Sorites (Σωρίτης), ISSN 1135-1349
Issue #19 -- December 2007. Pp. 07-13
On An Attempt to Undermine Reason-Responsive Compatibilism by Appealing to Moral Luck. Reply to Gerald K. Harrison
Copyright © by Sergi Rosell and Sorites
On An Attempt to Undermine Reason-Responsive Compatibilism by Appealing to Moral Luck. Reply to Gerald K. Harrison
by Sergi Rosell


1. In `Hyper Libertarianism and Moral Luck',Foot note 1 Gerald K. Harrison tries to put forward a `surprising' view, as he says, of the prospects for libertarianism being the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP, henceforth) refuted. He claims that «the kind of libertarian positions which survive post PAP are ones which have the resources to make sense of moral luck in a way unavailable to compatibilism.» (93) After recognising the historical support that PAP has provided for libertarian positions on freedom and moral responsibility, he remarks that refuting PAP does not involve refuting libertarianism; there is logical room for libertarian positions in a post PAP scenario. So, assuming PAP as refuted, the author focuses on the actual sequence and wonders whether causal determinism in the actual sequence rules out moral responsibility.

Harrison commits himself to a type of hyper libertarianism (or source incompatibilism, as it is more commonly known), that is, a libertarian position which defends that determinism undermines moral responsibility for reasons that have not to do with the availability of alternative possibilities or with the agent's ability to do otherwise. Beyond this claim, his position is indeed very close to Kane's (1996). He stresses that «determinism deprives one of ownership over one's decisions»; we need to be the ultimate, or (in Kane's words) `buck-stopping' explanation of our decisions in order for them to be truly ours. That is, a requirement for ownership or ultimacy is needed; and this is a different requirement than that about control. «[I]n addition to controlling our decisions we need also to own them... it is ownership that is threatened by determinism.» (94) His position can be labelled as Kane minus PAP, whose key element is the demand of ownership in the actual sequence. The problematic of such an account will be seen later on in this paper.

But compatibilists have also their own interpretations of ownership: you own your decisions insofar as «the world had to go through you to get that to happen». Of course, the compatibilist conception of ownership is restricted to the actual sequence, but that is exactly the same for source incompatibilism. Furthermore, an important gain for compatibilism is John M. Fischer's claim that it should be favoured «in so far as our basic views about ourselves -- our view of ourselves as persons and as morally responsible -- should not be held hostage to the discoveries of a consortium of scientists about the precise nature of the equations that describe the universe». (2003: 221)

So, what reasons do we have to favour libertarianism over compatibilism? Harrison values the previous claim for (semi-)compatibilism, but he thinks there is a counterweight favouring libertarianism: in a post PAP scenario, only a hyper-libertarian perspective can make sense of the phenomenon of moral luck; and only hyper libertarianism can achieve a principled explanation of it (97). Then, the query is about the capacity of both compatibilism and hyper-libertarianism to make sense of the phenomenon of moral luck, and that must be understood as being able to provide a principled explanation of it. In particular, Harrison affirms the incapacity of compatibilism to achieve this kind of principled explanation.

I have to say that I find very commendable his target of trying to establish a satisfactory connection between the issue of moral luck and the free will and moral responsibility debate. I am really sympathetic with his idea that not giving room to moral luck -- or not having an adequate explanation of it -- counts as a serious demerit for a position in the debate. Harrison's position can be described as one which makes (I hope not to introduce more confusion here) moral luck `compatible' with freedom and moral responsibility, and in a libertarian way. However, Harrison's paper lacks an explicit characterization of what he understands by moral luck, and a clarification of the kind of moral luck addressed; a fundamental point inexcusably missed.

The rest of this response will focus on assessing Harrison's argument for the advantage of hyper libertarianism upon compatibilism concerning integration of moral luck. Furthermore, an attempt will be made to make clear what his conception of the latter is. I shall argue, on the one hand, that his argument is not convincing and, on the other, that the idea of moral luck shown in his paper is an unusual and extremely narrow one. Besides that, a direct treatment of the very topic of moral luck is first needed to be able to apply it next to the debate about free will and moral responsibility.

2. In section III Harrison introduces a Fischer-style reason-responsiveness account of control, and the problem that moral luck posits to it. According to that account, what it is for a decision or choice to have been controlled is simply for it to have been the output of a certain type of a mechanism that is sensitive or responsive to reasons to a certain degree. In this sense, we can speak, in technical terms, of a moderate reasons-responsiveness. Having the control relevant to moral responsibility means simply having some sort of mechanism sufficient to be moved by reasons; or, in other words, having capacities and dispositions to respond in certain ways to a relevant range of inputs. However, the problem is that

...if an agent has only compatibilist control over their decision and choices, then they nevertheless lack control over how their mechanism operates in the actual sequence. Given that they are, by hypothesis, morally responsible for the decisions that they make, this means that the agent will be exposed to certain kind of moral luck. It is their bad luck, for instance, that they possess a mechanism which, in these exact circumstances, will issue in this, morally reprehensible decision. For in different but relevantly similar circumstances [any possible world in which both the mechanism and the morally relevant reasons are held fixed], it would have issued in a different, blameless, or even praiseworthy decision. (95)

The point, thus, is that the control mechanism is sensitive to the morally relevant reasons but only to a limited extent. So, in different but relevantly similar circumstances the mechanism would have issued in a different decision, which can deserve a different moral assessment. Adding some example would be good here. Anyway, the point is that this type of control relies on merely possessing capacities that he is not able to exercise control over. We can suspect at this time that the problem Harrison is pointing out is that of (a type of) control in achieving our rational capacities. But this turns out not to be the point Harrison makes. The question concerns rather our lack of control upon the (moral) reasons to which we are responsive given our moderate mechanism of reasons-responsiveness. In his opinion, the unique alternative here, to avoid the exposure to `the kind of moral luck in question', is to insist that what is required for moral responsibility is strong reason-responsiveness. Accordingly, the decision delivered by the strongly responsive mechanism will be the same in all scenarios in which both the mechanism and the morally relevant reasons are held fixed. So, the concern is not our control in how we arrive to form our reason-responsive mechanism, but its refinement. If our mechanism is totally attuned to the reasons there are, it does not mind how we have achieved it.

But strong reason-responsiveness is far too demanding a control requirement. It would mean, as Harrison claims, that «to avoid exposure to this kind of moral luck, the reasons to which the mechanism would have to be strongly sensitive would have to be moral reasons present, which would have the upshot that no agent could ever do wrong culpably.» (96) But, while for a compatibilist an agent with a strong reason-responsive mechanism could, in principle, be morally responsible for the decisions and choices that they make; for a hyper-libertarian position (or, at least for Harrison's type), she could not.

The alternative Harrison defends is a compatibilist control (as moderate reason-responsiveness) plus ownership, understood in terms of Kane's choices or `self-forming acts' (SFAs). Both the post-PAP hyper-libertarian and the compatibilist should agree about control (mechanism), both must affirm the reality of `the kind of moral luck outlined', and both have to give a coherent account of it. But, ultimately, for Harrison, making sense of this kind of moral luck is unavailable for the compatibilist. Only with a mechanism internally deterministic in place we will be able to say that it would have delivered the same decision in all relevant possible worlds. However, if the mechanism were internally indeterministic there would always be some possible worlds in which the same reasons are present and the mechanism is held fixed, yet a different decision issues.

But this seems a little confusing. Harrison has said that there is a problem with luck for Fischer-style compatibilism and now he states that it does not have place for luck. The answer could be: for moral responsibility, moderate reasons responsiveness is not enough, while strong reason responsiveness is too much. He claims:

If internal indeterminism is required, as I maintain that it is, then something less than strong reason responsiveness is actually a requirement for moral responsibility. This means that the kind of freedom needed for moral responsibility actually exposes the agent to the moral luck in question. (97)

However, Harrison is mixing without justification considerations about allowing luck in the mechanism and considerations about the most fitting account of moral responsibility. Regarding moral luck, it seems that both moderate reason-responsiveness and hyper-libertarianism's indeterministic decisions can indeed accommodate it. But, he still can reply that hyper-libertarianism does not only give room for `the moral luck in question', it indeed gives a principled explanation. According to him, «if we only have compatibilist control, then it seems fundamentally unfair to hold us morally responsible for the decisions and choices that we make in the actual sequence, for we would have made different decisions in alternative, but relevantly identical sequences.» (96) But actually this is the same, or worse, for indeterministic decisions. In a post PAP scenario, the only addition hyper-libertarian ownership condition can do is introducing indeterminism in a certain point of the reason-responsiveness process. But to appeal here, in relation to moral luck, to indeterminism is to get nothing, unless you confuse luck with indeterminism as such, as I think Harrison does. Indeed, luck is any type of an agent's lack of control, either in an indeterminist way or in a determinist one.Foot note 2

3. But we must pay more attention to the very nature of the moral luck at stake here. What is this `kind of moral luck in question'? As stated above, Harrison does not give any explicit characterization of what he understands by moral luck, or the kind of connexion he has in mind with the classical (Nagelian) types of moral luck.Foot note 3 Indeed, he does not even mention any author or literature on moral luck. Remember that constitutive luck -- that is, the lack of control in the achievement of the reason-responsive mechanism each of us has, or hasn't -- has already been descarted as the kind of moral luck in question. It seems to me that we must understand Harrison's kind of moral luck as the luck involved in our reason responsiveness at some point (in a time/decision-slice), and which will have repercussion on the moral judgments we deserve. Specifically, luck in the output we yield according to the input we receive, given an internal indeterministic reason-responsive mechanism. It is the kind of moral luck implied in the fact that, for instance, the business woman of Kane's example finally chose either to help the unfortunate pedestrian or to go to the meeting. Kane's account (Kane 1996) gives room for luck in the sense that there is not an explanation for the fact that she tries, by means of SFAs, to be one way and not the other,Foot note 4 and this is not to say that her decisions are accidental, insofar they are product of her efforts and willings.

However, why does the compatibilist not explain the kind of luck in question as luck due to the variation in the mechanism's responsiveness to reasons the agent has? Indeed, I think this is the most natural way to understand the point: our choices are a function (deterministic or not) of our reasons, intentions, capacities (result of an all-time forming life) and the opportunities present to us at choice's time.

But, beyond that, the competition is unfair; Harrison dismisses inexplicably the relevance of the mechanism's history for Fischer and Ravizza's theory of moral responsibility -- which indeed constitute their account of the ownership condition. In such an account, an agent's mechanism is appropriately/owner reasons-responsive only if she has come to own that mechanism by means of a process whereby she takes responsibility for the mechanisms that give rise to her actions. In order to take responsibility for her conduct, an agent must see herself in a certain manner (1998: 207-39). Only under that condition she owns her mechanisms of decision. This is the main content of the ownership condition, and then, it is an essential part of what has to be confronted with Kane's SFAs.

On the other hand, what about the extra merit of hyper-libertarianism in achieving a principled way of explaining the phenomenon? Actually, Harrison can only state that hyper-libertarianism has a principled explanation of moral luck by means of constructing an `ad hoc' notion of moral luck. His concept of moral luck is too narrow, and the only thing that explains such a narrow conception is that it is an `ad hoc' notion. But moral luck is a wider phenomenon; indeed, it is a very complex one. The phenomenon is usually motivated in terms of a collision between the belief that we cannot blame (or judge morally negatively) someone for those outcomes of her actions that are beyond her control and the fact that we judge people for such things that simply are the outcome of their actions. However, the issue extends also to the fact that an agent has to face some or other circumstances, with possible repercussion on her responsibility, or to possess a certain constitution or to have received such and such influences and not others. It is a crash between so settled an intuition as the control requirement is, and a working ordinary practice. Daniel Statman summarizes the `problem' as the tension posed by the fact that it seems that moral responsibility, justification, blame, and so on, cannot be affected by luck and the possibility that luck plays and outstanding, even essential, role (1993: 2).Foot note 5

In short, a case of moral luck will happen when we morally judge someone in a right way for something that is, in some sense, beyond her control. And what is beyond the agent's control is not only the result of a Kanean SFA; there is much more in the agent's rational constitution due to luck. Moreover, Fischer has emphasized recently this fact, and indeed has been typically accused of giving luck too much room in his account of moral responsibility.Foot note 6

However, although Harrison acknowledges that what he has said only shows «how one kind of luck could be intelligible», he maintains that this kind of moral luck he is pointing out is «the most fundamental» (98). But he is not sufficiently clear here. As advanced, a clear statement of what kind of moral luck he is vindicating would be needed. He also says that a direct treatment of the moral luck problem itself will be a topic of another paper. It would be good if he tried to become clearer about the very topic of moral luck, before applying it to the free will and moral responsibility debate.

4. Furthermore, I am suspicious about the possibility of defending Kane's position without endorsing PAP, and do not know how exactly a picture of a Kanean-minus-PAP account would look. It seems that if Harrison accepts, for instance, the business woman example, he had to endorse all of Kane's account, including PAP.

For moral responsibility in Kane's account, both PAP and indeterminism are necessary conditions (we need also the plurality and the will-setting conditions), although they are not needed for every action, but only for SFAs. According to Kane (1996), there are some fundamental free choices to an agent's autonomy which result of processes of deliberation guided by efforts of the will. In such a kind of cases, a conflict arises between what an agent thinks she ought to do and her actual wants or desires. And one struggles to sort out and to establish a priority order within one's own values. The idea of «efforts of will» is crucial to this picture: they both produce and occupy a causal gap between reasons and choices, which allows that the possible outcomes will be undetermined, and also indeterminate. As Timothy O'Connors puts it, «at each stage of the struggle, the possible outcomes have no specific objective probability of occurring.» (2005; sect. 3.2). Doubtless, in Kane's account, this kind of indeterminacy is essential to freedom of will; but also PAP is.

It is true that Kane (Kane 2002) has lately rejected the excessive focus on the requirement of alternative possibilities of recent debates about free will. Certainly, Kane states that the idea of being ultimate responsible for an action is more important, but he says explicitly that alternative possibilities are still a necessary condition for ultimate responsibility. He states:

For UR does require that we could have done otherwise with respect to some acts in our past life histories by which we formed our present characters. ...we formed it by other choices or actions in the past (SFAs) for which we could have done otherwise (which did satisfy AP). (2002: 408)

Indeed, it seems to me that the insight the (libertarian) idea of ultimacy or ownership wants to capture can only be satisfied if the agent could have done otherwise; that is, having alternative possibilities is what would make the agent into a true owner -- as a condition different of rational control -- of her decisions and actions.

On the other hand, Harrison seems very happy with the idea that indeterminism -- although it does not preclude an agent's being reasons-responsive enough for moral responsibility -- does nothing to enhance control and will in fact diminish it. He says:

In absence of any special kind of libertarian control, making an agent's reason responsive mechanism internally indeterministic will diminish the degree of control it can be said to deliver, for it will invariably make it less responsive than it would otherwise have been. (97)

In this way, Harrison acknowledges a tension between the ownership condition and the control condition -- as they are conceived by him -- «insofar as it [the ownership condition] can only be satisfied if the agent has less than the kind of full control that would rule out moral luck.» But why does he think that moral luck plays a role favourable to ownership, or rule out full control in the direction of ownership? And, why does moral luck do that against a compatibilist account of ownership?

I think his final point is especially controversial; he opposes the fairness-related aspect of moral responsibility to its freedom-related one. He says: «An agent is morally responsible not because it would be fair to hold them morally responsible, but because they made their decision freely.» (98) But this is a false dilemma: moral responsibility is about freedom and about fairness; an agent can be fairly held morally responsible only if he is free, in the adequate sense. To think otherwise--in the direction Harrison does -- is to embrace an image of ownership dangerously close to voluntarism or freedom arbitrarism.

I agree that control, or direct control, is not all there is to moral responsibility; but the concern about moral luck does not stem, as Harrison states, from focussing only on the control condition. The ownership conditions can be also vulnerable to luck. Luck is a pervasive phenomenon. Moral luck is rather the cost of moral responsibility.

5. To conclude, Harrison's position can be described as one which makes moral luck compatible with freedom and moral responsibility. This is something that I myself support. His point is that a control mechanism is compatible with moral luck, and this does not undermine moral responsibility because there is another requirement at issue: the requirement of ultimacy, which assures our ownership over our decisions, namely, that we are the `buck-stopping' explanation of them. But this idea of ultimacy is a very puzzling one; it has received a lot of criticism, and is one for which Harrison does not offer any extra argument beyond those given by Kane -- but, at the same time, adding the incoherence of rejecting PAP. His point was that this account is superior to the compatibilist one only because it can give room to the phenomenon of moral luck and explain it in a principled way. But, clearly, Fischer-style compatibilism gives also room to moral luck, and if it cannot explain it in a principled way--as hyper libertarianism supposedly can -- it is because `the kind of moral luck in question' Harrison talks about is an ad hoc kind, specially designed for filling the indeterministic hole of hyper libertarianism -- a hole that has been traditionally seen as a weakness.

To summarize, Harrison's argument is not convincing. The idea of moral luck he uses is extremely narrow and, so, clearly inadequate. Moral luck cannot solve the dispute in the way Harrison intends.Foot note 7


Sergi Rosell
University of Valencia, Spain
<sergi [dot] rosell [at] uv [dot] es>

[Foot Note 1]

In this journal (December 2005), 16: 93-102. Page numbers without year reference correspond to Harrison's article.

[Foot Note 2]

On the other hand, Harrison also seems not to notice the distinction between (reason-responsive) mechanisms and agents. I put this issue aside. Cf. Moya (2006: 116-ff).

[Foot Note 3]

See Nagel (1979).

[Foot Note 4]

Although there is a reasons explanation, but neither determinist nor contrastive.

[Foot Note 5]

Williams (1981) and Nagel (1979) are the original sources on Moral Luck; see also the anthology by Statman (1993).

[Foot Note 6]

See Fischer (2006).

[Foot Note 7]

I thank Carlos Moya for helpful comments on a previous draft. Research founded by project `Belief, Responsibility, and Action', Spanish Ministry of Education and Science (HUM2006-04907) and University of Valencia-V Segles Fellowship.

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