IV. BEYOND LUCK AND REGRET
My account thus far supports Williams’s main claim, asserting a connection between Gauguin’s artistic success or failure and the possibility of regret. But since the grounds I have offered for this claim depart in certain ways from Williams’s, some further implications of my account also differ from his. The difference concerns, in the first place, the issue of luck. I have argued earlier that Gauguin’s case belongs to the category of constitutive luck, albeit of a consequential variety. Now, in designating an aspect or property of a person “constitutive,” all one may mean is that this aspect or property is enduring and important. However, as used by Williams in regard to the sage, and as I have been using it in the present context, “constitutive” acquires a stronger sense. The term designates an aspect or property, or a cluster of aspects or properties, that forms a necessary component of the person’s identity. It is doubtful that what is constitutive in this strong sense can be a matter of luck.
The reason for this doubt is simple. Luck is an evaluative term, pertaining to “the fortuitous happening of events favorable or unfavorable to the interests of a person.”23 So luck has to be ascribed to a subject, and implies an assessment, positive or negative, of an event relative to that subject and his or her interests. Accordingly, luck can be attributed only to a stable subject who retains his identity with and without the lucky event. But constitutive luck does not satisfy this condition. That one is who one is, is not a stroke of good luck or bad for that person; who else could one be? There is in this respect a close analogy between the logic of luck and of agent-regret. Similar considerations to the ones that tell against the possibility of agent-regret regarding a constitutive decision also weigh against viewing identity as a matter of luck.24 Williams himself mentions the possibility that Gauguin presents a case of constitutive luck, adding that “it might be wondered whether that is luck at all.”25 Williams does not develop this thought, however, but goes on to point out that even if Gauguin’s artistic accomplishments are due to constitutive luck, and so perhaps are not really a matter of luck, Gauguin is nevertheless the beneficiary of epistemic luck: the lucky circumstance of his having made a correct assessment of his artistic talent that made his project viable. My account removes this element of luck as well. On the constructive view, retrospectively, Gauguin’s insight, determination, courage, as well as talent were all necessary for his artistic career, and so constitutive elements without which he would not have become the person that he was.
Why does it matter whether Gauguin’s artistic career is to be seen as the product of luck? What is at stake? To answer this question, we need consider the denial that Gauguin is a beneficiary of luck in light of the substantive concerns that motivated Williams’s exploration of luck in the first place. As was already mentioned, Williams associates the resistance to moral luck with Kant’s effort to rid morality of luck, and then situates this effort within a broader context: an ancient aspiration to secure for people a measure of tranquility by keeping the vagaries of luck at bay. This is the sense in which the sage mentioned by Williams is a precursor of Kant’s noumenal self. Now when the question of luck is posed in these terms, it turns out that the reasons that inhibit Gauguin’s regret are, in respect of tranquility, equivalent to the denial of luck.
Many people, even those whose lives have gone reasonably well, can nonetheless recognize with hindsight numerous wrong turns and missed opportunities. Aware that this is the only life they have, they are unsettled by such recognitions, and by the ardent wish that things were otherwise, that they had taken a different turn. The line of thought I have suggested can serve as a palliative or antidote by reminding them (us) that these wishes and fantasies have their limit: they are constrained by the conditions of human identity. If the counterfactual reveries become extravagant and so exceed a certain threshold, they are no longer reveries about the agent himself and turn into the thought that someone else might have existed instead. The realization that one could not have been fundamentally different from what one has turned out to be is at the end of the day (and it is of importance that the thought is fully available only toward the end of the day) a source of a certain comfort and tranquility.
The measure of comfort and tranquility this realization can buy is limited, but then, relative to other contenders, it comes at a low price. Some strategies to remove luck so as to attain tranquility require radically narrowing the range of one’s concerns by withdrawing into an austere and barren inner citadel; others involve a belief in some form of fatalism or predestination, which tends to induce a listless, resigned, “que sera, sera” mentality. By comparison, the identity-based, retrospective essentialism I have described provides its measure of tranquility, such as it is, on the cheap.26 Prospectively, the future is open-ended and, up to a point, up to me. There is nothing in the constructive view to chill enthusiasm or ambition in the conduct of one’s life and in the venture of self-constitution. Only in retrospect is the thought available that things could not have been radically different for me. To be sure, given that the thought awaits us toward the end of the road, we can anticipate it earlier on. But this, if anything, increases its value without the undesirable side effects. We still have every reason to make the best choices, knowing that they will determine how we live as well as who we are, but with some reduced anxiety: we also know that the forgone options will eventually lose their relevance to us, since they will one day merely be steps on someone else’s hypothetical road. This anticipatory thought may accordingly allow us to borrow in advance against the fund of later-day, retrospective acceptance and tranquility and to some extent benefit from it without detriment to our choices and projects.
