying all this is, I think, a fundamental error in reasoning. That error is the supposition that our knowledge of the laws of nature is good enough for us to conclude that it rules out the possibility of the exercise of free will. Science is a work in progress. We really don’t know how far we have progressed on the absolute scale of knowledge. We might not have progressed very far at all. We can be sure that many surprising discoveries wait in our future.

    When we are confronted by the stark contradiction between current science and human experience, that free will poses, the best conclusion has to be that current science is still not mature enough to explain this contradiction. I confidently expect that future scientific discoveries will reveal laws of nature that enable the exercise of free will in a deterministic world. We can’t, for the moment, imagine what those laws of nature might look like, which means we are still a long way from discovering them.

    So my conclusion is simply this – wait and let science do its job. Eventually the scientific answer will become clear and obvious though it might be a long time in coming. In the mean time I see no point in denying something we obviously experience, even though, for the time being, there is no scientific explanation.


  12. brodix

    Somewhat off topic, but why do I get the feeling one of the proposed solutions arising from the school massacre in Florida will be open carry in schools. The answer to bad teenagers with guns is good teenagers with guns.
    Extremes seem to be the order of the day.


  13. Massimo Post author


    ” can’t help. I don’t know what you mean by ‘free will’”

    I know what people of a certain ideological bent mean by the term. But since they have been told countless times that nobody here believes in that sort of free will, that the term is misleading, that the discussion can move forward only if we reframe the issue — and yet they insist in using it, I have to conclude that it is a rhetorical device deployed at not conceiding the point, rather than have a genuine discussion on human decision making.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Massimo Post author


    “A new belief about the way the world is doesn’t have to come from external sources.”

    Congratulations, you just made your position impossible to defeat logically. Since anything we come up with as counterexamples is magically transformed into a new fact about the world, then by definition you are right. Of course, it’s what I would call a Pyrrhic victory.

    Liked by 3 people

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