When It All Goes Awry
Doing everything we can may not be enough.
Posted Oct 31, 2018
Many progressives in the United States probably feel, as I do, like the institutions and policies that protect what we deeply value are being trampled underfoot. Basic democratic norms are collapsing from being regularly violated, wealth is being shifted and creating more and more drastic inequality, racism and other extreme forms of group hatred are bursting out of the fringes and back into the mainstream, basic rights and needs are disregarded by cruel and inhumane policies, climate change is hurtling on unabated.
We might not just feel disheartened about all this; we might also feel incapacitated in a particular way. At least in the public realm, our capacity to act as even minimally successful moral agents has been diminished. But this feeling might strike us as inexplicable; after all, if we’re doing our part to protect what we value, shouldn’t we be feeling good that we’re doing what we can? Not necessarily.
Imagine how you would feel if you set out to do something ordinary but as luck would have it, your action becomes part of a chain of events that ends in someone getting hurt—or even ends in tragedy. In the classic example, you are simply driving home when a child darts in front of your vehicle, and it happens so suddenly that you can’t help but strike and kill the child. Perhaps you contributed directly to the problem by doing something a little bit wrong—you neglected to get your brakes replaced on time and thus you can’t stop your vehicle quite as abruptly as the situation requires. However, now you’re not just someone who has been slightly irresponsible about car maintenance. Most of us can live easily with a view of ourselves as somewhat irresponsible. Now, in your own eyes, you’re a person who has killed a child—and this is not so easy to live with. Or perhaps you made no culpable mistake at all in your choices; you’ve maintained your car, you haven’t been drinking; in fact, perhaps you were in the midst of carrying out a good deed when the disaster unfolded—say, you were driving as part of your volunteer job visiting the elderly. But now you are, according to your own self-conception, someone who has killed a child. What you willed to do is only a piece of what has become your history. Other people can’t blame you for what was outside of your control, but they will nevertheless expect you to experience some anguished emotions, some awareness of failure, some sense of regret for what you have done.
This notion—that we can be responsible for more than just that which we control—is known as moral luck, and the important point about it is that our very success or failure as moral agents rides on much that is out of our own control. Bernard Williams put it best: “One’s history as an agent is a web in which anything that is the product of the will is surrounded and held up and partly formed by things that are not.”
In the simple example of child-darts-in-front-of-vehicle the factor outside of our control is accidental and unpredictable. But these are not essential features of moral luck. Our luck comes not only from the natural lottery, but also from what Claudia Card dubbed the “unnatural lottery,” namely the systemic—and sometimes unjust—features of the society we live in. What mixes with our willed actions might, instead of being accidental and unpredictable, be the intentional and predictable actions of others that we are unable to prevent or to separate from our own willed actions. For something to count as luck for me, it just needs to be outside of my own control; it need not be a matter of chance. Thus our success or failure as moral agents depends on what others do and on what systemic problems surround us.
The phenomenon of moral luck helps explain a feeling that some people with progressive politics have been experiencing for close to two years—that we are not just losing, the way we might lose in a competition, but failing. If we try to take any political action, what we will or intend becomes mixed with factors outside of our control, resulting in outcomes that again and again have been horrifying; and some kind of responsibility for these outcomes attaches to us. It may seem like everything we try to do is going awry.
In some cases we, like the driver who didn’t replace their brakes, might have done something reprehensible that contributed to the problem. For instance, maybe my not working hard enough on the Democratic candidate’s campaign contributed to Claudia Tenney’s winning a house seat in 2016—and she has since voted to deprive families of health care, cut taxes for corporations, and undercut reproductive rights.
But we don’t have to actually do anything wrong for bad moral luck to affect what kind of a moral agent we become: Recall the driver whose good action turned out to have a tragic cost. Attempts at doing the right thing can go wrong in ways that implicate our moral agency. Think about someone who is actively working to achieve some perceived good—for instance, participating in the creation of a sanctuary city to shield unauthorized immigrants who are vulnerable to deportation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regularly issues detainers—namely requests for jails and prisons to hold on to an inmate who is due to be released, which enables ICE to arrest them—and many states and local governments have adopted policies of refusing to cooperate with ICE by declining detainers. This has been effective in protecting people who have served their time from suffering draconian consequences for minor offenses. But there are unintended results of such resistance to ICE. As research by the Migration Policy Institute has found, "as the pushback grows, ICE is finding new ways to conduct its operations, arresting people en route to work and school or increasing arrests in courthouses and other locations where it once did not operate as frequently .... The changing enforcement tactics have generated significantly heightened fear and anxiety in immigrant communities, with serious corollary effects for public safety."
Overall, it still seems right to pursue the goals of the sanctuary movement, because it reduces the total number of people who are vulnerable to ICE. Because ICE has limited resources, making arrests and deportations more costly and time-consuming means that fewer people are susceptible. But it does shift the danger to some people who would otherwise be safer: to the general population in immigrant communities who are now subject to at-large arrests, as well as collateral arrests—namely the arrest of immigrants who just so happen to be nearby when an ICE operation targeting a particular person takes place. Consider, for instance, the hundreds of immigrants who were arrested because, as luck would have it, they happened to live in the communities that were raided in Operation Safe City, an ICE operation that specifically focused on jurisdictions that had refused ICE access to jails and prisons, or that had a policy of declining detainers. These hundreds of immigrants, and their families, took up the role of the child who darted onto the road at the wrong moment. (Thanks to Jessica Bolter of the Migration Policy Institute for several of the points in this paragraph.)
Our own well-intended actions can mix with what is beyond our control. This doesn’t mean that the action—in this case, implementing policies of non-cooperation with ICE—was wrong, but it does mean that the tragic costs associated with the action burden the moral agency even of those who did not intend them.
Obviously, the blame for the fear and suffering caused by the new enforcement strategies belongs to those who actually support these strategies. But moral luck is not about blame for culpable wrongdoing. What the idea of moral luck does is help us understand why our sense of responsibility may expand well beyond the borders of what we control, and thus why we might be feeling as awful as we do. Everything has gone awry, and we with it. Our weaknesses can be amplified by bad moral luck, and our would-be worthy achievements weighed down by the dreadful effects they can nevertheless produce.
The concept of moral luck helps explain something else that progressives who are sufficiently privileged may be feeling these days: the urge to retreat into a smaller circle of concern precisely in order to occupy an arena in which our willed actions have a chance of mixing with less terrible external features. People who—this being also a matter of luck—are fortunate enough not to have taken the brunt of the damage that the current administration has done may find that the actions that they take in their personal lives, such as actions motivated by love and care, are less prone to the systemic sort of bad luck that is making everything in the larger world go awry. This means they may be more successful, in their personal lives, in exercising their agency to protect some of what they value. I’m certainly not admonishing anyone for being drawn to whatever realm allows them to experience such success, both because we probably need such successes, and because it is an irreducible plurality of values that makes human lives rich—justice and love are worthy of our protection. But alongside these successes, we also need to learn to bear the feeling of failure that we can expect to accompany an expanded sense of responsibility, so that retreat is not our only option.