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When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Joel Marks
I played a part in the premature death of an eminent planetary geologist. A few years ago I attended a lecture by E___ S___ when he was visiting another university in my city. His talk was fascinating and totally fulfilled my wildest scientific fantasies. I had wanted to hear this man for decades, so when the talk was over, I walked up to shake his hand. But I hesitated, was distracted, and in the end did not meet him.
Several months later, E___ S___ was killed in an automobile accident while driving in the Australian outback. Do you share my intuition that, in all likelihood, he would be alive today had I introduced myself? For most accidents, like most (or all?) events, depend upon a precise convergence of circumstances, including the random thoughts transpiring in one’s mind, which may or may not distract one’s attention or affect one’s reaction time. But it seems to me unlikely to the point of impossibility that E___ S___ would have been having the identical thoughts at that particular moment months after the alternative scenario, even had the gross events of his life remained the same (e.g. the same flight to Australia and the same rental car). I imagine that in the interval his spoken words and all other behaviors would have been altered in some way as well, such that he might well not even have been at the accident scene at the critical instant; for example, had he not got round to making his plane reservation until one day (or one minute) later than he did, a different car might have been assigned to him, parked in a different location in the lot, resulting in a slight but crucial change of elapsed time before reaching the relevant spot in the road. In other words, I don’t believe in fate.
But neither do I feel guilty for having caused E___ S___’s death. Why not? Well, I didn’t really cause his death, did I? Suppose someone fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand, and the house burned down. What caused the fire? If investigators do trace the start to the cigarette, then most people would conclude that the cigarette caused the fire, or perhaps they would say, it was caused by a careless smoker. But would anyone insist that the oxygen in the room was the real culprit? (I mean, besides the smoker’s lawyer.) I don’t think so. And yet, of course, absent oxygen, no fire. Similarly, I doubt that anyone would say that I caused the death of the astronomer, even though, absent my act of omission, the death would not have occurred. More likely the offender was a drunken trucker driving in the wrong lane.
There is still something bizarre about all of this, however, for a real connection does exist between my behavior and the fatal outcome. Perhaps we could say that something can be the effect of something else, without having been caused by it? But the question remains: What significance does that connection have? In particular, does it have any moral significance? And if not, what is the significance of that?
Maybe we place time limits on the consequences for which we bear moral responsibility. Thus, it makes perfect sense to hold somebody blameworthy for an avoidable occurrence, but not for something way down the road, which could not have been foreseen. That does sound reasonable, until one ponders that it introduces a certain arbitrariness into morality. For if we judge the rightness or wrongness of our actions on the basis of the consequences of our actions, why stop with only the predictable consequences? The obvious answer is: “How could it be otherwise? Morality would not be useful as a guide to life if it required that we know everything ahead of time, since we never do.”
Yes, that is an obvious answer. But I don’t think it is a sufficient one. Consider this analogy. I need to get across the Atlantic Ocean. I don’t have the ability to fly (by flapping my arms), but I do know how to swim (by flapping my arms). Therefore I should jump into the water. It’s not a good solution, though, even though it is something I can do. Just so, while we do in general have some ability to know the effects of our actions, but we certainly do not have the ability to know all of the effects of our actions, it does not follow that exercising the ability we do have is the best way, or even a good way, to decide what to do … even if our main concern is the effects of our actions!
Yet it does seem that near-time consequences matter. Anna Rosmus, a contemporary German woman who has uncovered her hometown’s Nazi past (and is the subject of an Academic Awardnominated documentary called The Nasty Girl), claims that “Hitler had lived in my town. In fact, he had almost drowned there, and my next-door neighbor had saved his life” (quoted in an interview with Sandi Kahn Shelton in the New Haven Register, January 22, 2001). Now, was it right for the neighbor to save Hitler’s life? Let’s suppose this happened when Hitler was a boy. The neighbor could not possibly have foreseen the long-term consequences of saving little Adolf; there was only the immediate result of rescuing a child. So the neighbor did the right thing.
But I still ask: In what sense can we say that the consequences of her action are what made her action right? Surely the foreseeable consequences endorsed the action. But why should that be a significant fact? If it is consequences we care about, why limit our injunctions and judgments to the foreseeable ones, if these bear no knowable relationship to the net results? Wouldn’t that turn morality into a kind of fairy tale, as if “wishing makes it so”?
I don’t expect you to be convinced by my remarks right off the bat. But after they have sat in your mind for a while, perhaps you will come to share my strong feeling that morality is not fundamentally about consequences. (We would then both be in very good company, including the philosopher Immanuel Kant and the god Krishna.) Instead, it is about intentions and attitudes. I would say that the right thing to do (or, more broadly, the right way to live) is that which best expresses respect and caring for living beings (et al.?). And while such expression will typically involve attending to the likely consequences of our actions, that is not because we can control the ultimate outcome (which we can’t); rather it is because the effort to control what we can shows that we care.
© Joel Marks 2002
Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com.