Whatever the degree of tranquility thus attained, however, tranquility is not the same as contentment or satisfaction, let alone happiness; its contrasting terms are agitation and turmoil rather than discontent, dissatisfaction, or unhappiness. This reminder is important not only to avoid false advertisement, but also because of its bearing on the matter of justification. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Williams treats Gauguin’s inability to regret his decision as amounting to a measure of justification against the moral charges that can be brought against him. This justification proceeds from the agent’s point of view, supposedly because this point of view provides a benchmark for a certain kind of criticism that is of special interest to Williams. By pointing out that a decision is defective in light of considerations that are available to the agent herself, so that she is in a good position to recognize the defect, we ascribe to the agent a failure of rationality of sorts; we are hoisting her by her own petard, so to speak. The inability to regret gives the agent a defense against this charge, since it negates the allegation that the decision falls short by the agent’s own lights. Williams largely leaves open the specifically moral significance of this charge and this justification; neither does he give much guidance concerning the weight of this type of justification. Whatever his view on these issues might have been, it is worth pointing out that my proposed account further erodes the level of justification afforded by the inability to regret.
Gauguin’s case is somewhat misleading in this regard. Since being a great artist is admirable, the constitutive considerations that prevent his regret coincide for him with a sense of satisfaction. But a defining project need not be laudable. We can imagine instead a lifelong swindler who in old age wakes up to the nastiness and wastefulness of his life. On the constructive view, he can regret his life no more than Gauguin could regret his. But this, one would think, does not give the swindler even the modicum of justification that Williams claims for Gauguin. The reason is that not wishing for an alternative to a state of affairs is not the same as approving of it. This obvious truth is sometimes obscured by a pervasive conception of choice as consisting in ranking the members of a choice-set in light of one’s preferences, and then opting for the highest-ranking item. On this model all valuation is relative to the composition of the choice-set.27 But this tends to efface a crucial experiential difference we all know firsthand between choosing from a set of good options and choosing from a set of bad ones. Though choosing the lesser evil is just as rational as choosing the greatest good, one’s attitude to the outcome in the two choice situations is markedly different: a lesser evil is still an evil, and though one may be relieved that one is not burdened with an even worse situation, one should not be expected to like the result. When the swindler realizes that a life of probity he now values would not have been his, and concludes that the life he had is, broadly speaking, the only life he could have had (assuming that he is not so desperate as to prefer not to have existed at all),28 he is not bound to approve of his life and judge it worthy. Inability to regret is one thing, approval, satisfaction, contentment, another. As we saw, regret involves a past-oriented wish for an alternative state of affairs to the actual one. And since the wish is unsatisfiable, one is unsettled by an enduring frustration that cannot be relieved. The line of thinking I have described extinguishes in the swindler’s case any such wish and so removes the frustration and the agitation, leaving, however, room for a cooler and more somber disapproving stance.29 This is true of Gauguin as well. As we can now see, the fact that he may not coherently regret his decision does not imply that he need approve of it. He too may realize that this decision was responsible for what he has become, and so not regret it, while also recognizing that his life, successful in some respects as it was, imposed on others unjustified costs.
Finally, the swindler brings us back to moral luck. The issue of moral luck typically arises when the fortuitous consequences of a decision are deemed relevant to its moral assessment by aggravating or mitigating the agent’s blame. Such instances of (arguably) moral luck are ubiquitous so long as the decisions and the consequences have a relatively limited significance within the agent’s life. The main interest in the swindler’s and by analogy Gauguin’s case is that they draw attention to a different kind of assessment in which constitutive elements of a person’s life are put on the scales. Such a case presents us with a standpoint beyond regret and, for corresponding reasons, beyond luck, but one that is well within the scope of morality. Since a person’s constitution or identity is not a matter of luck, when the target of moral assessment involves constitutive elements, luck drops out of the picture. This conclusion of course doesn’t help us cope with the problem of moral luck when it does arise. But given the intractability of the problem,30 it is welcome news that its scope is somewhat narrower than we may tend to think.