Monday, November 23, 2015

At the wrong time at the wrong place


A few days ago I read an article about moral luck (see the reference below). The authors distinguished several kinds of moral luck, but in this blog I must ignore that because of lack of space. In order to make clear what the concept involves I’ll use an example from the article.
An effect corroborated in many studies is the so-called bystander effect. Suppose you are walking in the street and you see someone getting a heart-attack. What will you do? If you are the only person there, you’ll probably help, but the more people are around there, the smaller the chance is that you’ll come to the person’s aid: “the likelihood of intervention in emergency situations inversely correlates with the number of people present in that situation”, as the authors formulate it (p. 367). It depends on what is happening and how serious the accident is – or whatever it is –, but if you are the only bystander, the chance that you’ll help is, say, more than 80%; if there are more people present the chance that you’ll help may be as low as 10% or less. The bystander effect applies apart from your personal attitude towards helping in emergency situations in the abstract (so what you would say you would do when you are not there). In other words, even if you are morally and maybe also legally required to render assistance to a person and even if you think you should help, how you really will act generally depends on the accidental number of people present. So whether you’ll do your moral duty is dependent on whether you are in luck or whether it is just your luck, so to speak, whether or not many people are around there on the place of emergency. That’s why philosophers talk here about “moral luck”. Whether you’ll act in a moral way as you should do or whether you’ll dodge is determined by the situation you are in, at least for a big part. Does this mean that we are actually not responsible for our actions because “the situation made us do what we do”? Maybe, but I think that in the end a person is responsible for his or her own actions and that s/he is always accountable for what s/he does, certainly if there is freedom to act, as in my examples. But that’s a subject for debate for another blog.
Actually all this has nothing to do with the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday the 13th of November,  but when I read this article a few days later, automatically I linked up a connection between what happened to the victims and the idea of moral luck. For isn’t moral luck a bit like being somewhere at some time by chance? I mean, someone gets an accident and you happen to see it: two unrelated events that coincidentally go together. And by chance nobody else is there, or just a few other people are there, or maybe a lot. These phenomena unrelated to your walking there happen to go together and together they make what you’ll do. But one of the factors might be different and you would behave in a different way: Things happen to you and often you cannot help. It’s a bit like when we say: he was there at the right time at the right place (so he could and did help) or just at the wrong time and at the wrong place.
So it was in Paris in the evening of Friday the 13th November 2015 as well: Many people who were where the terrorist attacks took place simply happened to be there but they could have been elsewhere as well. Coming one minute later; leaving one minute later; just a banal thing as having gone to the toilet (and whether or not it was in use); that the terrorist would have come a few minutes or even seconds later, because a car happened to cross their way; such banal things in life often make whether you are a victim or a survivor. Being at the wrong time at the wrong place can kill a life; or many. From the point of view of the victims, of course; for the perpetrators there is no excuse. What happens in your life can be a matter of good luck and back luck. Often life is on your side, but not always.

Reference: Marcela Herdova and Stephen Kearns, “Get lucky: situationism and circumstancial moral luck”, in: Philosophical Explorations, 18/3, pp. 363-377.

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