This holiday season, we have all received moral luck, says philosophy professor

Gettysburg College Philosophy Prof. Steve Gimbel says that this holiday season we have all received the "gift" of moral luck. And how we chose to use it says much about us.

This recession, hitting during the holidays, has a moral component. Tough times create accidental virtue. Greed, gluttony, and sloth are deadly sins, but it's only when we're forced to tighten our belts that we repent.

Oxford philosopher Bernard Williams coined the term "moral luck" for situations beyond our control that endow us with ethical responsibilities. I may walk past a swimming pool day after day, but the one time I see a young child fall in, I'm suddenly obliged to act. It turns out that our moral duty is in part a function of what is happening around us. Climate change, terrorism, foreclosures, and resulting homelessness enlarge our moral obligation.

Heightened moral awareness is one reason people were turned off when Detroit's CEOs came to Congress begging for a bailout. Their private jets and refusal to slash their astronomical salaries were became symbols of vice and of insensitivity to the growing moral seriousness of the times. Charles Wilson, chair of General Motors in the 1950s, famously boasted that "What is good for GM is good for America." We now must assert that what is morally good for GM is good for America. CEOs accepting one-dollar salaries and driving hybrid cars to Washington are not enough. Automakers must put the broader interest ahead of short-term self-interest in the way they design, make, and sell cars.

All of this is, of course, easy to say when we see the barn door open. The hard part comes when things are not so hard. With the price of gas down to less than half of what we were paying mere months ago, the temptation is to return to the old ways. In "A Sand County Almanac," Aldo Leopold reflected on farmers who cut down trees planted as wind breaks in order to sow a few more rows of crops. These were farmers who just a few years earlier had barely survived the dust bowl, who had been on the verge of starvation and had seen neighbors driven from the land becauseof dust storms that blew away topsoil making it impossible to farm. Even the horrors of their own personal experiences could not over rule the lure of short term gains. The question is whether we will learn our lesson, whether the moral diet we begin after New Year's Eve will be a short-lived fad connected to a resolution we will quickly forget or a true ethical lifestyle change capable of sustaining a healthy moral being.

What can cement the accidental virtue that the tough times teach us? Perhaps, strangely, there is a positive moral lesson to learn from the world of politics. We have a President-Elect who has appointed people to important positions of power whose views he knows differ from his in important ways on important matters. Having people around you that you both respect and disagree with has the effect of keeping you intellectually honest. It is easy to get sloppy when you surround yourself with like-minded folks, but when you live in a pluralistic world, you are always kept on your toes. If we can follow President-elect Obama's lead culturally and be more welcoming of thoughtful, but passionate disagreement, open to the chance to change our minds when someone points out better ways of doing things, maybe, just maybe, we can break the cycle.

At a time of year when we say "peace on Earth, goodwill to men," this time we have to really mean it. But the true wish is that as we move on and problems find solutions, we cannot forget what necessity has taught us.

For more from Gimbel, visit his blog. He also offered this holiday advice in the past.

Contact: Kendra Martin, director of media relations


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Tue, 23 Dec 2008

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