Updated: Mar 13, 2022
The four forms of moral luck Nagel identifies are: Constitutive luck, circumstantial luck, antecedent luck, and consequential luck. Constitutive luck talks of the natural inclinations and virtues that people grow up with either by birth or by development. It is luck because they did not choose to be a certain way. For example, John may be naturally gifted in courage, so he would tell the truth more often and pursue what he thinks is good despite any negative consequences. Circumstantial luck talks of the situations we happen to find ourselves in during our lifetime----such as having to lie to save your family from a dictator. Some people will never be faced with the unfortunate circumstance of lying to save the lives of their family members---simply because they were born in a safer country. Antecedent and consequential luck are the those moral lucks attributed to the things that happen before and after someone's actions. Someone may intend to kill someone, but their plans are luckily foiled and so the perpetrator's moral blame is reduced due to something out of their control. Or someone may be driving recklessly, but a pedestrian happens to stumble in front of their car----thereby increasing the driver's moral blame compared to another person who did not suffer the misfortune of having a pedestrian stumble in from of their car while driving recklessly.
I think these forms of luck are all plausible since we actually seem to suffer moral blame due to influences outside of our control. After all we cannot deny that some things that happen to us, appear to happen to us without our consent. If we go by our observations of the world, we have to acknowledge (at least) the appearance that some events happen to us that are out of our control. All four of them seem plausible in the same way... Constitutive luck seems to be an extreme form of moral luck but still plausible in the way the rest of them are.
However, I do not know what to think about this 'moral luck' and how it proposes to effect our moral accountability. We do not know the nature of our psyches, and when Nagel says that the logic of our articulated presuppositions about moral responsibility entails that we act simply as objects in a world full of objects-----we can applaud him for his honest admission of how he believes the world works; i.e. as a dead physical space encapsulated entirely by atoms and a void----absent of conscious agents. Nagel's assumptions and filters for how he views philosophical debates is nice, but I am not entirely convinced. I do not know what to think of moral luck, and this is because I am skeptical of accepting things simply because they make the world intelligible and less scary. I am afraid that we have an unanswerable question either because we cannot know, or because our basic assumptions refuse us the opportunity to know. To explain one complication to this question here is a little tangent...
When any form (object or concept) appears, it always appears as an orderly construct of positive existence in contrast with a background of negative existence. But, what are the conditions that bring the positive items into an orderly form contrasting with the negative background existence? We just don't know the answer to questions like this. This question brings to light a complex concept that is insufficiently covered in volumes and volumes of text, so its no wonder we give up asking these hard questions. To better explain this complex concept, here is a little example (don't worry I will circle back to the question at hand):
What is sound? A sound is a wave of compressions and decompressions in a background material substance (we can say that waves are caused by energy, if we are to speak in a scientific way----and energy can roughly be defined as "the capacity to do work"). Waves can exist in the background substances of water, air, metal, or whatever material existence is around (that's why there is no sound in space, there is no substance or at least very little of it). The compression of this material itself makes no sense to our analysis of what the nature of sound is. A compression of matter just means an increase in density of that matter. But there is also a decompression, or a decrease in the density of that matter in the aforementioned wave. The positive energy disturbance of the negative matter creates a higher density area contrasting with a lower density area and together, like a complex harmony or a painting or a play or a story or a choreographed dance, they create the form of the sound. Thus we describe sound as the intervals between the compressions and decompressions in relation to each other-----via frequencies and magnitudes of the compressions/decompressions. A wave that is a straight line is simply not a sound at all, but a negative place holder (matter) where the positive (energy) may intervene to produce a form. The straight line is what the religious folk (Plato, Aristotle, Newton etc.) call the maternal receptacle that is ready to receive the positive input (or in even more esoteric religious imagery: masculine fire and feminine water which gives 'birth' to the form, or logos, or air whose body is mother and spirit is fire) [I am speaking conceptually here, not religiously. I just brought up these religious terms because so far, the intuitions that I am describing have best been articulated by the esoteric works of alchemy and the like.]
