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TAS Seminar (fifth in a series): moral luck, depression, and productiveness


This second installment on moral luck is about analyzing cases of moral luck. Actually, I’m really just going to focus on one case and one variant on it. Here’s the first installment.

In my TAS talk, I asked the seminar participants if they could think of cases in which a person’s moral assessment was affected by something out of the assessed person’s control. Here’s an example I got. I’m going to state it essentially as I heard it—despite some ambiguities in the statement—because resolution of those ambiguities is part of the analysis of the case.

Informal account: Suppose that a person is suffering from clinical depression and that the causes of the depression are outside of the depressed person’s control. Suppose that the depression is severe enough to make him incapable of action. Being incapable of action, he can’t work. Since he can’t work, he can’t exercise the virtue of productiveness (which is a virtue on the Objectivist account of the virtues). Default on the exercise of a virtue is a moral failing. So if the depressed person can’t exercise the virtue of productiveness, he doesn’t exercise it, and if he doesn’t exercise it, he has a moral failing. It follows that a fact outside of the depressed person’s control deprives of him of the capacity for virtue, and determines our negative moral assessment of him. Whether we blame him or not, in not exercising a major moral virtue, he is morally defective or deficient.

I think this informal account can be represented as a hypothetical syllogism as follows:

1. If a person is clinically depressed due to causes outside of his control, he is incapable of action.

2. If a person is incapable of action, he is incapable of productive work.

3. If a person is incapable of productive work, he is incapable of exercising the virtue of productiveness.

4. If a person is incapable of exercising the virtue of productiveness (or any moral virtue), he has a moral failing.

5. If a person has a moral failing, we are entitled to make a negative moral assessment of him.

6. Hence if a person is clinically depressed due to causes outside of his control, we are entitled to make a negative moral assessment of him.

If we then suppose that a specific person fits the description in the antecedent of (6), we can infer the consequent. The consequent violates the Control Principle I discussed in a previous post, and thereby entails the existence of moral luck.

In my view, this argument is unsound, and its unsoundness exemplifies a pattern behind many arguments against CP and for moral luck.

An initial problem: Depending on one’s view of the psychology of depression, one might contest the idea that depression ever arises entirely from causes beyond one’s control. If carefully handled, I think this may well be a legitimate move—I think it probably applies to a very large number of cases of depression—but invoking it would take us too far afield and into overly complex territory. So I note it to set it aside because whether true or false, we don’t really need it for the case at hand. For present purposes, let’s just grant that people can be depressed from causes completely out of their control—or else stipulate that that’s the case under discussion—and that at a sufficiently severe level, depression adversely affects motivation to a very drastic degree.

How drastic a degree? If we consider premise (1), it’s clear that there’s an ambiguity in the consequent—in the idea of an “incapacity for action.” Let’s distinguish two sub-cases here. Either (a) we take the quoted phrase absolutely literally, or (b) we take it in a somewhat weaker-than-literal sense.

(1a) If we take it literally, then the depression in the example has destroyed the agent’s capacity to act. In that case, all bets are off for moral assessment. If the agent can’t act at all, then nothing is in the agent’s control. In that case, CP is left in place, and there’s no need to affirm moral luck. We simply mourn the person’s fate and the solution becomes psychiatric care.

(1b) Suppose we take it less literally. On this construal, the point is not that depression utterly destroys the agent’s capacity to act, but that it is sufficiently debilitating as to destroy the agent’s capacity for successful productive work. The agent may well be able to perform various actions, but cannot perform or complete a single work-productive action (or a sufficient number of them). For now (I’ll end up revising this), let’s construe this to say that the person cannot perform the actions necessary to keep the job he has or to get a new one. Call this the action* sense of action. So we have to modify (1) accordingly, understanding “action” as “action*.”

That brings us to premise (2). If a person is incapable of action*, it now seems plausible enough (indeed trivial) to say that he’s incapable of productive work. Let’s grant this for now as well (I’ll end up revising this, too).

What about premise (3)? If a person is incapable of productive work, is he incapable of exercising the virtue of productiveness?

My answer is “no.” In “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand draws a distinction between productive work (the action) and productiveness (the virtue).[1] In a recent discussion note in Reason Papers, Carrie-Ann and I defend the view that productiveness is the lifelong trait that enables the agent to make productive work the central value in his life. On our view, the exercise of the virtue of productiveness is not restricted to times and places when and where the agent is actually engaged in (the activity of) productive work. It’s expressed in any action that enables the agent to make productive work central to his life, whether or not that action is itself an instance of productive work. For instance, sleeping is not an instance of productive work, but the decision to sleep early and rise early may be an instance of the virtue of productiveness: it may be an instance of the agent’s making the most productive use of his time. (I don’t mean, of course, that the virtue of productiveness requires compliance with the “early to bed and early to rise” maxim in all cases. I just mean that the maxim can be an exemplification of it in a given case.)

