When Immanuel Kant was thinking about morality, all those many years ago in Königsburg, he made an important distinction. So says Morgan Meis writing in The Smart Set. Morality, Kant reasoned, cannot be about what actually happens in the world — it has to be about the pure moral will. Meis explains:
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.
Conversely, what about Gauguin? He leaves his wife and children (a morally lousy act) in order to paint young, scantily clad native beauties in the Pacific isles. The morality changes according to what he accomplishes. If he stinks, if he can’t paint a lick, then he has simply done a bad thing. If he becomes one of the great painters of his age, the moral impact of his original decision becomes, at the least, less black and white. Moral luck also matters. Circumstances beyond our control have a determining effect on our moral judgments.
Thus, Roman Polanski, since being arrested in Switzerland for his rape of a 13-year-old, is being argued in and out of existence. On the one side, there is the act. Roman Polanski, a human being, did something terrible. He made a morally contemptible decision, him, alone, inside his own head.
On the other side, Polanski is not so much an evil person as a swirling collection of forces: Auschwitz, Krakow, Manson, Cinema, etc. Here, one does not want to say, “Roman Polanski raped a child,” so much as “a child was raped in an ongoing story that begins, at the earliest, with the death camps of the Third Reich.” Says Meis:
Here we are again, after more than 200 years of sustained discussion, still trying to figure out how and why we act, still trying to navigate between the irreducibility of our moral responsibility and its annoying elusiveness. The idea of moral luck haunts us because it brings together two things we’re pretty sure are true — that humans are both morally responsible and a product of greater forces — without any clue of how to fit them together. Moral luck shouldn’t exist, but it does, and Roman Polanski’s may have run out.