In 1885, Paul Gauguin abandoned his wife and five children to pursue painting, later moving to the south seas to realise his dream. The resulting works—on display from the end of September at Tate Modern—are stunning. But does their beauty mean that Gauguin’s decision is less blameworthy than if he had left his family and then failed as a painter?
The philosopher Bernard Williams used a fictionalised version of Gauguin’s life to illustrate what he called “moral luck”: the idea that the way things turn out can affect their moral worth. Gauguin left his family in penury in the hope that he would become a great artist. He could not, Williams points out, have been sure this move would pay off. The only thing that could justify his decision was success itself, a justification that inexorably entailed luck.
Immanuel Kant would have considered “moral luck” an oxymoron. Kant insisted that morality meant holding people responsible for their intentions, regardless of how things turn out. This sounds plausible. But consequences play a more significant role in moral verdicts than you might think. If Gauguin had had an accident en route to Tahiti and never painted again, we’d probably judge him more harshly, just as we judge a drunk driver who kills a child more severely than one who gets home without an accident—even though the difference comes down to external factors and bad luck.
Tony Blair’s decision to take Britain to war against Iraq was, his recent autobiography confirms, fuelled by good intentions. The protests surrounding his book, however, suggest that many people agree with Williams that good intentions aren’t enough. Yet they would probably have judged Blair more charitably if weapons of mass destruction had been uncovered, or if the Bush administration’s reconstruction of Iraq had proved an unprecedented success. As another philosopher, Thomas Nagel, hypothesised, if Hitler had died of a heart attack after occupying the Sudetenland, Neville Chamberlain’s Munich agreement would still have betrayed the Czechs, but it wouldn’t have been the great moral disaster later events made it. What happens matters.