A Brief Note on the Coherence of Constitutive Luck

Lately I’ve been thinking about luck, mostly because I think luck is really the driving force behind most arguments against free will and moral responsibility.  The basic thought here is that we usually think that in order for someone to be morally responsible for something, they must have been in control of it.  The thing is, it seems quite plausible that all of our actions and decisions are traceable to factors outside our control—say, our genes combined with our environment.  If this is right, how can we be morally responsible for what we do?

I don’t think we can be, at least in the usual desert-entailing sense.  I think the problem of constitutive luck in particular is a big one.  The problem of constitutive luck is just this: really important parts of our constitutions—our character traits, dispositions, and so forth—are ultimately out of our control.  (We can decide, for instance, to be more generous in the future, but that decision is itself a function of our previous character traits, which are either out of our control or are themselves the deliberative upshots of previous character traits we had that were out of our control.)  But—putting aside worries from the situationist camp in social psychology—these things have a huge impact on what we do.  If being the way we are causes us to act the way we act, and being the way we are is ultimately out of our control, how can we be any more morally responsible for our good actions than other people are for their bad actions?  Or, in the terms that I think really capture the heart of the debate, how can it be any more intrinsicially valuable for other people to suffer for their bad actions—when these actions are a function of the way they are, which is ultimately out of their control—than it is for me to suffer?

The objection to constitutive luck I keep finding in the literature is this: it seems to be incoherent.  More specifically, to the extent that we think we are lucky to have any traits that are essential to our identity, we are mistaken, because we could not exist without them.  It makes no sense, on this view, to say that I am lucky to be a compassionate person, because I wouldn’t be me if I weren’t compassionate.

My problem is that I just don’t find this response convincing.  And I think the reason is that I just take a lot less stuff to be essential to my identity than these theorists do.  For instance, I definitely don’t think it’s constitutive of my identity that I am a compassionate person—I can coherently imagine being quite a cruel person while still being me.  But maybe critics of constitutive luck can agree with that.  Perhaps they would cite a different example of an essential property, something like developing from a particular sperm and egg pair.  It makes no sense, according to these theorists, to imagine having developed from a different sperm and egg pair—that just wouldn’t be you!

Perhaps I’m betraying my naturalistic commitments here, but it seems completely conceivable to me that I could have developed from a different sperm and egg and still have been me.  Maybe conceivability isn’t always a good guide to possibility, but I don’t think that’s true in this case.  Why?  Because—and I expect this to be controversial—all I take myself to be is a particular stream of consciousness.  All I think I am is a bit of awareness.  Maybe that awareness is realized in the brain by a particular set of neurons that stay with me throughout my life.  If so, it seems possible that those neurons could have developed from a different set of genes.

Am I missing something?  Maybe I’m not familiar enough with the philosophy of mind and personal identity to see what’s problematic about this thought, but it doesn’t seem obviously wrong to me.  If I am just a particular awareness, then it is coherent to think that it is a matter of luck for me that I have all of my other traits—the traits that lead me to perform particular actions and not others, actions which we typically think make me deserving of reward or punishment.  Does anyone have any thoughts on this?



  1. Adam Lerner says:

    Hi Luke,

    Thanks a lot for your thoughts! That’s right — one way to argue against free will is to argue that determinism is true, and that free will is incompatible with there being only one possible future. But the people I’m concerned with in this post are okay with that. These philosophers are called “compatibilists”, because they believe free will (and moral responsibility) are compatible with determinism. Determinism poses no threat whatsoever to our freedom, on their view. All that matters for them is that our mental states bear a particular relationship to our actions (e.g., that we intended them, that they represent our “real self”, or something like that).

    Another way to argue that we don’t have the kind of free will required for moral responsibility (the kind of free will, say, that would make it intrinsically valuable to punish me were I to do a bad thing), is to argue that what we do is ultimately a product of who we are, and who we are is ultimately out of our control. This is the problem of constitutive luck. The notion of luck being used here isn’t one of mere physical chance. Rather, it’s one of metaphysical possibility combined with lack of control — is it possible that I could have, in some nearby possible universe, been different in some way than I actually am? If so, how different? And isn’t it ultimately out of my control that I am the way I am? Furthermore, isn’t it ultimately out of the criminal’s control that he is the way he is? If so, doesn’t it seem a bit parochial to think it would be an intrinsically better thing that he should suffer than that I should suffer?

    The question I’m concerned with in this post is how far that kind of reasoning can get us. I tend to think it can get us pretty far. Some people think it can’t — they think there is some limit on the way I could have been different and still have been me, so I shouldn’t think it’s merely a matter of luck that I am the way I am (in some respects).

    Thanks again for commenting,

  2. The way I understand it, the argument against free will is essentially a determinist argument that posits 1) we’re all made up of particles (molecules, atoms, quarks, and so on) and 2) if we understood all the laws governing physics and the movement of those particles, then everything that we know is inevitable, and free will is just an illusion.

    The idea is that if we knew the arrangement of particles in the earliest moment of the universe, and we knew how those particles would behave in space, then we would know what the universe looks like at any moment in time we could want to know about, including this moment. So you and I are inevitable products of a process that began billions of years ago. In this sense, luck has little to do with it, unless you’re referring to some configuration of particles in the early universe.