Review: Responsibility & Luck, by Diana Hsieh

Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame, by Diana Hsieh. Sedalia, CO: Philosophy in Action, 2013. 214 pp. $19.99 (paperback).

hsieh-moral-luckImagine people in three different scenarios:

1. Abe and Bill both get blinding drunk at a bar, leave at the same time, and drive home at the same rate of speed. Both run a (different) red light at the same time on the way home. By bad luck, a single mother with her two children is driving through the intersection along Abe’s course, and Abe rams his car into hers, killing her and her two children. Bill, on the other hand, makes it home without injuring anyone.

2. Alan and Betty walk along different piers at the same lake. Both are equally brave, but Betty sees a drowning boy in the lake and dives in and saves him. Alan does not see anyone in distress.

3. Adriana and Benjamin are born in very different circumstances. Adriana’s parents are wealthy, and she grows up with a good education and many opportunities to improve herself. She becomes a successful neurosurgeon. Benjamin’s parents neglect and abuse him and teach him how to steal for them. He becomes an armed robber who winds up in prison.

Why do we blame or praise one individual in each scenario more, given that so much of what they do and what they accomplish depends on luck? Why do we send Abe to prison and sing Betty’s praises, but not do the same for their counterparts? Such issues are the subject of Diana Hsieh’s book, Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame.

As Hsieh makes clear, one’s answers to questions about moral responsibility radically affect one’s approach to moral judgment, to criminal justice, and to political policy.

Decisions made in the criminal justice system depend substantially on moral judgments. Hsieh opens her book with the example of a Colorado man who, in 2005, while driving drunk at speeds exceeding one hundred miles per hour, struck and killed another driver. The judge, noting that the man had previously injured someone else while driving drunk and that he had dropped out of an alcohol rehabilitation program, sentenced him “to the maximum penalty of twelve years in prison.” Hsieh points out, “According to ordinary moral and legal standards of culpability, [the man] deserved to be blamed and punished for his reckless driving” (p. 1). Yet, according to certain theories with which Hsieh contends in her book, the man was instead himself “a victim of bad luck” (p. 2).

Moral judgments also play a key role in public policy. To draw on an earlier example, if a neurosurgeon is not fundamentally responsible for her success, then how can she deserve her large income? Why should she not be taxed in order to subsidize someone working in fast food? Indeed, if no one deserves his financial successes or failures—if such success or failure is fundamentally a matter of luck (in Barack Obama’s terms, “you didn’t build that”)—then it would seem that the best system is “an egalitarian political order” (p. 9).

In discussing the relationship of moral judgments to politics, Hsieh relates the ideas of Thomas Nagel, who forcefully developed the theory of “moral luck” beginning in 1979, to those of John Rawls, whose 1971 A Theory of Justice drives today’s egalitarian left.1 Summarizing Nagel’s views, she writes:

[L]uck, in Nagel’s sense, influences every action, outcome, or trait for which a person might be judged. An action is shaped by luck even if deliberately chosen because the alternatives open to the person were influenced, if not determined, by circumstances beyond his control. An outcome is shaped by luck even if it unfolds as planned because some chance intervention might have produced a different outcome. Even if cultivated purposefully, character is shaped by luck because a person’s most basic moral development might have been radically different if he were born into a different family or culture. So the problem of moral luck represents a sweeping challenge to the practice of moral praise and blame. (p. 7)

This conception of moral luck is also at the base of Rawls’s views. As Hsieh explains:

The problem of moral luck does not merely cast serious doubt on the justice of ordinary moral judgments of persons. By its method of undermining claims of desert, moral luck also offers crucial foundational support for an egalitarian political order. That should be of grave concern to anyone interested in individual liberty and rights.

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls famously argues for egalitarianism as a basic moral principle of social organization on the grounds that people do not earn the favorable or unfavorable circumstances of their birth, including their natural talents. (p. 9)

Hsieh’s book is extremely ambitious. It sets out not only to confirm the legitimacy of our “ordinary” moral judgments, but to offer a rich account of the philosophic fundamentals behind those judgments; to affirm the normal, desert-based judgments of the justice system; to elucidate the philosophic bases of criminal and civil law; and to show that, contra egalitarianism, people deserve what they earn.

In developing a positive theory of moral responsibility, Hsieh turns to Aristotle, finding that he solved most of the problems of moral luck long ago. “The heart of his theory consists of his control and epistemic conditions for voluntary action; they identify when a person can be justly praised or blamed on any grounds, moral or otherwise” (p. 69). The control condition means (in brief) that “the person is the source of his actions” (p. 70); he is not driven by outside forces or mental incapacity (such as might be caused by a brain tumor). The epistemic condition means that “a person must act with adequate knowledge of the nature of his actions to be morally responsible for them” (p. 79). An important aspect of the epistemic condition is that a person can be willfully blinded—as by losing his judgment by choosing to get drunk—and still properly be judged for his actions and their outcomes. Although Hsieh discusses many other aspects and details of Aristotle’s position—illustrating them with many fascinating examples—the essential theory comes down to this: A person is responsible for his actions if he took them voluntarily and knowingly.

But what of the thorny examples that Nagel raises that seemingly cast doubt on moral judgments as such? Hsieh’s main line of counterattack consists of showing that Nagel maintains an unrealistic standard of control: “Nagel implicitly upholds Kant’s ideal of ‘noumenal agency’ by requiring the morally responsible person to exert the all-encompassing power of ‘total control’” (p. 45). In other words, Nagel presumes that, to be morally responsible, a person must control every aspect of his moral development, the circumstances of his actions, and the outcomes of his actions. Clearly, such a standard has nothing to do with the real world. For example, although it is true that a drunk driver cannot control other drivers’ course and timing, he certainly can control his drinking and his own driving. Thus, if a drunk driver causes a fatal wreck, he is responsible for the consequences—even though those consequences are partly the result of luck.

Hsieh also explains that Nagel ignores the differences between types of moral judgments: “Nagel’s arguments for moral luck conflate the distinctive nature and purpose of moral judgments of actions, outcomes, and character. . . . That is unreasonable. These different kinds of moral judgment capture different aspects of a person’s moral nature” (p. 189). For example, we can judge the character of a drunk driver and the fact that he drove drunk independently of the consequences of his actions. A drunk driver who causes a fatal crash is properly judged for those consequences, even if another drunk driver luckily did not cause a fatal crash.

Hsieh’s ninth chapter, “Responsibility for Character,” is perhaps her most useful one for the lay reader. In it, she points out that, although different people face vastly different circumstances in life, each mature individual is fundamentally responsible for the development (or lack thereof) of his moral character. Hsieh explains how a person can mold his moral habits, his moral psychology, and other aspects of his character over time.

These aspects of Hsieh’s presentation—and many more not detailed here—add up to an overwhelming case against Nagel’s brand of moral luck (and, by extension, against Rawls’s brand of egalitarianism). They also offer valuable ideas for judging and therefore interacting with others and for developing one’s own moral character.

Although the book is readily accessible to a lay audience, at times it is repetitive, and sometimes its level of technical detail may make for slow and difficult reading. But the material is worth the effort.

In her preface, Hsieh writes, “I’m deeply proud of the results of my efforts. I didn’t just solve Thomas Nagel’s puzzling ‘problem of moral luck,’ I developed a rational and robust account of the nature and limits of moral responsibility.” Her pride is warranted. But, as Hsieh would insist, each reader of the book should judge for himself.


1. For an example of the left’s focus on inequality, see Wes Barrett, “White House Resets Focus to ‘Income Inequality,’ Amid ObamaCare Problems,” Fox News, January 6, 2014,

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