When “Right and Wrong” Come Down to Luck

When “Right and Wrong” Come Down to Luck

From the time we’re very young, we all have an intuitive sense of justice that basically boils down to: “If you do something good, you’ll get rewarded; if you do something bad, you’ll get punished.” Even as we get older and intellectually understand that in this world, bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, our immediate gut reaction is to revolt against that idea.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur express the tension between two opposing ways of looking at the link between our actions and their consequences. On the one hand, we look back on our deeds from this past year, thinking about how our own actions and how they affected our family, friends, community and world. We strive to be a little bit more just and compassionate. On the other hand, we recognize that so much of our life is outside of our control, and as rabbis and cantors read Unetaneh Tokef this year, asking “who shall live and who shall die,” many of us will be struggling with just how literal — and theologically vexing — this prayer feels this year. 

A colleague of mine remarked, “A lot of people I know are angry.  They quarantined when things locked down, wore masks and washed their hands incessantly, were first in line to get vaccinated.  In other words, they followed and played by all the rules and feel that where we are is just not fair.” In other words, while most people are doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing, they are bearing the consequences of others’ choices, and are feeling cheated.

One of the great challenges of COVID in our society is that we have had to base our decisions on probabilities, but for many of us, COVID isn’t a collection of abstract numbers — it is a collection of very real tragedies that impact us deeply. Even harder, this is not a world where all unvaccinated will end up on a ventilator, and all vaccinated people will be free to do anything they want. Instead, we see breakthrough cases in vaccinated people, and unvaccinated people living a seemingly free and easy life.  Even if we follow the rules to a tee and try to make the best decisions for ourselves and our community, we just don’t know in advance what the result of our choices will be. What’s hard to accept is that so many of the consequences of our choices come down to a certain amount of luck.

Robert J. Hartman highlighted the paradoxical role of luck when it comes to judging people’s actions. He presents this thought experiment with four different characters, and asks us to consider how blameworthy each of them are:

Killer, our first character, is at a party and drives home drunk. At a certain point in her journey, she swerves, hits the curb, and kills a pedestrian who was on the curb. Merely Reckless, our second character, is in every way exactly like Killer but, when she swerves and hits a curb, she kills no one…
Fumbles takes a slightly different path to her car from the others, trips over a patch of uneven lawn, and drops her keys down a drain. Fumbles is forced to call a cab to take her home…
Night Blind… differs from those three mainly by having horrendous night vision, and this incapacity distinguishes her character by making driving at night unthinkable for her. When Night Blind gets drunk in the evening, she doesn’t even entertain the idea of driving home. Of course, her having bad night vision is a matter of luck, like the good vision of the others. 

Do they all deserve the same level of blame for their actions? This is part of the struggle to understand justice — how much do intentions matter, and how much do results matter? We tend to view the actions of these four characters in descending order of culpability, but luck plays a huge factor in our evaluations.

Hartman argues that we should separate out who someone is versus the actions they take: “Being a good or a bad person is about one’s character; being blameworthy for an event is about being accountable for what you have done in the world.” Even if we are furious at someone’s behavior, it’s counter-productive to label people with character judgments like  “anti-vaxxer” or “sheep.” No one changes their mind by being shamed. Rather, our actions navigate extremely challenging waters of conflicting values, needs, and even conflicting data. But above all, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us that our individual fate and our communal fate are inextricably linked. 

As the fall holidays begin, let’s remember the words of Kohelet, which we will read in just a few weeks: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” (9:11) We all struggle, we all deal with both good and bad luck, and even our moral judgments are not fully the results of our own decisions. May we have the humility, patience and wisdom to make the right choices and do the best we can, even as we cannot always see the consequences of our choices.


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