Reflecting on the notions of destiny and providence, and as a Christian believer, the great Latin scholar Boethius (480–524 AD) was drawn to consider what philosophers now might call “moral luck”. This significant notion (concerning ethically-relevant factors beyond our control) applies to the experience of the wicked, the just and the innocent alike. We can look at moral luck from the perspective of Jesus’s parable (an extended metaphor) of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–36).
The wicked in the parable, of course, were the robbers who beset the innocent Traveller on his journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. But while enjoying sheer good luck (simpliciter) in their escapade, the robbers suffered from moral bad luck. Let me explain.
In regard to sheer good luck, if there had been numerous others accompanying that Traveller, the robbers, if not physically deterred from their profitable mischief, could have been caught. The point is that they were free to beat up and rob the Traveller because their good luck centred on the fact that the Traveller was vulnerable. But, turning to the ethical dimension, their moral luck was bad because, in permitting their intended action against an innocent, their guilt was facilitated in the evil of beating and stealing.
Now, what of the Good Samaritan? He was quite simply lucky in not being vulnerable to a beating himself. In addition, it was convenient that he did not need to take extensive continuing action to relieve the suffering of the Traveller. That is, the Good Samaritan’s good luck extended to the presence nearby of an inn; the innkeeper was paid by the Samaritan for his trouble in taking care of the beaten Traveller. Notably, in about 1630 Rembrandt painted the scene (with some licence) depicting the abused Traveller, the Good Samaritan, and the innkeeper. (It hangs in the Wallace Collection, London.)
The Good Samaritan also had his fair share of moral luck. It is a commonplace reflection to point out that had the (unaccompanied) Good Samaritan come across the robbers when fully in action as they beat and robbed the innocent Traveller, then the Good Samaritan could have had to decide whether to attempt physical intervention, risking mortal injury to one or other of the robbers in the fray. He was, of course, spared that daunting dilemma. To that extent, he was lucky: by virtue of the events forming the essence of the parable, he could not inadvertently have harmed or killed any of the bandits because they had already fled. But the Good Samaritan also had moral luck in chancing upon the beaten Traveller. The Good Samaritan enjoyed moral good luck in being present at just the right time, enabling him initially to pursue virtuous action by way of taking pity, cleaning and bandaging the wounds of the innocent, placing him on his donkey and transporting him to the inn.
However, in this regard, perhaps the Good Samaritan did not enjoy moral good luck over the longer term because the presence of the inn, and its co-operative innkeeper, meant that the Samaritan could ultimately absolve himself of the opportunity to continue his virtuous ministrations to the Traveller. The Samaritan seized the opportunity to pay another to do what was merciful by way of continuing care and healing. And the innkeeper was in a position to do good while being paid for his trouble; so the innkeeper enjoyed both moral good luck and good luck simpliciter by virtue of that opportunity. By contrast, the Samaritan was morally unlucky enough to be able to rely on paying for the intervention of another, rather than needing to continue to exercise compassion and care himself. That is, the opportunity to avoid a virtuous act was just too clear (and tempting); ultimately, moral bad luck for the Good Samaritan in the presence of the inn and innkeeper!
Now, this is much more than an observation about the twists and turns of the sheer luck (and moral luck) experienced by the characters in Jesus’s famous parable. That is, we can cash out any extended metaphor, including this parable. For example, from time to time various innocents embark on irregular unauthorised journeys to Australia. And they chance their luck on the open seas. Regrettably, they are exploited by people-smugglers who, whether or not they abuse and beat the travellers, nevertheless take their money and leave them to their fate. The people-smugglers’ moral bad luck extends to the opportunity to exploit those travellers, with the consequence of succumbing to that evil.
Thankfully, Good Samaritans appear on the open seas from time to time; they include border security personnel. It is their moral good luck to discover migratory vessels because those particular Australian authorities are then in the morally desirable position of being able to do good to such travellers. Lives may even be saved. And in attending to such travellers at sea, the Good Samaritans of the border protection service also have the same kind of good luck as the original Samaritan. That good luck, of course, is courtesy of the policies of the Commonwealth government and the soundness of its border protection service.
Further, the offshore assessment and resettlement program provides the means by which the distressed unauthorised travellers can receive attention by virtue of the charity of Australia in payments to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. That is clearly similar to the Good Samaritan’s employment of the innkeeper. Nevertheless, and sadly, that means that the moral luck of the border protection force, just like that of the Good Samaritan, includes moral bad luck. By virtue of the government’s policy, the border protection service loses the virtuous opportunity to continue to do good to certain distressed travellers. But, then, we all only experience so much moral good luck in the course of our life journeys. (How many beaten victims of robbers, or people-smugglers, does the average Australian ever have the opportunity to assist?) So the chances of doing good of this kind are limited. Nevertheless, the nation of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island might embrace their moral opportunities (courtesy of Australia) as metaphorical Good Samaritan innkeepers themselves because, just like the Samaritan, Australia delivers the afflicted from the high seas to them. And, mutatis mutandis, in its decision handed down on February 3, the High Court of Australia has now preserved that prospective moral good luck for our Pacific innkeeper neighbours. At the least, we should acknowledge the role of the ministering innkeeper in any contemporary consideration and application of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Dr Peter C. Grundy has taught Philosophy at Sydney and Macquarie universities, and Theology at Charles Sturt University. He is undertaking research at the ANU.