If some of your PBS watching friends are unclear on those essential ethics analysis tools, the concepts of moral luck and consequentialism, the season finale of “Downton Abbey”( which you can view here) provided a wonderful example of both in action.
Now, settle down, because this takes some table-setting:
In the typically complicated episode, Lord Grantham, his family, and a stripped down staff including Barrow, the sneaky, Machiavellian and inexplicably still-employed butler, travel to scenic Brancaster Castle for a bit of shooting and socializing with Lord Sinderby, the new, but not newly snotty, father-in-law of niece Rose. In the previous episode, the Lord made it clear that he objects strenuously to her, her parents (who are divorcing, making them socially unacceptable), her extended family, and his son’s marriage to her, because Rose’s family isn’t Jewish. His son, Atticus, named after Gregory Peck (kidding!), defied him by marrying outside the Jewish faith. Sinderby grudgingly rented the castle for the gathering as a social requirement that he only consented to, in all likelihood, because his more reasonable and unbigoted wife insisted on it.
Lord Sinderby brings his own butler with him, the obnoxious and bitter Mr. Stowell. When the Grantham party arrives at Brancaster, Stowell refuses to serve Tom, the common-born widower of the only likable daughter of the Earl of Grantham, because the butler knows that Tom used to be a chauffeur, and thus pouring wine for Tom is beneath him. Stowell is also nasty to Barrow and so is Lord Sinderby, though the party’s host is pretty much all-rude, all the time.
Haughty Mary, who has grown fond of Tom, sics Barrow, whose proclivities as a snake are known to her, on Stowell through her servant. Barrow, informed of the Lady’s mischievous wishes, forges a phony message to be delivered to the castle’s cook, causing Stowell to serve Lord Sinderby the wrong meal at dinner. Lord Sinderby excoriates Stowell in front of the guests, humiliating him, and also calls Barrow a “stupid fool.”
Mary thinks Barrow’s sabotage of the nasty butler is complete, but he is like Bruno in “Stranger on a Train”: once unleashed, he is without mercy or restraint, and now he has both the butler and his master in his sights. Barrow sucks up to Stowell in an attempt to unearth some dirt on Sinderby, and hits the mother lode.
Lord Sinderby’s party for the Granthams at the castle is interrupted by an uninvited guest (well, the evil Barrow invited her under a false identity), an uncomfortable-looking young woman with a young child who “coincidentally” shares a first name with Lord Sinderby. Lord Sinderby almost faints when he sees her and his secret love child enter the room with his wife, who knows nothing of his infidelity, in the vicinity. Stowell also looks stricken, realizing that he gave his enemy, Barrow, the means to destroy him and his master with one vicious strike.
Amazingly, young Rose instantly takes all this in, realizes what is happening, and acts to avoid a multilateral family scandal. She quickly asks the panicked Sinderby for the woman’s name. and then dashes across the floor to greet her as if they were old friends and she had sent the invitation. The Earl and Mary gamely join her in the charade. The deception is successful in keeping Lady Sinderby and Atticus from learning truth: that Dad is a hypocritical bounder.
Lord Sinderby is grateful to Rose and recognizes that she is a worthy partner for his son, and that he has been an ass. He softens toward the Granthams too, and also Rose’s parents, belatedly realizing that divorcing is hardly more morally objectionable than fathering bastard children behind one’s wife’s back. Stowell, warned by Mary that they will keep the source of the information Barrow used to create the potential crisis secret if he stops treating Tom like sheep dung under his shoe, instantly becomes the poster boy for obsequious service.
All’s well that ends well, right? Tom is finally shown respect, the rude butler gets his just desserts, the scandal is averted, Lord Sinderby has been taught a life-altering lesson in humility, and a rift that threatened to shadow Rose’s and Atticus’s marriage has been healed! That Barrow is a regular Mary Poppins!
It is all just moral luck, however. Once the Lord’s secret arrived at the castle, lots of scenarios were possible, many of them horrible. Barrow betrayed the trust of Stowell, placed his job and security in jeopardy, creates the threat to the Sinderby’s marriage, seeded a potential scandal that would have devastated Rose’s husband and his mother, and callously (and un-Kantly) used a young woman and an innocent child as pawns in his scheme. What he did was unethical in numerous ways, cruel, reckless, and excessive even by the unethical rules of revenge. The argument that what he did is in any way mitigated because it happened to have unexpected benefits is classic consequentialism, the mistaken belief that conduct’s ethical character can altered by the results of it.
Mary, who is the only one who knows that Barrow was behind it all–with a little push from her—should fire him. She won’t, both because she feels partially responsible and because she is probably justly fearful that he might expose her role in the fiasco and maybe more, to do some of the damage that Rose narrowly averted.
This was, however, a perfect example of how a miserably unethical action can, by shear moral luck, turn out hunky-dory for all.
That still doesn’t make it right.