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May 20, 2014


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Interesting proposal!

I wonder whether the NCP, and its spirit, might be compatible with a hybrid view. Specifically, consider keeping the Conscientiousness3 account of blameworthiness, while adding an objective constraint onto the Conscientiousness3 account of praiseworthiness. The rough idea would be that to get praise you have to pass the Conscientiousness3 test but also be tracking the moral facts.

On this view the conscientious Nazi or Serial Killer is less blameworthy than the lax middle class person but is no more praiseworthy. I take it that this is a bit more intuitively appealing than the full bore Conscientiousness3 view but still has stiff illusion popping implications.

One might worry that an objective restriction on praise conflicts with the spirit of the NCP. But I am not sure. NCP reads: "we are assessable as moral praiseworthy or blameworthy (worthy or unworthy, deserving or undeserving) only to the extent that the feature of our activity that is the target of these assessments lies within our power to control." As stated the NCP does not obviously apply to assessments of actions as meriting neither praise nor blame, and that is the bin into which the modified account would toss conscientious Nazi acts. Of course we could beef up the NCP to cut out this option, but I am unsure how to motivate it. I would be interested to hear more about what motivates the NCP on your view.

One thought here: It seems intuitively plausible that lack of control undercuts desert for blame because it is unfair to blame people for what is outside their control. But the idea that fairness requires equal access to praise does not seem intuitive to me.

Thanks to Brad Cokelet for this helpful comment.

As he suggests, I resist the hybrid proposal, because I want to explore whether contrary to Nagel we can abide by the control principle and conform to the norm no-moral luck when what is at issue is moral blameworthiness and moral praiseworthiness when that is the opposite of moral blameworthiness.

I agree with Cokelet when he says "the idea that fairness requires equal access to praise does not seem intuitive to me." We praise people for all kinds of things, and people have vastly unequal access to praise. Being a slow runner, I won't be eligible for praise for my running ability or achievements. Being morally unperceptive, I won't be eligible for praise for making correct moral judgments about subtle matters. We accept unequal access to praise and dispraise with equanimity. If I lack the capacity to stand my ground in the presence of the fearful when there are good reasons all things considered to stand my ground, I am cowardly not courageous. Virtue attributions are larded with moral luck--that's fine.

But along with Nagel and some other readers I detect a flirtation with no moral luck in Kant's Groundwork, section 1. The idea is that there is a special kind of moral judgment--of moral praiseworthiness and moral blameworthiness or moral worth and moral unworth or moral deservingness and moral deservingness. For this special kind of judgment it does seem intuitive that there should be, must be, equal access to praise. I find this idea appealing, although somewhat weird. My tentative thought is that even though weird in its implications, it's not incoherent, although if hard determinism is true then no one is ever praiseworthy or blameworthy in this special sense.--Dick Arneson

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. There are several things one might ask about, but I just want to put forward a methodological question. You say, quite provocatively, at the end, this:

"The subjective account stands in the way of our anxious tendency to elaborate weaker accounts that dispense with the Narrow Control Principle and to rely on these weaker accounts to provide less crude rationalizations of our responsibility practices than we can glean from instrumental rationales. But that way lies illusion—comforting illusion perhaps, but still illusion."

I take it that this is a swipe at Strawson and Strawsonians, who would attempt to build an account of responsibility out of our practices of holding people responsible. Fair -- or unfair -- enough. But you also say earlier that your view is cut loose from any close connection to our moral practices (and these, I should point out, often go way beyond the merely instrumental). But then what is the source of theorizing about the moral praise- or blameworthiness in question if it is cut loose from our actual responsibility responses? How else are we to determine the "plausibility" of various proposals without consulting our sense of "response" in such cases, which is typically just some sort of actual praise or blame (along with a presumption that a prerequisite of praise- or blameworthiness has been met)? This seems to be what we're expected to do in your early discussion, and so I'm wondering at the end of the day just how divorced from our actual practices the theorizing (and subsequent conclusions) really is.

David Shoemaker expresses a perfectly reasonable skepticism about my enterprise. I want to lock onto one particular intuition or judgment we seem to have: no moral luck. Or at least, no moral luck with respect to a certain narrow privileged class of judgments, which I don't claim adequately to have characterized. My question is, is the no moral luck idea coherent and plausible, if we try to elaborate it, and if we help ourselves to generous assumptions regarding free will and responsibility (that is to say, just assume hard determinism is false). My thought is that reflecting in this way, we should hold onto our no moral luck intuition, and let the chips fall where that may so far as out common-sense practices or holding people responsible are concerned. Since I suspect the bulk of these practices can be explained and justified in purely instrumental terms, I'm not so worried about being revisionary with respect to common-sense responsibility judgments and attributions. But you could start by elaborating and developing common-sense responsibility judgments and junk the no moral luck doctrine if our considered responsibility judgments conflict with it. So far I don't see myself as having provided any argument against locking onto our common-sense responsibility judgments in this way. As Shoemaker in effect notes, I've got a hunch here, but no arguments. --Dick Arneson

Thank you for an interesting post, Dick. Needless to say this compatibilist would much rather accept some (constitutive!) moral luck than accept that a fiercely conflicted sadistic killer can be less blameworthy than a wholehearted delinquent borrower of books, and I don't see why one would regard this last conclusion to be obviously less costly than some moral luck. But never mind that. I'll only respond to a few points for the moment.

