Sometimes, we’re just plain lucky that the right outcome, or at least not the wrong outcome, has come about. Such as when you don’t put the handbrake on properly in your car, and it starts rolling backward, but by great good fortune it misses the toddler on the footpath behind you. Everyone is shaken, but no one is hurt, and most of all, no one seems to be to blame. It seems to be a matter of moral luck.
And sometimes, even though something we do is wrong, if later on it brings about something good, then we accept that the wrong thing may be morally justified, and not so morally wrong after all. But at the point at which we do the bad thing, we can’t know how events will turn out. If events turn out well, then our action is justified, but if they don’t, then it is not. And it’s a matter of moral luck as to whether or not our action will ever be justified.
So far so good?
Philosopher Bernard Williams wrote about moral luck, and used an example which has become famous, in moral philosophy, to illustrate the idea of moral luck. Imagine a man who has a wife and children, and further imagine that he could become a talented painter. Let’s call this painter, “Gauguin.” Imagine that his art means so much to him that he does a morally bad thing, leaving his wife and children in poverty, and heading off to say, Tahiti, where his art flourishes, and he paints works that are now recognised as masterpieces. Williams says that at the time when Gauguin left his wife and children, in order to pursue painting, it was a matter of moral luck as to whether his decision was justified. It depended on whether or not his art flourished. If it did, then his decision was justified, but if it didn’t, then it wasn’t.*
Whatever. For me, the project doesn’t even get off the ground in the first place. Gauguin may or may not have become a great artist, but that simply would not ever justify abandoning his wife and children. They were left destitute, and without any means of support. Personally, I can understand someone walking out on their partner; people change, relationships break down, stuff happens. It was however a somewhat different matter back in 1885; women then simply did not have access to earning an income in the way that women do now in 2009. But I can’t see how walking out on responsibilities to your young children can be justified, at all. It wouldn’t matter if you subsequently painted the greatest painting ever. Art does not justify moral dereliction.
All the more so in the wretched case of Roman Polanski. I don’t care how great a filmmaker he is. The fact is that he was convicted of raping a thirteen year old child, and he fled from justice. And I am sickened not only by his outrageous moral wrongdoing, but even more by the swathe of rape-apologists who have been trying to justify his behaviour. They should be ashamed of themselves.
* NB: this is my take on Williams’ account of Gauguin’s story and its relevance to moral luck. You can access the original through Google books: Moral Luck.