Deep Dive 1.3: Luck damned Freedom

Having recently become a father, I learned quickly that much of my daughter’s development hinges upon each minute parenting decision. Yesterday, my wife and I found her holding a quarter. We were sufficiently petrified and subsequently baffled as to how she had acquired it and as to whether more coins had been carelessly abandoned about our small apartment. Danger lurks everywhere. Beyond the immediate peril of US currency being lodged in her intestinal track, we often worry because we feel as if we are constantly catching up on supposedly essential childrearing milestones. While I know little about being a father, I do know that all of her future problems, or at least half of them, will likely be my fault. Whether one blames nature or nurture for development, I’m responsible for both. Surely, it’s the case that her mother bears the weight of the other half, but I’m self-deprecating enough to chalk up my daughter’s good qualities to my wife. My wife, a dentist, certainly will blame every cavity that shows up in our little girl’s mouth on my failure to brush her teeth after breakfast each day–my sole dentalcare responsibility. If I screw up taking care of her teeth, my efforts to build her language skills by reading her Moby Dick before she could even lift her head off the ground would be all for naught because individuals with bad teeth often have difficulties finding employment. Luckily for my daughter, her mother is constituted in such a way as to be highly conscious of the development of each molar, canine, and incisor. And, perhaps, luckily for my wife and I, if our little girl’s mouth develops caries, we will always have our parents to blame, for, after all, our parents are responsible for our shortcomings.

Noticeably, this conception of responsibility undergirds integral discussions of free will. When considering questions of deserts related to responsibility, it is often the thesis of determinism that is argued to undermine them. Both my previous free will posts about Strawson’s and Boyle’s arguments align with this interpretation. However, other philosophers, like Neil Levy, contest that determinism is not desert’s problem; rather, the problem for justifying rewards or punishments is luck. He identifies this as the problem of hard luck, and he argues that “agents are not morally responsible for their actions because luck ensures that there are no desert-entailing differences between moral agents.” I find this position interesting because it allows me to set aside the question of determinism and to focus more clearly on whether people deserve praise or blame. Certainly, the constraints of a blog prevent me from fully exploring his argument and expanding upon all its relevant and interesting points so I will be forced to pick a particular part of his argument. Necessarily, I’ll begin by presenting what Levy means by luck. I will then proceed to offer an explanation of the part of his argument that I find particularly illuminating. I’ll attempt to pinpoint exactly what about his argument I find convincing, and hopefully, I’ll be able to utilize his reasoning to appropriately challenge some conventional presuppositions. If I’m lucky, I may even succeed in absolving myself of fatherly sins, both original and immediate.

The varied uses of the term “luck” require that I spend at least an adequate amount of time to flesh out what Levy means by it. Levy identifies two categories of luck: chancy luck and nonchancy luck. Events defined as chancy luck are (a) ones that are significant to us, (b) ones for which we lack direct control, and (c) ones that fail to occur in nearby possible worlds. [i] (“Possible worlds” is a philosophical concept, that while jargony, is imperative to this discussion. When you say something like, “If only I had done “x” first, we wouldn’t have this problem,” you are invoking another possible world. This world is distinct from the actual world and entails a different course of events had you done “x.”) Levy provides an example of this when he discusses a lottery winner. Imagine there are many possible worlds in which a person buys a lottery ticket; each world will consist of a lottery ticket with a slightly different combination of numbers, and other possible worlds will have no ticket at all. If the person wins the lottery in the actual world, and not in the nearby possible worlds, that, according to Levy, would be a matter of chancy luck. Levy also notes that such a situation would meet the other two criteria: winning the lottery would be a significant event for the person, and it would be an event over which he or she would have had no direct control. [ii] Note here that this is a clear case of chancy luck and that Levy provides other gradations of chancy luck to flesh out his thesis.

Similar in some ways to chancy luck, nonchancy luck involves the aforementioned criteria (a) and (b) but drops (c) while adopting others. Nonchancy luck incorporates events that (d) “vary across the relevant reference group,” and in which (e) “in a large enough proportion of cases…the event fails to occur or be instantiated in the reference group” in the same manner as in the actual case. [iii] He explains this by noting that it would be nonchancy lucky for me to be more clever than most humans, but not nonchancy lucky for me to more clever than a dog. Conversely, I might also be nonchancy lucky (in a negative sense) if I were less clever than a dog. [iv] Consider a woman named Sue. First, it’s important to note that we could only coherently consider a person named Sue existing in multiple possible worlds if Sue is recognizable as Sue in a number of possible worlds. She needs to possess the same genes and a similar enough psychological disposition to be identifiable; otherwise, Sue stops being Sue. A Sue with different genes or a noticeably different personality than the Sue in the actual world is not the same Sue as the one we are considering. This is because we use an identifier, a name, to represent the totality of a person and significant variations of genes and dispositions in other possible worlds would render the name incoherent. The rub here, when it comes to luck, is that Sue’s genes and her personality, no matter the possible world, would be a matter of nonchancy luck. They are essential qualities of her, yet she does not choose them for herself. She is, in a manner of speaking, constitutively lucky to be the Sue that she is. Understanding luck in both of these respects will aid in comprehending how he arrives at his hard luck thesis.

