Tuesday, March 29, 2011

First Lecture: Intro to Luck

Dr. James is providing an introduction to ethics by looking at luck.  We will consider what role luck plays in moral responsibility and freedom, as well as the role it plays in punishment and other social institutions.

The first thing we will then address is what counts as luck. What is luck?   First, games that are won merely by chance are an example of luck.  For example, one does not need skill to win a lottery or to win on a slot machine.  Whether someone wins at these games of chance is merely a matter of luck.  Someone who wins a slot machine has good luck.  Second, another example of luck is when chance events cause a person to either fail or succeed at an action.  For example, say that a person is a very good rock climber and so they decide to climb a very tall rock without any ropes or safety equipment because the climb to the top of the rock is very simple.  Now imagine that a butterfly flies out of one of the holes on the rock, scaring the climber.  Startled, the climber falls to her death.  The climber did not fall because she was not skilled enough.  She fell because she had bad luck.  Dr. James notes that the most enjoyable games or competitions are those where one must rely on both luck and skill.  Third, one can have natural or social endowments.  Natural endowments include talents and abilities such as being good at learning languages or having musical talents.  Social endowments include being born rich or being born into a royal family.  Fourth and Finally, there are twists of fate.  Twists of fate are a common theme in tragic dramatic plays, such as Greek tragedies and Shakespeare.

Another way we can think about luck is by examining common ways that people think about luck.  In other words, what are our psychological tendencies about luck?  For example, a study by Risen and Gilovich shows that people are unwilling to trade lottery tickets with a neighbor in spite of the fact that doing so does not affect the probability that they will win.  This is meant to show that people are afraid to "tempt fate".  Another study (Olson) shows that children are more likely to show a preference for people who have good luck rather than people who have bad luck.  Even adults care about luck.  A study by Damisch et al has shown that people perform better on skill-based tasks if they perform lucky rituals beforehand.  For example, if a pro tennis player touches a lucky rabbit's foot before playing, he is more likely to play well.  In another example, a student may write a better paper if he or she does a lucky little dance beforehand.

Dr. James also want to contrast modern attitudes on luck with ancient attitudes.  Ancient Greeks accepted that much of our lives are up to chance and fate and that humans have limited control over our lives.  Even Happiness and virtue are the result of luck and circumstance.  An exception to this trend in ancient Greece was Epictetus, a stoic philosopher who thought that a person can be happy in spite of bad luck.  Epictetus thought that humans have a large amount of control over their happiness.  Humans started to understand probability and statistics in the 17th century.  Dr. James notes that the intellectual understanding of chance and luck helps us to control and shape our lives.  Because in the modern day we have a better understanding of probability, chance and luck, we have a better idea of when individuals or groups are responsible.  The modern understanding of luck can be adopted by both liberal and conservative political thinkers.  Conservatives may be likely to emphasize the role that luck plays in collective endeavors (such as running a government) and emphasize the personal control that an individual has over his or her own life.  A liberal thinker may be more likely to emphasize the collective responsibility and control that groups have while also emphasizing the role that luck plays in the life of an individual (such as wealth, race, place of birth).

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