Monday, June 12, 2006

Reflecting on Failure and Morality

It might be the result of a deep-down dower disposition, but when I saw a philosopher opining about failure, it caught my attention. Christopher Tollephsen remarks on a handful of possible implications drawn from failure, the more interesting of which to me was in the realm of philosophical ethics. His primary examples are two powerhouses in the field.

In philosophical ethics, two of the most important treatments of failure are those of Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, in their somewhat different essays, both titled "Moral Luck." Williams, for example, argues in his essay that in some cases it is only success or failure that justifies or disjustifies an agent's choices.

In other words, we are not in a position to judge an act morally until the outcome is known. We cannot tell the future and the “luck” of events will decide whether a decision was justified. Again Tollephsen notes:

Were this so, moral judgment would be hostage to the possibility of failure, a point Nagel argues for as well: many ventures are morally justified in part by whether they succeed or not, but success and failure depend upon much that is not in our control and that is intrinsically unforeseeable; the inevitability of failure thus conditions our moral lives in deep and possibly disturbing ways. Moral luck just is this phenomenon of being held morally responsible for what is beyond our control.

In contrast to Williams and Nagel, he concludes:

I think that the moral to be drawn is precisely the one Williams and Nagel urge we give up: the thought that morality is a matter of the heart.

I become more and more of an Aristotelian every time I read of such moral conundrums. While I do not think there is theological space to completely lay aside certain utilitarian ends or deontological concerns, I think more and more that morality has primarily to do with what I can directly affect-my heart.


Becky said...


Thanks for your reflection on this topic. I agree that we cannot operate without some sort of long-view (i.e. utilitarian) or deontological concerns, but that it is our character and our heart that is the seat of ethics.

I've not read much of Williams, but I have read his treatment of utilitarianism where he rejects the view because of our integrity (which is a serious and important objection). I'd be interested to find that essay on Moral Luck. Any leads?

Phil Steiger said...


Where I was able to get hold of the essay was in William's book/collection of essays titled, "Moral Luck."