The compelling argument that I wish to recount for you is what Levy calls “the luck pincer.” In doing so, I’ll utilize the example of my daughter here to try and enhance clarity. First, the situation that my daughter will one day face is that her identity will be a result of a luck-filled history. That is to say that she will be both chancy lucky and nonchancy lucky to become herself. At a certain unspecified point, however, people will expect that she take responsible for herself irrespective of her chancy and nonchancy history because they will maintain that enough time has passed for her to overcome those events. For instance, while I modulate my annoyance now when she throws her milk cup on the floor, I likely won’t do so if she still throws her cup on the floor when she’s eighteen. At that point, I will have expected that she has had sufficient time to “become responsible for [her] dispositions and values in the course of normal life, even [if her] dispositions and values are the product of awful constitutive luck” [v]. The hope is that she can overcome the circumstances of her constitutive luck. This type of luck account for half of his luck pincer. Combining this with the second half will show how my daughter’s ability to overcome her constitutive luck will prove difficult.

The other half is identified as “present luck”–luck that occurs at the time of the supposedly free action. [vi] One example of this type of luck concerns the thoughts that pop into our heads. Levy writes:

because we do not satisfy epistemic conditions on control over considerations…our moods…[and]…attention…are genuinely chancy, and we lack control over them. [vii]

At any decision-making moment, the range of possible options and considerations about those options, including whether I consider the full scope of relevant outcomes, will be contingent upon what pops into my mind. I don’t decide upon the thoughts that occur to me. We recognize this intuitively when we regretfully mull over some of our decisions that we view as poor. Often in hindsight, we see clearly that a now existing problem was an inevitable result of a poor decision. That result, we realize, was one that we now have every reason to believe should have been readily perceptible beforehand. Nonetheless, for whatever reason-distraction, paranoia, fear, joy, or poorly directed focus-it is a matter of present luck which considerations were available to us at the decision-making moment. The converse is also true. When we do think of things, we are only lucky to do so. This fact is revealed in the way we speak when we say things like, “I’m glad I remembered “x.”” What’s crucial about this is that such present luck can sometimes be decisive. Levy recounts a story of a man who, after receiving two job offers, rejected the one he wanted because he perceived his potential coworkers there to be snobby. Importantly, Levy notes, the fact that he didn’t consider that his potential coworkers could have just been shy, something he is mindful of at other times, just didn’t occur to him when he was deciding between the jobs. [viii]

These two halves of the pincer damn any chance at deserts. We cannot be praised or blamed for how we are constituted; it is a result of both the chancy and the nonchancy luck of our history. And we have no hope of willing ourselves to change and become responsible for ourselves because each basic decision-making point is subject to present luck. We aren’t able to intentionally shift our constitution and overcome our luck filled history because each time we decide something we are subject to the perils of present luck. As he notes, “our actions are (directly or indirectly) either the product of constitutive luck or of present luck, or both” [ix]. Because of this, Levy argues that we are not morally responsible in a desert-entailing way. So, one might now ask, did I succeed in absolving myself? I think so.

Levy’s thoughts here are fascinating; arguably more so than the repeated arguments that try and kill free will with determinism. I want to change myself, but it seems that luck will prevent me from accomplishing a particular desired end. Consider this example. Since college, my weight has seesawed from the relatively healthy to the uncomfortably bulging. Since I want to lose weight and I recognize the potential pitfalls of luck, I could perhaps try to game the system. To increase the odds that I luck upon right decisions, I might rid the pantry of unhealthy foods, shop online to prevent grocery store temptations and prepare meals at the beginning of the week to stave off last-minute poor eating decisions. But if I can game the system to achieve a particular desired end, it might seem that I can defeat luck and that Levy’s thesis fails. Isn’t the fact that there is an end to which I can will (e.g. the fact that I want to be thinner) sufficient to be called freedom? Sadly, no. For it should be clear by now, that I would only be lucky to possess such a constitution. Luck could have constituted me in such a way as to be completely fine with my weight or with a desire to become even fatter. So, I probably don’t deserve praise or blame for my current weight or fatherly abilities in the manner with which we conventionally understand deserts.

As is evident, luck is a potent force. It bears on our past and our present in profound ways. Its effects should also cause us to pause and reconsider how we approach institutions like our penal system. If individuals lack moral responsibility, we have no moral justification for punishing people because they commit crimes. Importantly, this doesn’t negate the possible utility of praise or blame. It only means that praise and blame aren’t deserved. There still may be important reasons to lock individuals away. And while it may also be the case that my feelings of guilt for not brushing my daughter’s teeth appropriately aren’t deserved, it wouldn’t necessarily bear on whether that guilt might be useful in encouraging me to remember to do so in the future. As will become apparent in later posts, there may be other reasons for deserts. Even still, it seems that Levy presents strong reasons as to why luck damns freedom.

Levy, N. (2014). Hard luck: how luck undermines free will and moral responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[i] (Levy 2014, 36)
[ii] (Levy 2014, 19)
[iii] (Levy 2014, 36)
[iv] (Levy 2014, 33)
[v] (Levy 2014, 88)
[vi] (Levy 2014, 90)
[vii] (Levy 2014, 90)
[viii] (Levy 2014, 91-92)
[ix] (Levy 2014, 94)

If you’re interested in summaries of the text, check out these two:
Metapsychology Online Review by Jonathan Matheson
Notre Dame Philosophical Review by Andrew Bailey

3 thoughts on “Deep Dive 1.3: Luck damned Freedom

  1. Praise and blame are tools we use to encourage or discourage certain behavior. These concepts have survived natural selection because they are useful, that is, they seem to have an effect upon someone’s behavior. We praise our children’s good choices. We blame them for the harm caused by their bad choices, and correct them by explaining to them what they “could have done differently”, and by imagining with them how things might have turned out if they had made the better choice.

    To say that they “deserve” praise or blame simply means that they were appropriate tools for us to use under the circumstances. If we used them inappropriately, perhaps blaming them for a harm that was caused by someone else, then we say “they didn’t deserve that”.

    These tools that we use to teach our children right from wrong are threatened by the hard determinist. The hard determinist tells us that because our children “have no free will” that we should never praise or blame them. They stress the fact that the child’s behavior was dictated by events that occurred during the Big Bang, long before the child was born.

    And while it may be a fact that every event is the inevitable result of prior events, such that everything that happens is inevitable, this fact has absolutely no utility to human behavior. You will not be able to go back to the Big Bang and make the adjustments needed to correct your child’s behavior.

    What every child deserves is to be encouraged when they make good choices and to be corrected when they make a bad choice.


  2. A few responses:

    First, after reading your post, I worry that I wasn’t quite clear on my discussion of deserving praise or blame. I’m trying to talk specifically about desert: “a person’s worthiness or entitlement to reward or punishment.” I noted in my last paragraph that I’d talk about the utility of praise or blame at a later point. Even if people don’t deserve praise or blame, praise and blame could still be useful.

    Second, I think blame is more potent than you admit. When accusers blame a person for committing a crime, they suspect that that person is at fault. Accusers think this not simply because the criminal action was committed by the criminal, but also because the accusers believe that the criminal should have done otherwise. As an example, people commonly think that a rapist should not have raped; they believe that the rapist could have chosen not to rape. I argue that it is this feeling that causes us to blame people.

    Third, I don’t think the hard determinist is committed in the way that you say that he is. A hard determinist can think that people don’t deserve praise or blame AND think that rewards and punishments have important utility. Certainly, some hard determinists are nihilists, but that is not a necessary feature of a hard determinist.

    Finally, Neil Levy doesn’t think that the facts of determinism preclude free will. In fact, his arguments about hard luck don’t turn on a deterministic world. While I could not talk about his entire text, he provides reasoning why luck is a problem for the determinist and the indeterminist. The argument of his that I recounted was directed at a compatibilist (i.e. a determinist who still believes in free will.) I would encourage you to check out the links to the reviews that I hyperlinked at the end of the post.


    1. Pragmatism suggests we obtain the practical meaning of our words and concepts from how they work in actual operation. “Free will”, for example, is used to distinguish the case where a person decides for himself what he will do from the case where someone else is making those decisions for him. “Holding responsible” is used to identify the practical cause of some harm in order to know where to address corrective measures.

      “Deserving” operates to note the appropriateness of our choice of reward or punishment to (a) the correct person and (b) under the correct justification formula.

      A person’s “worthiness” or “entitlement” for reward or punishment is functionally equivalent to “deserving” that reward or punishment. All three words serve basically the same semantic function.

      So, when you say to me, “Even if people don’t deserve praise or blame, praise and blame could still be useful.”, I would view that as a bug in your moral process. Normally, “unwarranted” praise or “undeserved” blame is considered a bad thing. (And you can replace any of those words with “worthiness” or “entitlement” and have the same problem, since they all produce similar meanings).

      Whenever I hear the hard determinist complaining about “just deserts”, I remind them that the proper expansion of that is “what one justly deserves”. And that cannot be a negative thing, because we would all agree that everyone deserves just treatment. Wouldn’t we?

      We know for a fact that the person could have done otherwise, IF they had made a different choice. And I would suggest that the phrase “could have done otherwise” ALWAYS implies the continuation: “if they had made a different choice”. All of our “could have’s”, and “should have’s” exist in the context of imagining different scenario’s than what actually occurred.

      The point of imagining these alternate scenarios is to review and learn from a past decision, especially one that did not turn out as we expected.

      Now, just to be clear, all of this takes place within a universe of perfectly reliable cause and effect. That’s where we, and our free will, happen to live.


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