Short comments first. 1) I don't think your golf-handiccaping analogy works. A person from a certain background is unlikely not just to be conscientious but to ever make any sort of effort to become conscientious. How can this person get an A for for effort if there is has been no effort? "she tried to achieve it but there were difficulties" is different from "it never occurred to him to try it, but it rarely occurs to people in his country". One can get rid of some moral luck by discounting the failure of effort, but how about a failure of something to occur? 2) I fail to see how the praise many of us give Huck Finn is any other kind than moral. It's surely not aesthetic, nor does it seem prudential to me.

Interesting that you think of the moral question - or the proto-moral question - as concerning "what we owe others" considered "impartially." I suspect that if this is what the moral question is, our views have to get closer to each other than they seem, because you have to acknowledge the existence of people who honestly think of themselves as seeking the morally right thing to and who in fact deliberated for hours on the question "what is the moral thing to do?" but who are not praiseworthy for their deliberation or the action it results in because their idea of "the morally right thing to do" has nothing to do with what they owe others and/or has nothing to do with an impartial considering thereof. They SEEM conscientious, but they don't deserve the compliment.

Here are two examples.

1) The Victorian: Gwendolin, who lives in the 19th century, deliberates as to whether it would be morally wrong for her to have sex with her fiancee, whom she is going to marry in a few months. She gravely and earnestly uses the words "moral" and "wrong" in her head as she deliberate - she is not at all like a contemporary person considering a controversial act wondering what people would say - but the thought "what do I owe others?" or eve "what do I owe him?" never crosses her mind. She simply wonders if having sex with her fiancee would be slutty and impure, and assumes that slutty things are wrong, as that is what her parents told her. If the moral question is "what we owe others", Gwendolin thinks she engages in moral deliberation, but she isn't, and so nothing is particularly praiseworthy about the deliberation she engages in.

2)The Ayn Rand Nut: According to Ayn Rand, the moral hero does not care about the interests of others (I am not making this up). As far as she is concerned, asking "what do I owe others" before you act is no less than morally vicious behavior. A morally concerned person asks "what is in it for me?". Howard's parents were both Ayn Rand fanatics and moved in Randian circles, and so, (admittedly, like no one I have heard of: pure Randians rarely have kids) Howard grew up in the faith. Before every important decision, Howard asks himself "what is the moral thing to do?". As he deliberates, the question of what he might owe others never crosses his mind, which is why I think there is nothing praiseworthy about either the deliberation or the selfish action that follows it.

I find Nazis more complicated. Both Tom Hurka (I think!) and I acknowledge that one can imagine a Nazi criminal who is blameless. That Nazi believes, honestly, non-culpably, not as some kind self-deceptive excuse for hatred-fueled behavior, that all Jews, including Jewish children, old people, etc, are effective super-villains who pose a catastrophic threat to the world. She only does what is necessary to neutralize this threat, and that is killing them. Chances are this person never existed (I try to explain why in Unprincipled Virtue). However, if she existed, she would not be blameworthy. It's not prima facia implausible to suspect that she would deserves praise.

So far I have mentioned two possible Nazis: the theoretical construct who has honestly earned false factual beliefs and the common type who has dubiously motivated false factual beliefs. I imagine we agree on the first one. The second one is under-described - I suspect your view might depend on the role of voluntariness in the formation of self-deception, or the chance that some due diligence can prevent or expose such deception. What about a third Nazi all of whose factual beliefs are true - she thinks Jews are as human as she is, neither vermin nor demons; she thinks most of them pose no threat to the world, and so on - but who still murders and tortures them because she thinks, after deliberation,that she ought to do it? I have a lot of things to say about her, but for the moment I am trying to imagine the deliberation that leads her (a person of a sound mind, let's imagine) to the conclusion that, say, killing the Jewish child before her is the right thing to do. Where is the sound deliberative route to this conclusion from true factual beliefs plus a consideration, from an impartial perspective, of what behavior she might owe others? Depending on how we interpret "impartial" and "owe", there might not be such a route - in which case our Nazi's deliberation wasn't really a case of seeking the moral thing to do. "Conscientiousness" and "response to the reasons that make actions right" come closer together here in this one respect, I think, at least if the reasons that make actions right have to do with their being actions that we owe people in an impartial way.

By the way, I actually think, though I won't defend this rough hunch here, that a deliberation that has nothing to do either with other people's well being/desire satisfaction/something like that or with fairness/respect for persons/something like that is not really about a moral question. If we were to agree on that, it would not get rid of our disagreements about Huck Finn, but would make us give similar verdicts in cases in which a person's idea of morality, at least when it comes to that particular action, is really... way out there.

I realized I said something unclear at the beginning of my post. I was trying to say, I understand how you can rid of some moral luck by saying that it's effort that "counts", not the results, but in the case of the person whose formative background makes it unlikely for her not only to be conscientious but to be, as it were, to be conscientious enough to make an effort to "achieve" conscientiousness, or make an effort to make an effort, it's not clear to me that you can get rid of the person's bad moral luck by saying that what matters is the effort it would have occurred to him to make if his background were different.

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