July 23, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero is fascinated by the idea of "moral luck." It's an idea that was first developed by philosopher Bernard Williams and later elaborated by Thomas Nagel.

I think it works something like this: We tend to praise or blame people for doing or not doing certain things as if the whole thing was up to the individuals in question. But in the real world, what people do or don't do is often as much a matter of chance and circumstances as choice.

Take the example of a soldier who commits atrocities in a war. Would he or she have done the same thing if a war never happened? Or what if people who supported a dictatorship and did bad things in its service happened to be born in a different country or under a different political system?

People who talk about moral luck often use the example of a car accident. Most of us have probably zoned out at a stop sign or two or neglected to obey a speed limit sign. Driver X runs a light and nothing happens, while when Driver Y does it, innocent people are killed. Both are blameworthy for not paying attention, but the results are vastly different. We tend to blame Driver Y more, but both their actions were the same. The main difference is luck.

All El Cabrero knows is that the main reason I didn't get into a lot more trouble as a kid than I did had more to do with luck than anything else. Virtue is often a matter of chance and opportunity.

Although he doesn't use the term "moral luck," Stanford social psychologist Philip Zimbardo (of Stanford Prison Experiment fame) sums it up pretty well in his book The Lucifer Effect:

If you were placed in a strange and novel cruel Situation within a powerful System, you would probably not emerge as the same person who entered that crucible of human nature. You would not recognize your familiar image if it were held next to the mirror image of what you had become. We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces... For some, that belief is valid. They are usually the minority, the rare bird, those who I will designate as heroic... For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion of invulnerability. Paradoxically, maintaining that illusion only serves to make one more vulnerable to manipulation by failing to be sufficiently vigilant against attempts of undesired influence subtly practice on them.

So good luck!

GET HAPPY. As more economists and social scientists research the link or lack thereof between conventional economics and human happiness, some free market fundamentalists are getting nervous.

BUBBLE, BUBBLE, TOIL AND TROUBLE. Here's progressive economist Jared Bernstein on "the shampoo economy."

LOCAL FOODS, LAZY OR NOT. Here's another dispatch from the growing (no pun intended) movement to consume more local food.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, food banks around the country are increasing leaning on gleanings from local farms.

WELFARE FOR THE RICH was the subject of a talk by David Cay Johnston in WV last night.


1 comment:

camsex said...

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