Are We Good, or Just Lucky?

I’ve spent the past year seeking to understand the true heart of good human beings. I’ve asked everybody I could to answer the question: What is goodness? Imagine my surprise when I interviewed MacArthur Fellow Jonathan Shay last week and discovered that goodness may have an aspect I  never considered before. A good person, in fact, may be nothing more than a lucky person.

I talked to Shay for a story on soldiers who suffer from what he and others are now calling “moral injury.” That article will be in the next issue of Miller-McCune Magazine. Shay, who has now retired from his job as a psychologist for the VA, appears to have been the first to use the term “moral injury.” And while his definition of moral injury differs a bit from that of others, Shay did talk about one aspect of morality that fascinated me. I couldn’t squeeze discussion of this into the article, so I present it here. That intriguing aspect he mentioned is moral luck, or as he said, “really it’s moral bad luck.”

In other words, when we judge others or judge ourselves to be good, what are we really judging? Are we judging an individual’s true worth, or are the alleged good merely the lucky ones who have never been put in a position to do evil?

“I’ll give you a horrible example that was told to me about a real event in Fallujah,” Shay said. “A Marine  scout sniper was supporting an engaged Marine infantry unit, which had taken several losses from a well placed and very skillful sniper. Finally, this Marine scout sniper had the enemy sniper in his scope and discovered that he (the enemy) had a baby tied to his front in what we would call a Snuggly.”

Whether or not the enemy sniper was using the baby as a shield or was a father who felt he couldn’t leave his child behind, the Marine still had an impossible choice: Protect the ultimate innocent and let his fellow Marines die, or kill the sniper and the baby.

“He did pull the trigger and saw the round do its work,” Shay said, “and that Marine will have to live with that for the rest of his life.”

Is the Marine good or evil? Is this act good or evil? What would you have done?

Since I talked to Shay and finished my article, I’ve found myself mulling over how my life has been touched by moral luck — both good and bad. If goodness is at times (often?) just a matter of luck, then perhaps we should all give ourselves a break.

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1 Response to Are We Good, or Just Lucky?

  1. Wow! That brings a whole new demension to morality. I think that is a no win situation.

    Thanks for coming back and thanks for the topic of moral injury.

    The idea of moral injury is a good one. It gets at the questions I always wanted discussed in an ethics training. It is also what I wanted when Missouri did training that they titled “Best Interest of the Child” for child welfare workers. When I heard that title, I thought they were going to finally discuss how to really take into consideraton the best interests of a child who is the victim of child abuse or neglect. We were always to consider the best interests of the child, but nobody was willing to get into the nitty-gritty of how you do that. I wanted to know what factors to weigh, was I thinking of all of them or missing some, and what weights you might put on any given factor.

    As was brought up earlier, we want a rule that covers all situations. However, there is no rule. In the case you cited, the rules talk about saving the children at all costs, but also, that if someone is killing others they need to be stopped. How many lives of adults equal the life of a child?

    I am sure this applies in other situations such as the doctor or mother who must consider the life of the mother vs. the life of the unborn child and the police officer who must decide whether to shoot or not.

    The problem in these cases is: How do you live with your decision?

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