A proviso we didn’t mention in the RP discussion: judgments concerning the agent’s productiveness have to be relativized to a realistic assessment of his capacities and options. If the only action open to me is X, but X functions to make productive work central to my life, then X is an instance of productiveness, even for values of X that for most people most of the time seem too rudimentary or primitive to count as the exercise of a virtue. For most of us most of the time, managing to swallow our own saliva does not seem like the exercise of a virtue. But if you lost your swallow-reflex, and had to re-learn it from scratch, trying-to-swallow-your-own-saliva might be an instance of heroic virtue. Likewise, walking, talking, or turning one’s head.

Suppose that I’m depressed. I am incapable of action* and can’t go to work. But I can still think. I can cognize my situation, and can make efforts to deal with it, even if just in thought. So I am capable of volitional action. Suppose I do make such efforts, efforts aimed at overcoming my depression, and restoring productive work to its central place in my life. Suppose ex hypothesi that we assume that I am incapable of productive work right now (or for the foreseeable future).  Even if we make this assumption, the fact remains that I am exercising the virtue of productiveness because I’m doing what’s required to restore productive work to its proper place in my life. Even if restoration wasn’t an instance of productive work, I would insist that it was an instance of

Hence premise (3) is false, and its falsity renders the rest of the argument irrelevant as evidence for moral luck.

In fact, the depressed person who can’t work (in the conventional sense of get or keep a job) can’t, on the Objectivist view, be adversely judged for a lack of productiveness unless she volitionally gives in to her depression. Even if she does give in, our negative judgment of her would have to be tailored to her adverse circumstances. I myself was clinically depressed about 25 years ago, and it was a horrible experience, almost impossible to describe to those who haven’t experienced it. Having had it, I’m apt to temper my judgments of others undergoing it (without going so far as to suspend judgment entirely). If she doesn’t give in—if her action is the best it could be under the circumstances—she isn’t blameworthy, and (pace many Aristotelians) she doesn’t fall short of what moral virtue requires. There is, on this picture, no moral failing at all. There is no room for moral luck, either. The case is perfectly compatible with CP.

The depression example prompts reflection on at least one variant, one that will end up requiring some amendments to what I’ve just said above. About thirteen years ago, a friend of mine developed a form of brain tumor—malignant by location as the medical terminology has it. It rendered her unable to work at a conventional job for the entire duration of her illness. And given the nature of the condition (and the effects of the treatment), she has no prospect of returning to a conventional job at any time in the foreseeable future. So at face value, it seems pointless to describe her actions as restoring productive work to a central place in her life, since (in the conventional sense, at least) that doesn’t seem possible. How to handle this case?

My inclination is to revisit the (conventional) idea of productive work and broaden it an unconventional way. The basic idea behind productive work is that the agent is producing the causal means of her own self-sustenance. At a minimum, to have a case of productive work, we need a producer enacting a process that yields some discrete product, where both process and product serve causally to promote the producer’s existence qua human, and the activity as a whole serves a plan of some kind. (I don’t mean this as an exhaustive analysis of productive work.) This broad conception of productive work doesn’t require having a job in the conventional sense (as I earlier assumed). In the broad sense I intend, a woman who fights every day against illness to sustain her life and sanity is producing the means of her own sustenance in a much clearer and more obvious way than many conventional paradigms of productive success. So it doesn’t matter that such a person will never have a paying job. What matters is that she is working to keep herself alive.[2]

Have I overbroadened “productive work” to include all virtuous action? After all, even leisure promotes the agent’s life and flourishing. So is leisure on my view a form of productive work? That implication would trivialize both concepts.

I don’t think the implication follows. As I see it—and implicitly, as I’ve described it—productive work is scheduled, structured activity in the service of a plan. A leisure activity may well be planned (you can plan a trip, or schedule time for a walk, etc.) but leisure qua leisure is unscheduled and unstructured. In other words, the leisurely moments of a leisure activity are unplanned downtime—they’re pure rest from productive work. To the extent that you are planning a leisure activity (not engaging in it), that is productive work. It may not be a job—it’s not “work related” in the conventional sense—but it is still work in a different sense. Booking a ticket to your favorite vacation spot is work. Vacationing at your favorite vacation spot is leisure.

