More things happen by chance than we think

We usually think that the world is governed by a certain order, whether built into the laws of nature or God-given, and that it is therefore reliable and predictable. But we sometimes mistake randomness for order. Some people, for instance, complained about the i-Pod shuffle because it was supposed, on the one hand, to play songs and tunes from the library at random, but often played a sequence of songs from the same album. What they did not take into account was that, if you keep tossing a coin, for example, there will be rows of only heads or only tails from time to time. Steve Jobs, the then head of Apple, was quoted as saying that they were changing the algorithm so that they would make it “less random to make it feel more random”.

One aspect of this view of our world is that we tend to think that most events have causes and that most of what happens in human interactions has human causes and intentions. In one experiment, described by the psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, the subjects were asked to read this sentence:

After spending a day exploring beautiful sights in the crowded streets of New York, Jane discovered that her wallet was missing.

After reading this story, and a number of others, they were given a recall test, which showed that the word “pickpocket” was more strongly associated with the story than the word “sights”, even though the word “pickpocket” did not appear in the story at all, while “sights” did. Thus the participants were more likely to attribute the loss of Jane’s wallet to an intentional action, namely a theft, rather than to a chance event, such as her simply have left it somewhere by mistake or the wallet having slipped out of her pocket.

People are even prone to seeing human intentions in inanimate objects. When, in another experiment, people watched a short film which depicted the interactions of geometrical shapes, they saw an aggressive large triangle bullying a smaller triangle, a terrified circle, the circle and the small triangle joining forces to defeat the bully (Kahneman 2011, 76).

Clearly it could have had evolutionary advantages for human survival if hunters-gatherers were constantly on the look out for causal regularities. If they observed more lions than usual at a particular place at a certain time of day then it could be prudent to avoid going there at that time even if the increased presence of lions was attributable to a random fluctuation in their behaviour (Kahneman, 2011: 115).

In sum, the role of chance is much greater than we think it is and we are prone to look for a causal story when we have just been lucky or unlucky. As a consequence, the scope for acting freely is reduced.

But there is another, much more disturbing aspect of our general assumption that the world we live in is orderly. People often seem to believe that life is fair and that, by and large, people get what they deserve. This has been called “the just world hypothesis”. The greater the injustice, the more people believe that the victims are themselves to blame. In extreme cases, for instance, blaming those imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for what they were made to suffer is not normally regarded as in any way acceptable. But the worry is that we may do this in less extreme cases, without being aware that we are doing so, for example if we come across someone who is homeless, without being aware that we are doing so. Blaming other people for the difficult circumstances they find themselves in may be a way of reassuring ourselves that there is a coherent story to account for what has happened and that this could not happen to us because we are not so foolish, reckless or lazy. It may also explain why people often blame themselves for being unlucky and feel that they deserve the good luck they get. To entertain the possibility that terrible things can happen to us even if we are good people is a much more frightening thought.

Something akin to this seems to be going on in the special case of morality. The great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, thought that morality was based entirely on rational principles. Kant’s presentation of morality expresses an “ideal in a form that is the most unqualified and also one of the most moving: the ideal that human existence can be ultimately just”, as another philosopher, Bernard Williams, put it. But Williams himself drew attention to what he called “moral luck”. He illustrated his point with the example of a painter, not the historical Gaugin, but someone like him, who left his wife and children to pursue his artistic career in Tahiti. Had the paintings he did there been judged to have been failures and not the masterpieces they are now regarded to be, we would be much more likely to condemn him for deserting his family, and less likely to concede, however grudgingly, that given his artistic gifts, he may have done the right thing. Williams’ point here is that moral reasons do not automatically trump, as Kant believed, but that we can have other reasons which necessitate our actions as well, reasons which are connected to deep desires and commitments which flow from the  kind of individuals we distinctively are. And whether some of these other reasons turn out to have been good reasons or not may indeed depend on luck.

Paul Crichton
29 January 2012

For more information on these topics, see:

Daniel Kahneman (2011) Thinking, fast and slow, London: Penguin Books
Oliver Burkeham (2011), Do People Really Get What They Deserve?, The Guardian, 12 November
Immanuel Kant (1994, first published 1785) Grundlage zur Metaphysik der Sitten/Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Hamburg, Meiner Verlag.
Bernard Williams (1981) Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bernard Williams (1993, first published 1985) Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, London: Fontana Press.