Moral philosophers, beginning with Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, have recently broached the topic of moral luck in the philosophical literature. They limit their discussion however to considerations of how luck affects our ability to carry out actions or how it affects the consequences of our actions. I wish to suggest that luck is also an important factor in determining our actions as ends in themselves. What actions we may choose to perform for their own sake in a given situation depends much more than we might care to think on causes beyond our control. Our happiness rests ultimately on our luckiness.
Moral philosophers frequently remark how a philosophical position can reflect the practical circumstances of its origin. But we philosophers note with less frequency how a moral position can also be obscured by these circumstances. I believe that such is the case with the philosophical perspective that I wish to present. The very fact that this point of view has not been elaborated attests to the pervasiveness of certain practical attitudes in contemporary society. These attitudes, I suggest, might also be mistaken.
That we have recently begun to examine morality and its relationship to luck, is surely a sign of change. (1) But unfortunately the change does not go deep enough. Though we wish to consider its role in our lives, we have yet to examine what role luck might have in determining the ends of our actions. Our attention has been focused almost entirely on how luck affects our ability to carry out actions and how it affects the consequences of our actions. (2) We somehow manage to keep our goals aloof though our feet now touch the ground.
I wish to consider the possibility that luck is a crucial factor in determining the ends of our actions. Or at least in determining what our ends ought to be. In our pursuit of happiness we far too often charge ahead without stopping to ask what sort of happiness we should seek. And we have become far too adept at facilitating our charge with machinations both moral and technical. I suggest that we pause for a moment, shut down our eudaemonic engines, and ask ourselves if we might be seeking felicity in a manner somewhat inept. We shall see, I believe, that fortune has a role to play in setting our goals. But in so doing our luck does not impoverish our happiness. Paradoxically we may find it enhanced.
The proposition that some actions of ours are voluntary in part and in part involuntary, would give few people pause. But that all our actions are both voluntary and involuntary, is a proposition that most people would have to ponder. I intend to show that for us the proposition can only be a universal one. Let us begin by reminding ourselves why an action may be both voluntary and involuntary. We shall then be able to see why all actions must be of this sort.
What makes an action either voluntary or involuntary? A voluntary action is one which we perform from an internal cause with full knowledge of our situation. An involuntary action is the opposite. We do not act from an internal cause or we do not act with complete knowledge. We may indeed hardly be said to act. I take these conceptions to be the usual ones developed in classical times by Aristotle and encountered today in our legal systems as well as in our daily lives. (3) Examples abound. Those illustrating the involuntary make both concepts clear. If someone is blown off a ship by the wind, the disembarkation is surely involuntary. The person did not choose to leave. Or if someone stabs another with a foil thought to be blunted, the homicide is also involuntary. The death is the result of ignorance. (4)
What then makes an action both voluntary and involuntary? For the present I shall not consider how knowledge and ignorance could yield an action with both qualities. I want to examine only how causes, internal and external, can make up an action of this...