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.