If major events in our lives are shaped by luck, are we still agents, moral and otherwise, if what we do is not fully in our control? This piece from the online journal Aeon looks at how luck does, and does not, change our thoughts on agency.
"For better or for worse, luck can sweep in from nowhere and alter our lives. You might cross the road and get hit by a car, or you might end up bumping into someone who turns out to be the love of your life. One natural way of thinking about luck is that it happens to us. Things – unexpected and uncontrolled things – happen to us. ... The problem with luck isn’t just that it can affect what we do in minor or unimportant ways (though it does this, too); the problem is that it can also affect our actions in life-altering ways. We can imagine the driver [of the truck that hits a child through no fault of the driver's] feeling a deep and miserable regret that ruins the rest of his life. And it seems that he is rational: he feels terrible because what he did, through no fault of his own, was awful. It is thus deeply unsettling to realise how much luck can affect what we do. But should we be unsettled?
"An alternative position could hold that what we do – or what matters in what we do – just is what we control, and the rest is simply stuff that happens in the world. ... [But if] we think that our impact on the world is an important part of agency, it seems that we must accept that we can act on the world even though the impact we make is partly out of our control. We must accept that what we do depends on luck. As [British philosopher Bernard] Williams put it: ‘One’s history as an agent is a web in which anything that is the product of the will is surrounded and held up and partly formed by things that are not …’ ... Reflection on luck need not urge us to retreat to the secure but restricted domain of what we fully control; it can reaffirm our potency as agents and encourage our ambition. We can make a mark on the world and sometimes that mark can be a spectacular one. From a work of art to a strike on the football pitch, from the things we write to the meals we make, these things don’t just happen: we have to seek them out and use our skills to bring them about. And they are our actions – marks we make on the world as agents. Without accepting that we might fail, that we might end up regretting what we have done, we wouldn’t be able to achieve any of these things. There is something richer and more uplifting in recognising this, rather than living our lives in the secure but impotent realm where trying is all that matters."
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