Call no man happy until he is dead -

Call no man happy until he is dead


I’ve been thinking about luck recently, especially that species of chance that philosophers call “moral luck”. This is the idea that praise or blame, success or failure, are due to circumstances over which the agent does not have complete control. In the most influential essay on the subject, Thomas Nagel identified three main types of moral luck: resultant, circumstantial, and constitutive (there’s a fourth, but it just causes problems so I’ll ignore it). Resultant luck is the one we’re most familiar with — I run a red light and nothing happens, you run one and take out a family of four. Circumstantial luck refers to the way our moral outcomes are shaped by the broader events and situations in which we find ourselves embedded — that’s what I’ve been getting at with my little pieces on Sidney Crosby recently.

But yesterday I found myself thinking about what Nagel called “constitutive luck”, the variations in moral character that each of us seems to have in virtue of our genes, upbringing, culture, education, or other circumstances that we didn’t choose. We were at the Canoe Landing park in downtown Toronto, the work-in-progress urban space designed by Douglas Coupland that includes a sculpture of a big red canoe and sculpture park of even bigger fish bobbers. It’s all pretty cool, but the most arresting part of the park is the running trail called the Miracle Mile, inspired by Terry Fox. The trail is marked by typically Couplandesque pieces of installation art — pictures of Terry’s running shorts, his sock, and an unbelievably beatific picture of Terry himself.

It’s hard not to read Coupland’s writeups and not be terribly moved, especially the part where he suggests that if Terry had got his cancer today, he would probably be cured. That’s the power of research, the very research Terry set out to raise money for.

But it also raises the question of whether, if Terry were alive today, he’d still be the closest thing we have to a secular Canadian saint. Not to take anything away from Terry in slightest — he accomplished more in his short life than I ever will. But would he have retained the selflessness, the purity of heart for which we remember him? Was he even like that then?   This article from today’s Citizen, about Steve Fonyo, is weirdly synchronistic reminder that how things turn out — indeed, how we turn out — is not always entirely up to us. Fonyo hasn’t had the best life, and he hasn’t made the best decisions. But I can’t say for sure that, given his background, given his circumstances, given who he is,  I would have done any better. Can you? At the very least, it strikes me that taking away his beach would be a very, very low thing indeed.

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Call no man happy until he is dead

  1. Jesus you make my head hurt sometimes.

    • (Psssst, I think he's suffering from "Post-Gladwell Syndrome". Sort of like how Objectivists act for a month or so after they read Rand for the first time?)

  2. For us Aristotelians, "luck" is just chance events with good/bad outcomes. For those of us who are also Thomists, the circumstances into which one is born/raised are never a matter of chance…and hence never a matter of luck…but rather a matter of design in which each person's original circumstances are uniquely suited to enable that person to achieve maximum happiness, and their subsequent circumstances are a consequence of the sum total of their deeds, those of the people around them, and luck.

    In cases where one sees someone racking up a string of failures, the Thomist says "there but for the grace of God go I". I consistently find when I look at someone else's record (whether good or bad), and imagine myself with their background, that it is abundantly clear to me that I would have done far worse if dealt the same cards.

    • I do, too, G, but I have found over the years that often the role you take on often shapes you to greater heights of performance than you might have expected of yourself. If you stay true to who you are, while taking on the role expected of you, you find yourself making the right decisions, being given the benefit of the doubt and taking on a persona you would never have recognized as being in you.

      Conversely, if you try to bend the role to suit yourself, not it, that's when results become far less predictable. You can succeed spectacualrly or crash and burn in disgrace. This is my personal experience and observation, I'm not sure where it woudl fit between Aristotle and Thom, or among the types of luck Mr. Potter is exploring.

  3. (there's a fourth, but it just causes problems so I'll ignore it)

    You seem to have all the apparent qualifications necessary to be a finance minister in a first world country in the midst of a recession.

  4. " …. that's what I've been getting at with my little pieces on Sidney Crosby recently."

    Awesome. I really enjoyed this post and am going to look further into topic.

    Your recent Crosby pieces got me thinking about luck as well but different from what you have been pondering.

    I have been wondering about luck, or what we call luck, and elite players. The very best players often seem to be in right place at right time and I wonder how much we call luck is pure chance and how much is innate ability that few have.

    • Professional golfer makes a most excellent shot off the tee, inches from the cup on the green.
      FAN IN CROWD: What a lucky shot!
      GOLFER: Yup. And the more I practice, the luckier I get.

  5. I think it was David Mamet who said the reason bad poker players don't improve is because they can't stand self-knowledge. Socrates would have been lucky at cards.

    • "I am a fool who knows nothing at all, my friend, but at least I know that I know nothing, whereas I can see that you think you know what cards I'm holding. "

      Yep, he'd be formidable.

  6. This sounds almost like common sense but with big words and fancy phrases, so I must just not get it.

  7. The part on Fonyo was right on. Nobody is perfect , indeed more time than not we learn from our past mistakes & behavior. Judge not lest ye be judged, is always good advice.
    It's all kinda sad how some self righteous sanctimonious twits seem to delight in not only pointing out the failings of others but then also insist on publicly humiliating them. The facts remains Fonyo did good he also touched the hearts of many Cnd's, now some people are trying to air-brush the guy out of our collective conscious,isn't that what petty little men/people do ,like Stalin for example.
    Anyway ,best of luck to you Steve if you happen to read this.