A Shelter from Luck: The Morality System Reconstructed

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The “morality system,” Bernard Williams writes, is “a deeply rooted and still powerful misconception of life.” It combines, in ways that Williams finds problematic, certain quite special conceptions of value, motivation, obligation, practical necessity, responsibility, voluntariness, blame, and guilt. But why does the morality system combine just these ideas in the way it does? And what exactly is wrong with it? This essay seeks to answer these questions by reconstructing the morality system from the ground up, starting by explaining why the ideas it harnesses are there to be harnessed in the first place. The first part (§1) considers vindicatory explanations, in terms of highly generic and near universal needs, of four crucial building blocks for the morality system: the moral/non-moral distinction, the idea of obligation, the voluntary/involuntary distinction, and the practice of blame. This part performs a double function: it explains why these conceptual practices are there to be harnessed by the system in the first place, and it offers us a way of making sense of them that is independent of the system. The second part (§2) is a vindicatory explanation, relative to the need for ultimate fairness, of the way in which the morality system combines and refines these building blocks in order to provide a shelter from luck. Reconstructing the system in light of this organizing ambition gives us a good grasp on why it has the shape it has, and what the different components of the system contribute. The third part (§3) is a critique of the resulting construction: I argue that the ultimate problem with the morality system is its frictionless purity. It robs valuable concepts of their grip on the kind of world we live in, and, by insisting on purity from contingency, threatens to issue in nihilism about value and scepticism about agency. To overcome these problems, it is not enough to accept that contingency and luck pervade human life. We also need to revise our understanding of what the facts of contingency and luck entail. In particular, we need to abandon the purist attitude that blinds us to alternative ways of making sense of human values and agency—alternatives that naturalistic but vindicatory explanations can provide.
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First archival date: 2019-06-06
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