A Lesson In Moral Luck And Consequentialism


If I accomplish nothing more through Ethics Alarms than to cure some intelligent readers of the seductive fallacy of consequentialism and the insideous influences of moral luck, then the long, aimless trail of squandered opportunities, under-achievement, diffuse focus, quixotic quests, Pyrrhic victories and lost causes I call my life will not have been entirely in vain.

Last week I was again in the throes of consequentialism hate. The Boston Red Sox, in the midst of a terrible start to their season, brought up minor league prospect Eduardo Rodriguez for a spot start. He was spectacular, allowing no runs and looking like the team ace Boston has been searching for all season. Immediately after the game, articles popped up in the baseball media excoriating the team for not bringing him up from the minor leagues long before. It was obvious back in Spring Training, said unnamed scouts, that he should be with the big club. It was negligence and stupidity, said other pundits, that it had taken this long to promote him. Strangely, there had been no published arguments to this effect before his impressive debut. And would any of these “I could have told you so” pieces have been written if Rodriguez had been bombed out of the game in the early innings, as literally any starting pitcher may be in a given game?

No. That’s the marvel of hindsight bias, the human tendency to presume that what could have been known should have been known after it is known.  Consequentialism is its more destructive cousin. These same analysts will conclude that the decision to bring up the pitcher was a brilliant one, if tardy, because he performed well. If he had done badly, the decision would have been, in all likelihood, decreed ” a mistake.” This was the fallacy that Jeb Bush was recently pilloried for not embracing regarding his brother’s decision to invade Iraq.

And moral luck? That’s the phenomenon that makes hypocrites and fools of us all, pointing us to the suffocating arms of Dame Consequentialism. If two decision-makers take exactly the same course in exactly equivalent circumstances, the one who is the beneficiary of good fortune—moral luck—will be hailed as a genius. The unlucky soul whose identical plans are derailed by unpredictable misfortune will be handed the mantle of an incompetent failure.

Situations where reasonable decisions and actions are declared “mistakes,” or, as is more germane here, “unethical” according to how uncontrollable events and contingencies occur subsequent to the conduct itself are legion. I am always looking for the counter example, where wrongful conduct has a good result, and is there for forgiven, ignored, or even praised. Well, I found one, and it just happened to me.

I had an important though brief client meeting scheduled this morning, and I had managed to forget the exact time. It was either at 10:45 or 11:00, and I had to be on time, because he was on a tight schedule. My wife was annoyed at me for my scheduling, since she had to use the car to get to a long scheduled appointment of her own at noon and my meeting was 30 minutes away. To make things worse, I couldn’t reach my meeting partner to determine the right time ( a postponement was impossible). To complete the fiasco, I misplaced the car keys, delaying my departure until after 10:30. I was informed, as I left the house with my newly discovered keys (never mind where they were; it is too embarrassing), that if I didn’t have the car back by 11:45, I was dead.

I assumed I would be dead.

As it happened, moral luck intervened. I had the meeting time wrong, all right: I had scheduled it for 11:30. I was 15 minutes late for the imagined 10:45 AM meeting, and five minutes late for the 11:00 AM meeting…but I was early for the real meeting. My client was grateful and thrilled. He postponed a conference call, and we handled our business immediately, finishing by 11:20. The car rolled up to my house at 11:45 on the dot.

I got a big kiss from my wife. Being an ethicist and all, I came clean. I admitted that I had made an irresponsible and careless appointment, and only my forgetfulness, sloppiness and unprofessional confusion, plus losing my keys (AGAIN) caused me to arrive early. If I had reached the client when I called, and he had insisted that we meet, the 11:30 appointment would have forced my wife to be late for hers…especially after I waited until 11 to discover that my keys were missing, which I surely would have done.

“But it all worked out perfectly!” she beamed. “Thanks for getting confused!”

That’s right. I botched this in every way, but because it worked out well as a result of the extent of my incompetence, and pure moral luck, I was kissed and thanked for it.

That’s consequentialism.

It’s ridiculous.


12 thoughts on “A Lesson In Moral Luck And Consequentialism

    • Divine intervention is definitely in the realm of moral luck. Oh, sure, Moses was a genius leading the Israelites right up to the Red Sea, where they were trapped. SUUUUUURE he knew God would part the waters….

      • On the other hand, it could be that Moses knew EXACTLY what he was doing. Ramses built a lot of monuments to himself, but that was to hide the fact that he wasn’t anything like the military genius he liked people to think he was. He damn near lost the Battle of Kadesh and got himself killed, but for the initiative of his supporting commanders. He never mentioned the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds?) incident on any of his texts or monuments, either. I tend to think that Moses had him snookered all along. That’s probably why his chief claim to fame today is a prophylactic!

          • Indeed. “According to him”! The then-young Pharoah was in nominal command of the army by virtue of his crown and WAS in direct command of the army’s chariot born vanguard division in his bid to oust the Hittites from what’s now Israel. In his thirst for glory, however, he tried to win it all by himself before the heavier foot divisions could come to his support. In doing so, he came very close to getting cut off and annihilated by the Hittites, who were veterans and old pros at this game. As it happened, Ramses managed to get out of the trap and the two armies eventually came face to face. The Hittites- who weren’t glory hunting and had no real interest in Israel from the onset- negotiated a peace, ceding most of the disputed area to Egypt in return for the usual concessions, guarantees, etc., and quietly marched home (present day Turkey). Upon his return to Egypt, Ramses immediately set upon a massive building project to celebrate his massive “victory”, portraying himself as a huge figure cutting down the enemy in swathes all by his lonesome! Pure political posturing, of course. Nor was it the end of his ehshrined grandstanding, which became a mark of his long reign from Goshen to Abu Simbel in Nubia. He only once referred (by an image) to his Hebrew slaves and never to the Exodus! Ramses is one of the few kings of Egypt to have his mummy survive intact.

  1. Grace obviously loves you. She is not indulging in consequentialism. She is indulging in long-suffering wife-ism and being a saint about the whole thing. Because she loves you.

  2. You frunny ferro, Marshallsan.

    My whole life has been low grade moral luck. There are times I think my biography should be titled “Lucky Bill,” Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim” being one of my favorite books which no one else reads any more).

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