As to the energy that is inputted into the background matter, how does it know to behave in a manner that produces an orderly creation? That is, how does the energy have "in it" the qualities of the complete form in a formless manner ("The capacity to do work" does not hold the schematics for how that work is to be done, so where did those schematics come from?). It is as if the form exists independent and before its physical manifestation. Was it by accident? luck?-----design? Who knows. To restate the situation, there is energy and matter, but then also the form that appears when the prior two 'dance' together in harmony. Sometimes the sound is discordant and ugly and makes no sense to us, it's just random noise that we hate and do not remember for long. But also, it can be beautiful sounding, and orderly----harmonizing when different frequencies coincide. The orderly things we call symphonies, chairs, trees, paintings---all the things that we speak of as concepts or objects. The unorderly things mean nothing to us, and we dismiss them as background noise. Lets see a real example in science: Practical utility only cares about electrical charges in so far as they represent the average moving direction of the electrons that make up the electrical current. But there are plenty of individual electrons that move contrary to that current----we just pay no attention to them. They certainly exist, but we never think of them other than as intellectual truisms--because what is meaningful, is what matters. What is meaningful is the form of the current, not the individual parts that make up the complex dance.
We learn how to reproduce those orderly things so that we can talk of moral luck, sing beautiful operas, or produce useful electricity (in general: to create). And so we can say that order exists in artificial ways because we intend it to exist. We know how to manipulate the material world to recreate order from nothingness. But without this ability to put in work on matter with an intentional purpose, the order we create would not exist. We reproduce order in the case of art because it is beautiful and good, and in the case of science because it is useful for life. (Is anyone seeing where some theological images can be built from? Humans beings as made in the image of God? Some ideas need not be religiously metaphysical to think about----They can be seen even by agnostics as conceptual ideas.)
What we can say then, from a rational point of view, is that without human consciousness, or without any consciousness for that manner, there could potentially exist forms that, (1) by chance, are useful for life or are, (2) by chance, good/beautiful. The rest is formlessness caused by random disturbances of energy without order. Without life, order wouldn't be useful for any aim, so is order just beautiful and good? We certainly think order is useful for us, but without us there is no use. We also, so long as we create art and enjoy music, think that order is beautiful and good. But usefulness and beauty and good are human constructs... We must rationally admit that there exists nothing but formlessness without life and consciousness (we think things are orderly so long as they are useful or beautiful/good. If both those things are human concepts then orderliness is absent in a purely objective world-----the word 'order' has hints of intentionality behind it which gives rise to so much need for a prime mover in debates. Also, order defined simply as repetition is not the kind of order we have in mind. In fact, the order we have been talking about need not be repetitious, only harmonious *whatever the hell that means*). And so a conclusion may be drawn: Order and its products, such as objects and concepts, require life and consciousness to exist, no? (Does the subjective concept of 'pain' exist without consciousness? Does the concept-impression of "roundness" on our eyes and brains, when describing an object, exist without the subject? Do stars as we know them with mass and heat and light exist without the subject? All three of these descriptions are cognitive concepts after all.)
There are just so many unanswered questions such that the more you learn, the more you just feel stupid that you don't understand a damn thing. No wonder Aristotle and Newton were stuck contemplating ideas that we have moved on from centuries later. We couldn't answer them so we just filed them away as: "unanswerable, let’s move on." Or perhaps if we are a bit academically dishonest or lazy: "It’s all just randomness, of course order exists beyond comprehension, let’s move on."
So back to the point, does moral luck exist? We don't know what luck is, or what coincidence is. We know that we cannot predict all sorts of circumstances and situations from the constitutive nature of our psyches to the consequentials of our actions... But if objects and concepts exist only in tandem with consciousness, then it seems that moral luck only exists in a subjective sense. We feel like we are lucky or unlucky when the world happens to be a certain way. When the order of our Will is stopped by an outside order, that makes us feel unlucky, but does that then entail that the Will disappears and along with it moral responsibility? Or could it be that this outside order is merely that thing with which our Will interfaces with to define what it means for a Will to be a Will? Without a receptacle world for our Will to act upon, the whole idea of the Will as a perspective "that acts upon an exterior" dissolves completely. We cannot imagine a Will even conceptually without that 'other'. But if by 'moral luck' we mean that exterior 'other' receptacle that we have no control over, then of course there is something that exists that we have no control over which also affects how our Will manifests. However it would not be the case that this 'moral luck' stultifies our freedom in anyway----because it is this 'moral luck' itself which defines what it means to have freedom of the Will, in the first place (i.e. you cannot have a concept of control without that thing which is controlled; otherwise the idea of 'control' loses all meaning----e.g. try to imagine what light is without any darkness whatsoever). It is the dance between the Will and the background existence that produces some fabulous stories that actually do change our constitutions and dispositions to act in virtuous manners. And when we feel lucky or unlucky, it is just that the external world is helping or obstructing the desire of our Will.
