Moral luck, Donald Trump and the coronavirus

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The concept of moral luck is one of the more curious sidelines in the study of ethics, at the intersection of moral philosophy and mathematics. However, Donald Trump’s bizarre reactions up to, during, and after contracting Covid-19 make for a great opportunity to look at the concept.

In short, President Trump first ascribed his escape from Covid for the first six months of nationwide infections to his own superior knowledge that the entire thing was a “hoax.” Instead, moral luck suggests he was as much or more “just lucky” given the probabilities of infection and his lack of preventative care. When he finally did contract Covid, he quickly absolved himself of any moral responsibility, first blaming aide Hope Hicks, and more recently blaming visiting Gold Star families. He continues to deny that he likely infected others, either directly or through his lack of care at earlier “super-spreader” events.

Despite getting some of the most expensive and radical medical care given to any infected person and surviving, Trump was not humbled about “beating the odds.” Instead, he has assumed a posture of invincibility and has portrayed the over-200,000 American dead as insufficiently “tough.”

What is “lucky” anyway?

In classical ethical theory, morality is a choice, its selection or rejection being under our control. We differentiate legal degrees of murder and subsequent punishment, for instance, based on our level control over the circumstances and the outcome. “Negligent homicide” is typically tagged with less moral (and legal) consequence than intentional murder, while wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time deaths often escape any legal or moral judgement altogether.

In the latter case, both the “killer,” say a driver who skidded out of control on an icy road, and the unfortunate “victim” are simply deemed “unlucky” by society, and life goes on for the rest of us. Breonna Taylor’s recent death at the hands of the police is a case study in wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time moral luck. The police will likely escape punishment (a judgment I disagree with, by the way) and Ms. Taylor is still dead through no fault of her own.

I first wrote about moral luck back in 2018 when Justice Brett Kavanaugh was being confirmed to the Supreme Court. Disregarding the most controversial testimony at the Senate hearings, even Kavanaugh’s school-era best friends told stories of Kavanaugh’s bad behavior under the influence of alcohol. Had certain events been reported to legal authorities at the time, and had Kavanaugh not been part of a rich, white prep-school culture, the future justice’s life trajectory could have taken a very different turn.

The fact that Kavanaugh’s life turned out the way it did could be described as moral luck. Circumstances outside of his own control “saved” him, but apparently did not humble him. In religious language, these circumstances are often attributed to “divine grace” or “the protection of guardian angels.” More likely it is just the math of probability and societal privilege.

In the classic example of moral luck, drunk drivers usually get home safely, and that gives them the courage to do it again. But sometimes they don’t. Who is the more “immoral,” the lucky one or the unlucky one? As a Business Law professor friend liked to tell his students, “We are all guilty, just not necessarily of the thing we are convicted for.”

Both Kavanaugh and Trump could have been born in very difference circumstances. For instance, a fraction of a second of time at the moment of fertilization separated them from being born genetically female, at near-50-50 odds. The odds were actually against them being born into wealth, or even being born in the United States. But they were. That is moral luck, when you get a different set of moral choices presented to you because of “the luck of the draw.” The late ethicist John Rawls took us through a famous thought experiment of what would happen if we were born under very different circumstances, called the “veil of ignorance.”

The ancient Greeks called it Fate, and the Hindus call it Karma, and based on your past lives. But biologically-speaking, it is more likely a random variable, a probability function that may have had its roots as far back as the beginning events of the universe and their deterministic consequences billions of years later, perhaps modified by the quantum movement of electrons in individual atoms at each moment of time.

“Maybe I’m immune!”

Donald Trump’s rescue from possible death, thanks to the professional care and medical “lucky bets” of Walter Reed Hospital’s physicians (which remain unavailable to most other people), has not humbled him. The problem with moral luck is that lottery winners assume that they themselves were the cause of their own lucky win, and that they are somehow “more moral” because of their superior skill at coin-flipping. That chutzpah brings with it even greater feelings of invincibility. Until the luck runs out.

Some time ago I listened to a long-time coroner’s memorable lecture where he said that the most common expression he would see frozen on the face of his “clients” was surprise. In the end, the third Fate always cuts the thread, and luck runs out for all of us.


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