Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Moral Luck; or Being Responsible for Things Beyond Your Control

The lack of money is the root of all evil.

Mark Twain

Absolute Moral Responsibility?

Most of us, especially Christians, have normally have a sense of the absoluteness of moral responsibility, that ultimately, the buck must stop at our will. To be able to pass the buck on to circumstances or one’s environment is normally intolerable within most Christian ethical thinking. The idea of the absoluteness of moral responsibility has lead many Christians to focus on intentions or the will as the true source of moral responsibility. We cannot possibly be responsible for external circumstances or effects of beyond our control which we cannot foresee or intent, praise or blame must ultimately stop at the intentions. Perhaps it is Immanuel Kant who articulated this insight most clearly when he said in his The Metaphysic of Ethics,

… A good will is esteemed to be so, not by the effects which it produces, nor by its fitness for accomplishing any given end, but by its mere good volition, i.e. it is good in itself; and it therefore to be prized incomparably higher for its own sake… Even if it should happen that, owing to an unhappy conjuncture of events, this good will were deprived of power to execute its benign intent, still this good will (by which is not meant a wish) would, like a diamond, shine in itself, and by virtue of its native lustre.

It is perhaps this insight which makes my literature professor’s and Mark Twain’s remark so outrageous. How can something so circumstantial, like the lack of money, determine one’s sin or virtue? Surely one’s wealth is a matter of, literally, fortune, which is beyond’s one’s ability to determine. But yet, when we consider a rather clever saying from Margaret Thatcher,

No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.

It seems that money does cover a multitude of sins, heck, it can even buy you (literally!) a place in the Gospels! This perhaps ought to give us pause as to the idea of the transcendence of moral responsibility, an ultimate brute metaphysical fact of humanity, rather than a contingent fact of being material beings, subject to the contingency of the material circumstances.

Moral Luck and a Thought Experiment

There has been much discussion in contemporary philosophy about the idea of moral luck. Moral luck is the philosophical thesis that claims that our moral responsibility often, if not always, exceeds our control, and that we are normally responsible for many things beyond our control. Moral luck normally operates by considering counterexamples of ordinary situations where we judge someone to be appropriately morally guilty even though it is for an act which was beyond their control. Here’s one thought experiment which I came up with.

Imagine that there was a drunk driver speeding across town and comes across school crossing with many children walking across it. The children scattered and miraculously enough, they all managed to dodge the drunk driver. Afterwards, if the drunk driver is caught, he would at most be charged with reckless endangerment of life, or drunk driving, etc. Maybe he’ll feel guilty about what might have been, but then after some reflection, he’ll probably just be more careful next time.

Imagine the same drunk driver, speeding across the the same town and coming across the same school crossing with the same children crossing the road. You can even imagine that the driver took the exact same path across the school crossing. But this time, one of the child, instead of deciding to dash say forward, dashings backwards instead, and unluckily! The child is hit by the drunk driver and is killed. The drunk driver is caught, he’s charged with manslaughter, he’s sent to prison where he tormented with guilt for having taken the life of a child, etc.

Naturally, we would judge the man’s reaction in the second scenario to be both appropriate and morally correct. We can’t possibly imagine him coming out of his car to scream at the dead child, “Stupid child! Why did you run that way?” We do think that it is both right and proper for him to feel guilty and take responsibility for causing the death of the child.

But yet, how can we possibly justify his taking of moral responsibility? The driver’s action in the second case is exactly identical to the action of the driver in the first case. The only difference is how the child reacted, which is beyond the driver’s control. Let me put this more clearly:

(1) We believe that there is a difference in moral responsibility in the two cases. The guilt of the first case is different from the guilt of the second case

(2) There is however absolutely no difference in the action of the drivers in both cases. The only difference that caused a difference in moral judgment is because of a change in an external circumstance beyond the driver’s control, i.e. which direction the child decided to dash.

So, the astonishing and startling conclusion from this is that, we often take responsibility for things which are beyond our control, and that virtue and moral standing is a matter of luck, a question of the contingency of external circumstances.

On the Meaning of Moral Responsibility

Of course, this raises a lot of questions about the meaning of moral responsibility, agency and punishment, etc. As ever, the question of moral agency and acts is a complex one, which requires a sort of literary judgement than a simple, whether you intended it or was it within your control. I’ve already hinted above that we judge the driver’s response in guilt to causing the death of the child as something appropriate, because of his, though tragic, involvement in causing a death and that it is entirely proper for him to grief at having played a part in it, and that guilt and grief are appropriate response in the face of having caused the death, etc.

Secondly, and I think that moral agency is inherently contingent, subject to a thousand and one factors beyond the “self”, embedded as it were in a vast web of interlocking relationships. Thus, money does cover a multitude of sins, because you need money to survive and feed your physical being before you can talk about growing your spiritual being and morals and virtues. Not forgetting that you need money to provide the conditions to educate children into the higher virtues. Thus, the materiality of our conditions means that moral agency is ultimately also a matter of material contingency which requires development and conditioning.

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This entry was posted on July 11, 2010 by in Moral Luck.
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