- Two Responses to Moral Luck
I am going to discuss two fictional characters, each of whom embodies opposite reactions to the problem of moral luck identified by Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams. The two characters are Noah Cross, played by John Huston in Roman Polanski's film Chinatown, and Father Zosima from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. Cross takes the existence of moral luck as a reason to fly from moral responsibility. Zosima leaps in the opposite direction, toward unlimited moral responsibility. The responses are the same to the extent that each embodies an alternative and a challenge to normative ethics. However, Zosima's ethic of universal responsibility and altruism is opposed in practice and sentiment to Cross's moral skepticism. It is striking that the possibility of the former reply to moral luck is not one that philosophers working on the problem of moral luck have foreseen.
Moral luck "occurs when an agent can be correctly treated as an object of moral judgment, despite the fact that a significant aspect of what he is assessed for depends on factors beyond his control."1 Moral luck can take several forms, two of which are relevant to the thoughts of [End Page 434] my characters. The first is luck in circumstances epitomized by Nagel's Germans who collaborated with the Nazis in the nineteen-thirties and forties.2 Had some of these Germans chosen to move to Argentina during the early Weimar years to take up farming, they would never have faced the pressure to acquiesce in and support the tyrannical regime that later ruled them in Germany. Most of us in the West have never and will likely never face the choice of whether to risk remaining aloof from a genocidal government in our countries. Many Germans who did face this choice became guilty by virtue of aiding and abetting the regime by continuing to work, pay taxes, or serve in the military and civil service. We who have never lived under an immoral government are morally lucky, for in different circumstances, many of us would also probably become collaborators in evil.
The second pertinent kind of moral luck is luck in results. Three friends part ways after a night of heavy drinking. None of these men should be driving, but just one of them inadvertently hits and kills a child with his car on his way home. Only this man is apt to be thrown in prison for what he has done, even though all three men were equally careless in deciding to drive. Even if the other men are charged for drinking and driving, their punishments will be much less severe. The judgment of the criminal law in this example reflects our sense of blameworthiness. The one man is profoundly guilty, even though the only difference between his action and that of his friends lies in the consequences of the same bad action (driving drunk) performed with the same heedlessness. His friends are morally lucky, and he is morally unlucky.
Noah Cross is the villain of Chinatown. He is a wealthy man of patrician bearing who has helped the city of Los Angeles grow by bringing water to the city from distant rivers. During the film, he plots to keep water in the reservoirs, fake a drought, and force development of a new aqueduct that will make land he is secretly purchasing on its projected route much more valuable. Protagonist J. J. "Jake" Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, finds Cross out while working as a private detective for Cross's estranged daughter Evelyn, played by Faye Dunaway. As Gittes discovers, Evelyn is a victim of incest and gave birth to her father's child many years ago. Evelyn asks Gittes for help escaping to Mexico, resolving to free her daughter from Cross's control. In a third-act confrontation, Cross demands that Gittes tell him where Evelyn has taken the daughter:
Now where's the girl? I want the only daughter I've got left. You found out Evelyn was lost to me a long time ago. [End Page 435]
Who do you blame for that, her or you?