Friday, February 3, 2012

Out of Control

 
I ran a red light a few weeks back. Driving home from a frustrating third set of beach volleyball, already 20 minutes late for my next engagement, I approached a familiar intersection on auto-pilot.

"What's that guy doing, pulling out in front of me?"

I looked up, saw red, pounded the brake in shock. The other car had stopped in the middle of the intersection, too close to miss. Releasing the brake and hitting the gas, I swung the wheel hard left, then right, careful not to over-correct. An instant later, I was through, and pulled into an apartment complex to shake off the adrenaline. I still feel the lingering effects of my strained back.

There was no excuse for what I did: no impairment, no external distraction. I'd never seen that light turn red before, so in my haste, I looked right through it. I was, without a doubt, utterly negligent -- guilty of passing a traffic signal, possibly liable for my fellow motorist's dry cleaning bill.

Now imagine just one small change to my scenario: a woman, walking her dog, crossing the street with the light.
Suddenly my successful swerve turns into a nightmare, a life cut short by a moment's inattention. My negligence becomes criminal, worthy of investigation, and my guilt -- as perceived and as punished -- will be exponentially more intense.

That massive difference in responsibility and pain has nothing whatsoever to do with my actions. It's attributable instead to what philosophers call moral luck, an admission that the perceived morality of our actions depends, in large part, on circumstances completely outside our control. "Luck," of course, is a neutral term for the academy; as a Christian, I see it as an expression of God's will, whether perfect or permissive. Either way, the result is that earthly guilt often seems capricious, dependent on whether the weakest moment comes at the worst possible time. On what vice happens to tempt me. On what you're offered at a party. On whether Josh Hamilton's genetic code
can ever handle moderation. On whether Joe Paterno's bosses did their jobs.

This principle applies equally to some of the good we are able to do. Take
Eric Hemenway, for instance. Hiding from a warrant after a drunk-driving hit and run, he saw a boy slip below the surface of a lake. He was there, so in he leapt to save a life. He gave a false name to the newspaper, but once his proud, oblivious grandmother read the story, she wrote in and demanded a correction. Word got back to the sheriff's office, and a deputy called Eric. "You left the scene at the hit-and-run, but you didn't leave the scene at the drowning. Go take care of this." And Eric, drunk driver, life saver, spirit and clay, got another chance at redemption.

In a very real way, every careless driver is equally guilty. Each endangers life in the same way. It is a vitally important thing, legally, to hold people accountable for the consequences of their actions, for the harm they have actually caused. We are not relieved of the responsibility that is ours. Only let us not, in foolish pride, look at any so fallen as beneath us. "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." All it takes is a moment.

--Steve

2 comments:

BAREFOOT KANGAROO said...

That's a good read right there. Moral luck...I'm gonna be thinking about this all day. Loved the closing thoughts.

Let's go talk about this some more in the hot tub? I'll bring out a pitcher of iced tea. Job, wear you trunks this time, okay?

The Sauce said...

Great read. Stephen Adam, I love your writing, friend. The story of Eric Hemenway rings a very dim bell (usually the result of falling asleep while reading something on my AP News app), but is very convicting, no pun intended. I'd add more, but I feel like you wrote this so well, there's not much TO add. So glad the Octagon is active.

security word: "dengi"
like a fever.