Moving on to another thought, I won’t deny that uncontrollable external events seem to invoke the concept of 'moral luck' especially in the case of our coming into existence with differing moral constitutions. But when we think of the Will, this is a psychological concept. The Will comes to humans amidst a slew of other competing desires that cannot be adequately attributed to the Will. Some people really want sex, others really want love----but the Will is the same, and the two Wills only differs in what they want. It is as if the Will is the same in all peoples, and what decides how well that Will functions towards any particular aim is how effective it is at attaining that aim. But what aim does the Will choose to pursue? That's the real question. We can look at the distracting elements, or other competing elements inside of the person as separate entities that struggle and vie for control of the Will. Some people will have stronger sexual desires than another person, another person may hold a higher esteem for morality. But the Will, by technical definition is the thing that chooses an onward path and pursues it despite the things exterior to itself, whether psychological or material. It attempts to reach some good, or "the good," conceptually understood as that thing which is worthy of expending energy. Are some goods better than others? Who knows. Maybe striving for sex is just as good and noble as striving to make the world a better place, but I'll leave that question up to you.
One unanswered question that naturally comes up would be, does the Will admit of degrees? Is the constitutive factor in moral luck simply that someone's Will is weaker or stronger? This may or may not be the case, but it is surely the case that two people with equally strong Wills choose different directions---one towards the moral, the other towards a distraction. Even if two Wills differ, why is it that they focus on different things? The weaker Will, even when focusing on sexual gratification will just be inefficacious at attaining that end. Another weaker Will may choose to follow morality, but will they also be inefficacious at attaining that end. However, what end does morality seek anyways? Now I have dug myself into a hole of questions that I do not have the time to answer now. But these are all relevant considerations.
If you're still wondering, "what does moral luck have to do with the origins of order at all?" Then I will state plainly in two ways, one superficial and one more strange.
(1) The forms of moral luck are concepts. Concepts seem to lack existence without consciousness, and so moral luck is subjective. It’s an expereince.
(2) What we mean by moral luck is that outside forces encapsulate our moral manifestations either partially or totally. It is intended to show that we are not to be held morally accountable in some or all circumstances. But we do not know the nature of our existence, we do not know what can or can't be ascribed to us because we do not know who we are. For instance, are we a multiplicity of personalities in each of our heads acting with different aims and drives? Are these drives changing (I am just going through the Greco-Roman Pantheon here) when we strive for knowledge and wisdom (Mercury), when we strive for love (Venus), when we strive for combat or sex (Mars), when we strive for joyful expansion (Jupiter)… You get the point. Are we one of these expressions, or are we the conscious Sun/Will in the middle that manages them? What happens when we suppress those expressions? Are we deterministically set to control our expressions in predetermined ways? Are our origins and what happens to us truly just random ordered events or was there some reason for it all?----we can't know this without knowing where order comes from. We know temperamentally disagreeable people will find themselves in more fights or in locations where capricious (lucky or unlucky) situations appear more often than passive people would. Does this mean that any unlucky situation that happens to them even after they put themselves in that precarious situation bears no responsibility to them? What made that person aggressive? We know that by feeding one expression, it grows harder to control. Also, was the thing that made someone aggressive ordered randomness? What caused this ordered randomness?
In just the same way that we can say random neuron firings are not consistent with freewill, we can also say that random events do not give rise to anything meaningful which would affect someone's drives or motivations. Only interpretations of those random events into a story that is meaningful and orderly can affect someone's drives or motivations. Events that change people's lives are themselves ordered things. Even a weed induced chaotic greening out that changes someone is interpreted by the subject in an orderly way that makes them fear it (The orderly interpretation here being that unordered things are bad).
The real point however, is that the Will seems to be married to the external world which manifests in her majesty Fate or Lady Luck. The things we cannot control is precisely the stuff that we do control. If moral luck means this, then yes, moral luck exists, but no it doesn't hinder moral responsibility and freewill---it is the catalyst and precondition for it.