On Roman Polanski and Moral Luck

Morgan_meis_photo Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Roman Polanski may have finally turned out to be morally unlucky. Let me explain what I mean.

When Immanuel Kant was thinking about morality, lo those many years ago in Königsburg, he made an important distinction. Morality, he reasoned, cannot be about what actually happens in the world — it has to be about the pure moral will. Here’s why. Let’s say I walk out of the house on my way to murder as many people as possible. I trip over a vagrant and accidentally push a small child. The child falls down and thus narrowly misses being decapitated by a falling sheet of glass. Whoopee, I’m the moral hero of the day, having saved the little tyke’s life.

“No way,” says Kant. I am still morally bad because I was a murderous fiend in intent, even as I saved the tiny crumb snatcher. Morality is about the purity of my choices and decisions, not about happenstance. One can’t be accidentally good, or bad.

A century and a half or so after Kant, Bernard Williams — a Cambridge man who eventually ends up at Berkeley in the 1980s — thinks about moral philosophy and warms his disapproval of strict Kantians. For Williams, outcomes matter. Let’s say, after inadvertently preventing the gruesome decapitation of the child, I intend to resume my killing spree but, curses! my weapon jams. According to Williams I am less morally culpable (as an attempted murderer) than if I actually achieved the intended body count (as a first-degree murderer). Outcomes matter, and we prove it in the way we treat crime and justice all the time.