Moral Luck

Thursday September 8, 2005

It is depressingly familiar. In the wake of hurricane Katrina, the breakdown in law and order, the rise in incidents of human cruelty, brutality, barbarism. Everywhere it is the same: when the fragile structures that sustain us fall away, there is the risk of a descent into the worst of human life. In Britain as the chaos of the Second World War raged, despite nostalgic myth-making that insists that the nation ‘pulled together’, in fact crime rates soared. When worlds crumble, the virtues to which we hold risk crumbling as well.

And here, as I look out over the garden in autumn, I find myself wondering: what if the fragile balance of my world were destroyed? What would I do? Of what would I be capable?

We tend to see our ethics as something that we possess. Our goodness, we assume, is something that we own, that cannot be taken away from us. We console ourselves with the thought that ‘I am a good person.’ But I myself am not so sure.

It was the philosopher Bernard Williams who introduced the disturbing idea of moral luck, the idea that ethics has more to do with good fortune than we might wish to believe. The idea was taken up by Thomas Nagel, another philosopher, and further developed also by Williams. There’s not space here to go into great detail, and anyway, the ever-wonderful Wikipedia has an excellent article on the subject, setting out at least three different ways in which we can be morally lucky. Put simply, these are as follows:

  1. We are lucky in that the results of our actions do not turn out badly (resultant moral luck)
  2. We are lucky in that we find ourselves in environments that are conducive to moral actions (circumstantial moral luck)
  3. We are lucky because we have had the right genes/upbringing/education etc. that might predispose us to being moral (constitutive moral luck)

Certainly this is one of the subjects over which philosophers like to split hairs; but beyond philosophical hair-splitting, this is something well worth reflecting on. Speaking personally, by any standards, I have been morally very lucky. I have not tortured, I have not murdered, I have not abused… no, perhaps not. But then there has been nobody to put the electrodes in my hands, nobody who has ordered me to strip another bare, nobody who has put a gun in my hands, forced me to point it at a third party, and demanded that I shoot. This, certainly, can be called good fortune: circumstantial moral luck. But neither have I been taught that these things are necessary, or dulled to the human suffering through my own suffering. I have not been brought up in a world where the terrible logic of suffering and retribution prevails. This is constitutive moral luck. And I can recall times when I have taken risks, and when things have turned out well, rather than badly, times when, had things turned out otherwise, I would have been considered culpable. This is resultant moral luck.

Because of the accidents of my birth, the accidents of my life, I can say that I have not lived as badly as I might. But am I justified in feeling proud of my own behaviour? What if? That is the question. What if I were to find myself in a terrible situation that did make appalling demands upon me? What if something I chose to do turned out badly, resulting in, for example, a terrible loss of life? What if I had been brought up differently? Or, to put it another way, how much of the goodness on which I might pride myself is actually mine and how much is just the many accidents of circumstance? Can I be secure in the thought that I am ‘good’? The answer, if I am to be honest, must simply be ‘no’. Who can be secure in their own goodness? Ethics is not some kind of an inalienable possession. It is not something we either have or have not.

We remember all too easily that we can be murdered, but we forget – or deny – that we can murder. We recollect with a shudder that we can be tortured, but fail to ask whether we ourselves could be torturer.

Once I was talking to a Buddhist friend. Murder, he said, is wrong. I agreed, but said, ‘Surely there are circumstances in which you might murder?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘You are certain?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘How can you be certain?’ I asked. And then, when he didn’t reply, I confessed. ‘I am not certain. I could murder. I’m human, and it is one of those things that human beings do. Who’s to say that I couldn’t do something like this?’ He looked at me for a while. ‘This conversation is making me uncomfortable,’ he said. ‘Let us drop the subject.’ And so we did.

Goodness is the most fragile of things. It grows well in certain soils; but it transplants badly. I am not certain that I could maintain those scant virtues that I have if circumstances changed around me. I do not see how anybody could be sure of this.

I think of Buddhist teaching on conditionality: this being, that becomes… Given these sets of conditions, something else naturally arises. What, then, are the conditions that sustain my goodness, such as it is? And how could this goodness last if the conditions changed? To the first question I can find some answers: living in a more or less stable society, friendship, meditation, reflection, and the realisation that I am not above the worst of human action, given the right conditions, a legitimate fear of the possibilities that are mine, by virtue of being human. As to the second question, I simply cannot know.

What this means for me is that, whilst conditions for growing are good, it is important to tend this most fragile of things, such that it might transplant more easily into new soil. Because none of us know when the conditions that sustain our virtues are going to change.


Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles