The Anatomy of Luck

Chance rules us all. — Sherwood Anderson

The philosophers Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel are known for insightful thought experiments in relation to the role of personal accountability, morality, and the caprice of circumstance. Williams brought us the term moral luck that was later augmented and popularized by Nagel. Moral luck is, according to Nagel, where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment.” In other words, doing something that could be positively or negatively consequential may simply result from being an unintentional agent in a lucky or unlucky situation, and being held accountable depends a great deal on your luck or unluckiness. From a pragmatic perspective, despite a lack of control over specific variables, one can be considered an object of moral judgment based purely on the consequences of the event—regardless of intention.

The Control Principle is a concept derived from Kantian philosophy that assumes people are held morally accountable to the extent that they are in control of their actions and decisions (an intuitively popular position). This premise seems reasonable until one looks more closely at the fabric of causality that impacts all situational outcomes. Factors outside of our control begin to surface when the contributing details of any circumstance are thoroughly examined. Using a common automotive analogy, equally irresponsible driving habits may be shared by countless individuals, but only some drivers are unfortunate enough to provoke vehicular manslaughter. Likewise, not all equally talented or competent individuals will achieve success no matter how well motivated their efforts or intentions are. Furthermore, sometimes “evil” people can inadvertently bring about positive results based on unintended chain reactions.

According to Nagel, actions and intentions are affected by four variations of luck.*

Resultant luck. Resultant luck describes the way things turn out. I briefly explored this phenomenon in an earlier post entitled The Physics of Unfounded Confidence. Sometimes the laws of physics interfere with our best or worst intentions.

Circumstantial luck. Circumstantial luck depends on the circumstances of any given time period. Sociopolitical and contextual factors that directly influence one’s life are included in this category. The current political climate or legislative factors often determine a person’s decisions or “range of motion” when it comes to manifesting agency.

Constitutive luck. Constitutive luck is based on who one is, or in the genetic traits and dispositions that one has. No one chooses to be born healthy, wealthy, or poor. Similarly, the leverage of opportunity makes it easier to act in ways that are perceived as socially acceptable or morally appropriate.

Causal luck. Finally, there is causal luck, or luck in “how one is determined by antecedent circumstances.” Prior events invariably set the stage for future happenstance.

When luck is a conspicuous factor in outcomes, we tend to ignore moral accountability. However, when the role of luck is more difficult to determine, we are quick to assign causality. Of course, the primary lesson should be that all-encompassing “control” is an illusion when random variables are assessed. Subsequently, our capacity for moral judgment is compromised. To blame someone directly for abhorrent outcomes or to praise someone unconditionally for eliciting preferable outcomes only exacerbates the fundamental attribution error. Ironically, even bad intentions can sometimes render morally copacetic results given the unknown variables that could have happened otherwise.

Some may ask, “Why bother exercising moral intentions given the random nature of predicaments?” It should be obvious, nevertheless, that operating without intention only compounds the nature of chaos and the probability of negative outcomes. Mark Twain may have best resolved this philosophical dilemma when he casually suggested, “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

It was the chance ingestion of a toothpick-impaled olive lurking at the bottom of a martini glass that determined the unlucky demise of author Sherwood Anderson. If we’re honest, there are many unforeseeable toothpicks within the olives of our destiny.

* Additional info:

Misplaced Affectivity

I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, enjoy them, and to dominate them. — Oscar Wilde

It’s been said that emotionally immature people are irascible, self-centered, or exhibit difficulty controlling their emotions in multiple contexts. Semantic debates aside, petulant personality types accentuate emotions that override their capacity for amicable and effective interactions. I would argue that super-normal emotional reactivity happens when other forms of cognitive development (i.e., critical or analytical thinking) are neglected. Nevertheless, strong emotions can be advantageous when properly siphoned.

Managing your emotions doesn’t say anything about one’s aptitude for “deep feelings;” rather, it suggests that the best use of any emotion requires self-regulation. Learning to create value with emotions by channeling your feelings efficaciously relies on the art of all things systematized. After all, other people’s emotional investments matter just as much as yours. Regardless of how emotionally profound, sensitive, or ethically justified someone might feel themselves to be, a level of discipline is necessary for cashing out on impassioned preoccupations.

Freud pointed out that the ego’s job is to realize it’s not the only id in the sea, and Lacan reminded us that you can’t always (or never) get what you really want. Although impetuousness has its neuroanatomical correlates, placing a cognitive buffer zone between activating stressors and behavioral responses can loosen the grip of an over-reactive mind. Emotional trip wires can be disabled or avoided altogether once the episodic memory bank is sufficiently scanned via contemplating a history of situational consequences. Preemptive agreements (e.g., Ulysses contracts) encourage the habit of strategic behavior management while accepting the liabilities of enthusiasm. In addition, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy comes with a wonderful heuristic for avoiding the fallout of emotional and behavioral temerity.

Strong emotional proclivities have allowed us to create profound art, literature, film, and music; but they’ve also generated culpability for incidents involving road rage, crimes of passion, and varieties of impulsive experience. Finding a proper geometry between reason and passion will ensure that gut reactions won’t overshadow everything above the neck. If you have a propensity towards untethered fervidity, behavioral science is probably worth investigating. That being said, establishing emotional equanimity doesn’t mean you have to be restricted to the affective range of Steven Wright as you walk through the gates in search of your remaining baggage.

The Vampire Within

I will no longer mutilate and destroy myself in order to find a secret behind the ruins. Hermann Hesse

Whenever discussing the influence of trauma with clients who have internalized negative beliefs about themselves, they often agree with the invalid premise of the beliefs but continue subsidizing them anyway. Unable to alter patterns of self-flagellation, years are consumed as they desperately seek relief from what seems apparently masochistic to any objective witness.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) is a long-term research analysis that began in 1995 demonstrating a correlation between adverse childhood experiences and bio-psychosocial problems in adulthood.* By following over 17,000 research participants, it was determined that a higher frequency of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) increased the probability for self-destructive behavior in adulthood (e.g., smoking and substance abuse, promiscuity, impulsiveness) while leading to subsequent health problems (e.g., obesity, heart disease, cancer, lung disease, shortened lifespan). These adverse experiences could include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse with additional considerations for neglect and general family dysfunction. When calibrating a spectrum of these experiences on an ordinal scale, it has been shown that having four out of ten ACEs is associated with a seven-fold risk for developing alcoholism; whereas having six out of ten ACEs is associated with a thirty-fold increase in attempted suicide. Simply put, childhood victims of trauma will adapt in maladaptive ways during adulthood. By the time an adult makes it into therapy, if they’re lucky, these behaviors and deleterious belief systems have to be retrospectively deconstructed with painstaking investigation tactics.

What I’ve counter-intuitively discovered is how much the negative beliefs have in common with an early impetus for survival. If a defective identity is forged during a person’s developmental period, maintaining that identity guarantees a vital role in the dynamic of a relationshipalbeit a toxic and unsustainable relationship. For example, if a child endures traumatic levels of neglect, criticism, or abuse as allocated by their “caregiver,” the learned response for winning approval within that developmental connection is dependent on assuming a role of abject submission. In other words, our need for mammalian attachment and interpersonal identity is so biologically inexorable that we will often prefer a dysfunctional relationship to no relationship at all. Furthermore, dependence is solidified by the abuser if they attend to the child’s other biological needs for shelter, food, and clothing. Similarly, if a child’s earliest experiences with intimacy were conflated with violence, that template of dysfunction is probably going to remain pervasive in adulthood. It should go without saying that adverse childhood experiences are force multipliers for the emergence of anxiety, depression, and other manifestations of mental illness.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the endogenous cycles of abuse gain traction if our capacity for self-respect has been hijacked by the memories of succumbing to abuse. Remember, autonomy is not valued by the abuser who needs a captive audience to appease their relentless separation anxiety, desire for control, misplaced aggression, and capacity for sadism. Unfortunately, children of familial victimizers are often lifetime captives to the virus of self-doubt.

Nosferatu is mythologized as a shape-shifter; indeed, when the villain eventually transforms into ourselves, the legacy of abuse shifts inward.

*Additional info: