Michael J. Zimmerman and the Puzzle of Moral Luck and Responsibility
In his 1987 article “Moral Luck and Responsibility,” Michael J. Zimmerman tries his hands at what he calls a “puzzle” that has, in varied forms, been tackled by Joel Feinstein, Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams. The puzzle (labeled such by virtue of the fact that the premises appear true and the conclusion which follows from them false):
Moral Luck Puzzle:
P1. A person P is morally responsible for an event e’s occurring only if e’s occurring was not a matter of luck.
P2. No event is such that its occurring is not a matter of luck.
∴ No event is such that P is morally responsible for its occurring.
Zimmerman mentions exegetically that Feinberg provisionally accepts the conclusion; Williams accepts P2 while rejecting P1; Nagel (according to Z), in determining the puzzle to be a genuine paradox, “seems prepared to accept both premises while denying the conclusion” (Ethics, Vol. 97, No. 2 (Jan., 1987) pp. 374.
Zimmerman’s own strategy employs a preliminary breaking down of the puzzle by distinguishing two types of luck and two types of control. His luck types are:
1. Situational Luck: “Luck with respect to the situations one faces, including the nature of one’s character (inclinations, capacities and so on) as so far formed.
2. Resultant Luck: “Luck with respect to what results from one’s decisions, actions and omissions” (376).
In articulating what luck is, Zimmerman says: “Something which occurs as a matter of luck is something which occurs beyond anyone’s control”; (and, in a footnote to this definition) “More restrictively: something which occurs as a matter of luck with respect to someone P is something which occurs beyond P’s control” (fn. 376).
Zimmerman then breaks down the concept of “control” which is operative in his definitions of both situational and resultant luck. His types are:
1. Restricted control: “One may be said to enjoy restricted control with respect to some event just in case one can bring about its occurrence and can also prevent its occurrence.
2. Unrestricted control: “One may be said to enjoy unrestricted control with respect to some event just in case one enjoys or enjoyed restricted control with respect both to it and to all those events on which its occurrence is contingent. (376)
I will not go into the details of Zimmerman’s entire proposed solution to the Moral Luck Puzzle in light of these distinctions, but rather, want to focus on a particular feature of his argument. But before doing this, I will give an example that I think will capture the move he wants to make.
Suppose Susie is drowning in a pond in the dark and shouting for help. Nathan and Zeb are both standing on opposite banks, equidistant to Susie, and unaware (because of the darkness) of each other. Both jump into the pond at the same time and begin swimming toward Susie. When they are both halfway to Susie (respectively), Zeb snags his foot on an underwater branch (which he had no way of knowing was there), and by the time he frees himself, Nathan has already corralled Susie back to the bank.
If we grant what Zimmerman takes to be an undeniable premise—that an agent is not praiseworthy or blameworthy for an action unless that agent is responsible for the action—then the troublesome feature of the moral luck puzzle emerges, namely, that the responsibility for saving Susie that is a necessary condition for praise or blame for the action is perhaps threatened by the uncontrollability of getting one’s foot trapped on an underwater branch en route to the rescue.
Those who accept an unqualified reading P1 of the Moral Luck Puzzle and grant that Nathan was lucky not to have snagged his foot as Zeb did, will find themselves disinclined to praise Nathan for his action (the conclusion that would follow). Others might embrace a consequentialist account of praise or blame and thus reject P1 and praise Nathan whilst not praising Zeb. Zimmerman’s position takes the line of praising both equally. His doing so is a function of his distinction between the sort of lack of control that is relevant to precluding responsibility and the sort of lack of control that is not. And so, in essence, Zimmerman dodges the counterintuitive conclusion of the Moral Luck Puzzle by rejecting an unqualified reading of “luck” in P1.
Given this background, I want to focus on a particular aspect of Zimmerman’s position, which pertains to a principle he accepts with regard to decisively “situational” luck. Zimmerman claims that:
SL: If (i) P made decision d in what he believed to be situation s,
(ii) P* would have made d if he had been in a situation that he believed to be s, and
(iii) P*’s being in a situation that he believed to be s was not in his restricted control, then:
whatever moral credit or discredit accrues to P for making d accrues also to P*. (381)
Applying this principle to the Nathan and Zeb case I gave (which, by Zimmerman’s definition, would be an instance of “situational luck”) appears to generate Zimmerman’s position that both are equally praiseworthy.
While I am sympathetic to Zimmerman’s response to this case, I think that his principle SL runs into some troubles. This is because the conclusion that whatever moral credit or discredit accrues to P for making d accrues also to P* depends on whether the counterfactual in (ii) of SL holds true. And so, whether Zeb deserves equal praise as Nathan would depend on whether Zeb, if he believed he were in Nathan’s position (on the other side of the bank), would have decided to do what Nathan did.
In the effort of making things clear by first making them messy, I want to add a few more details to our story. Suppose the following is true about Nathan and Zeb: The bank from which Nathan jumped was the East bank. The bank from which Zeb jumped was the West bank. Prior to jumping in for Susie, Nathan believed that there were dangerous underwater stumps on the West side, but not on the East side. Additionally, if Nathan had been on the West side (where he believed that there were underwater stumps), he would not have jumped in to save Susie. Zeb, on the other hand, believed that there were dangerous underwater stumps on the East side, but not on the West side; if Zeb had been on the East side (where Nathan was), he would not have jumped in to save Susie.
The problem for Zimmerman’s view on situational luck is that, given our expanded story, he is prevented from ruling Zeb’s action as equally praiseworthy as Nathan’s because (ii) in SL is not met; (ii) in SL fails to be met because if Zeb believed he was in situation s (Nathan’s situation, on the East side of the bank), he would not have decided to do what Nathan decided to do, namely, to jump in for Susie.
Surely, though, Zimmerman would not want to accept the conclusion that Nathan is more praiseworthy than Zeb. For one thing, Both Nathan and Zeb would be prepared to jump in to save Susie from the bank that each thought was safe, and neither would have jumped in from the side each thought was unsafe; additionally, it was outside of Zeb’s restricted control that the underwater logs weren’t on the side of the pond he believed them to be.
I think that any account of moral credit that does not weigh whether Susie is in fact saved in assessing credit (as Zimmerman’s and some other deontic accounts would do) had better not rule Nathan’s action more morally praiseworthy than Zeb’s. To do so would be to disregard exactly what it is about things beyond our control that lead us to render them outside the realm of our responsibility.