This account makes it sound as though we spend most of our lives engaged in productive work, whether on the job or not. That, I think, is what Rand meant by saying that productive work is the central organizing value of a human life. Productive work on her view (and mine) is inescapable even in organizing leisure in the right way. We only stop producing for brief moments of rest, like the brief rests in a musical piece. Otherwise, whether we’re at work or not, we’re very often producing—whether we’re paid for it or not, whether we do it in the conventional way or not, whether we do it in the service of fun or seriousness, whether it’s socially recognized as work or not, whether it’s valued or not. (I am not certain that Rand would agree with my way of putting things, but that by itself wouldn’t deter me from putting things as I have.)

I think the above analysis of productive work is very clearly applicable to my friend’s life. When she is actively coping with her condition, she engages in work. When she rests, she is at leisure. Note that even in quantitative terms were she to spend more time resting than working, in qualitative terms it’s the work that does the causal work in sustaining her life, not the rest. So work is central even in that case.

All of this may seem very distant from CP and moral luck, but I don’t think it is. At least half of the problem with the literature on moral luck derives from its extremely conventional conception of the demands of morality—a conventionality abetted by philosophers like Bernard Williams who (in my view) confected and then institutionalized a straw man conception of Morality for purposes of the debate on moral luck, and then spent a good deal of the debate discussing “it” and knocking it down.

Whether you buy that diagnosis or not, I think my general point remains true: philosophers have discussed moral luck by helping themselves to large moral assumptions that they’ve then used to underwrite their commitments to moral luck. I’ve helped myself to some assumptions, too. But that just suggests that the debate about moral luck takes place in the context of broader assumptions about the nature of morality. I’ll return to that when I discuss more cases (the conventionally discussed ones) in the next post.

(Thanks to Carrie-Ann Biondi, Nathaniel Branch, Kate Herrick, and Shawn Klein for very helpful discussion of these issues.)

[1] NB: The virtue is “productiveness,” not “productivity.” The latter term seems to me to involve maximizing assumptions lacking in the former, but I don’t think Rand’s egoism is a maximizing ethic, despite the common tendency to describe it as one.

[2] This is what I take Rand to mean when she says that “production is the application of reason to the problem of survival” (Capitalism, p. 17). I think Rand clearly meant to distinguish “productiveness” (the virtue) from “productive work” (the activity), but I am not sure whether she had something specific in mind in using the terms “production” and “productive achievement.” Off-the-cuff, I would say that whereas “production” names the activity open to every functioning human being, “productive achievement” refers to productive activities at the highest levels of human functioning, open to those with great native talent, under conditions favorable for the cultivation and expression of those talents. But this is a very tentative impression; I wouldn’t lay much weight on it.



  1. djr says:

    I’ll wait to see how the third post develops these ideas before responding more fully, but I think your way of putting things here is helpful in focusing what I suspect is the fundamental issue: you distinguish between being blameworthy and falling short of what virtue requires. I take it that the more important question is not whether one may ever be blameworthy for what is beyond one’s control (though that remains a possibility), but whether factors beyond one’s control may lead one to fall short of what virtue requires. If one thinks, with Nussbaum, Williams, and (many? most?) Aristotelians, that what virtue requires extends considerably beyond having appropriate intentions and making a sincere effort to act on them, then success in doing what virtue requires and avoiding what it prohibits will be more dependent on factors beyond one’s control. On an Aristotelian conception of morality (or “ethics” in Williams-speak), what virtue requires is what is necessary for the agent’s flourishing or well-being, where that consists at least largely in certain forms of active agency. Unless well-being just consists, as perhaps on a Stoic view, in doing the best thing available in the circumstances, then it’s hard to see how only those factors within an agent’s control can determine her success or failure. But it may well be that the Objectivist has (i) a theory of virtue that is still thoroughly eudaimonistic, but (ii) a conception of flourishing that doesn’t depend on factors beyond the agent’s control, yet (iii) is not a version of the Stoic view. Or perhaps I’m misconceiving the issue!

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Once again, I think you’ve focused the issue nicely, so I’ll have to take account of what you say here when I do the third post. One of the last posts I’d planned in this series was one where I talked about Objectivism and/versus both Aristotle and Kant. It hadn’t occurred to me discuss Stoicism, and I probably don’t know enough about Stoicism to come up with anything worthwhile, so I can’t quite speak to (iii) above. But for now, just another IOU.


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