If a would-be murderer had a heart attack just as the individual was aiming the gun to kill an innocent person, then that innocent individual would be the beneficiary of tremendous moral luck. It is the late Bernard Williams (1929-2003) who introduced the idea of moral luck. And I regard the idea of moral luck as being an ever so fecund idea.
In particular, I am rather intrigued by the fact that it would seem that at some point in life every person can benefit in some significant way from a considerable measure of moral luck. No one is so smart or so wealthy or so physically attractive that she or he could never in any way whatsoever benefit from an instance of moral luck. What is more, it is simply not possible for an individual to be so perceptive that she or he thereby rules out the possibility of moral luck with respect to her or his life. In other words, no one is so perceptive that she or he can foresee all that happens to him, whether it be good or bad.
Besides, all human beings make mistakes. And it can be a matter of tremendous moral luck that the mistake that an individual makes does not result in the person being worse-off in some significant way. Here is an example of such moral luck. In March of this year (2015), I made the mistake of not noticing that there had been a substantial change in the departure time of a flight that I had been taking for years. Instead, of the departure being the usual 9:30 a.m., the departure time was 8 a.m. So, when I showed up at the airport around 8:15 a.m., they were just about ready to close the doors; and I had not even gone through security for international flights to the U.S. Alas, I was the beneficiary of considerable luck because I had been taking that particular airline for countless many years and one of the airline’s supervisors was at the airport sitting at a desk that was a mere 15 feet from me and the security-flight examiner. Well, the supervisor recognized me immediately and quickly rushed over to escort me to the gate of departure. But for that gesture of goodwill on the part of the airline supervisor, I would have missed that flight back to the United States. And I very much needed to leave that day so that I could teach the next day.
Another example of my having moral good luck revolves around my teaching. Some marvelous bonds have been forged between me and students—bonds that have contributed substantially to my intellectual development.
Needless to say, I have experienced some instances of moral bad luck. But the cases of moral good luck that I have experienced far outweigh the instances of moral bad luck that I have experienced. And that, of course, is itself a tremendous measure of moral good luck.
A quite sublime form of moral good luck consists in having the good fortune of not being a person who is driven by bitterness or jealousy. I will allow that from time to time an incredibly bitter and jealous person might be extremely successful. But such instances are quite, quite rare. Moreover, such instances typically involve inflicting horrendous forms of harm upon others. Some may say that there is a very thin line between, on the one hand, being a person of goodwill who is driven to succeed and, on the other hand, being a person who is motivated by bitterness and jealousy in the endeavor to succeed. Let us allow that point. But the issue is not whether a line is thin. Rather, the issue is whether one is at all tempted to cross that line; and from the fact that a line is thin, what does not at all follow is that one will be or should be inclined to cross it. Indeed, a quite profound truth is that a person can be profoundly committed to not going from good to bad although doing so would be extremely easy.
As one might imagine, it is my considered view that having the capacity for considerable foresight can play a truly significant role with respect to experiencing moral good luck. And with rare exception, it is truly owing to moral luck that a person has the capacity for tremendous foresight very early on in her or his life. But the moral luck here is 2-tiered. That is because having a considerable capacity for foresight is utterly incompatible with being easily given to self-deception. And the scenarios are ever so few and far between where a person is better off being self-deceived.
I am extremely foundational in the following sense. I hold the view that our upbringing plays a truly major role in the formation of our moral sensibilities. If I am right, then another profound instance of moral luck is inextricably tied to having a good upbringing. On the one hand, there is the obvious truth that no child choses her or his parents (whether we are talking biological birth or adoption). On the other hand, there is the sublime truth few things have more of an impact upon a child than the child’s parental upbringing. Thus, from the standpoint of moral luck, having good parents is one of the most majestic instances of moral good luck that a person can experience. A pains me greatly that modernity takes that reality far less seriously than it should.
© 2015 Laurence Thomas