For this post to make sense, you need to be familiar with the idea of moral luck. You can watch an excellent Youtube video by Hank Green, or listen to my ten second version of how Thomas Nagel uses of the term.

Imagine two people, with two identical cars, who leave two identical parties, and drive home equally drunk. A child darts out into the road before Driver One, and he does not stop in time. No child appears before Driver Two, and he returns home safely. Who has acted more immorally?

The conventional answer is that the guy who killed the child has acted more immorally. Nagel’s question is: why is that? If we assume that people are only responsible for their choices, and not for external factors over which they had no control, why do One and Two not share the same degree of moral culpability? What’s the difference? Is it just that Two was lucky? Moral luck’s a deep topic, that I can’t cover in a short podcast, but I’d like to show how it teases out in Mythic Europe.

Nagel suggests the way through his puzzle is to look at different kinds of moral luck. The first is Constitutive Luck, which is to have the good fortune to have physical or psychological characteristics which guard us from situations of moral hazard. These, in Ars Magica, are literally called Virtues, and the lack of this style of luck are Flaws. Nagel has a second category, Antecedent Luck, which suggests that the way circumstances have moulded you up to this point influences your performance. This is reflected most strongly in the Personality trait system, but also in Virtues, Flaws, and Ability experience. Circumstantial luck is modelled though Story Flaws, and the Covenant Boon and Hook system. It encompasses the fortune you have to be born into a society, and in a stratum, where your moral action is easy. Luck of consequent circumstances is the luck Driver Two has above: having done an immoral thing, they have the good fortune to not cause harm, and so to not be culpable.This is an effect of the Virtues that allow re-rolls or allow bonuses on skill rolls, like Knacks. It’s also pure luck of the dice: if you make your roll, you didn’t do the terrible thing. (Nagel thinks that both drivers are equally immoral, by the way: he sees wrongdoing and harm as related, but separate, things).

In Mythic Europe, there’s a complicated relationship between choice, action, result and moral blame. This matters because your characters will be judged after death, and are surrounded by demonic forces that put their thumb on the scale, tempting you toward damnation. Does moral luck, or the lack of moral luck, give demons something new to do?

The obvious first step is for demons to ensure consequential ill luck. A demon pushes the child onto the road, or lets the child out of the house so that it is wandering in the street. Your blameworthy action is due to ill circumstances, but those circumstances are constructed in a way you cannot see  (you have circumstantial ill luck). One of the main reasons for the existence of the Dominion is to keep these tiny demons of ill-luck away from the Faithful.

One set of folklore about one of the dukes of Hell is that he does ill by doing good. He helps you build a bridge that an army will later cross to raze your village. He gives you a ride home, just in time to catch your wife in bed with a neighbour. He sharpens the knife that slips and cuts off your finger. He lends you money, so that you attract robbers, gamblers and temptresses. He doesn’t seem to work in Sth Edition, because demons can’t plan, but if you accept that the desire to do ill is, of itself, an ill, he doesn’t need to. He can hurt you without needing to foresee your choices.

Similarly, demons can generate antecedent ill-luck. Demons which trick you into exercising vices make you more likely to act viciously in the future. This places you in a situation of moral hazard. The demon doesn’t make you drink then drive knowing you’ll hit a kid, but it does encourage you to drink. It encourages your pride in your ability to drive. It manufactures the preconditions of your moral ill-luck.

To stretch this idea further, let’s look at how Mythic Europeans view the ideas around moral luck.

The hardest line on this is a particular reading of Jesus, coming from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5 is often thought of as one of Jesus’ more cuddly outings, because it’s where he talks about turning the other cheek, but He also says:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[e]28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

So, to a hard line follower of Jesus. the desire to commit a sin is itself a sin, even if there is no plan to act on that desire. The desire is, itself, an act. This isn’t strictly parallel to the two driver problem given above, but it’s a fresh wrinkle. To a hard line follower of Jesus: the sin occurs when the driver decides to get his keys out, not when he turns the ignition or hits the kid.

Oregin is one of my favourite Church fathers, because of his insistence on the universal redemption of everything, even demons, and the possibility that Hell was empty, but his heterodoxy went into the “terrifying the Church” level when he and his followers, according to some histories, taking Jesus quite literally, saw Matthew as a call to self-castration. The Church quickly tells people that this is not what was intended at all, but his idea of the absolute mortification of the flesh to make is a suitable spiritual vessel, bubbles along in the gnostic underground of Christianity. in 1220 the Perfecti of the Cathars aren’t cutting bits of themselves off, but they similarly disdain the flesh, because they think its a source of immorality. The urges of the flesh, even if you don’t act on them, are sins. You don’t need to do harm to others to be immoral: you just need to disobey God, thereby harming yourself.

The Church took a view closer to that of modern people: sin is necessarily voluntary. Your sinning eye is just a metaphor for your mental state. If you want to sin, you are sinning, sure, but it’s not the same as actually doing stuff. Thoughts can break the law of God, and so are personally harmful to the thinker, but that’s not nearly so heinous as deliberately hurting someone else. The literal argument, and the self-mutilation it engenders, are a heresy. Demons can spread that heresy, thereby appearing holy.

Dante is popular later in history, but he has so eclipsed our view of medieval theology that his ideas show up in Ars Magica. As his books continue, the narrator tours Hell, and meets people carefully taxonomised by their sins. The punishments they have suit their crimes, in an almost Mikadoesque way. These crimes require acts, and you are basically punished eternally for your single worst act.

Note that your lesser evil acts can’t matter. Librarians know this taxonomy problem: if you put a book about feminist views of Mary in the section on feminism, you can’t put it in the section on Mariology. Judas is ground in the mouth of the devil for betrayal: his covetousness of money gets to slide, because you can only be in one classification at a time. In a particularly forgiving view of Hell, you might suggest that a sinner ascends through the punishments as they are purged of their vices. There is still, however, a stratification by acts. You are still classified by your worst day.

If you are judged for what happens to you on your worst day, demons don’t have to degrade you into an inveterate sinner. They get to roll the dice on you, day after day, until the numbers finally come up their way. Now, demons can’t plan, but they don’t need to: they can just rely on the law of large numbers. If every attempt at temptation pushes someone toward constitutive ill luck, then a sort of Brownian motion of tiny demons suffices to damn most people.

I was thinking about this, and the musical Hamilton, and Aaron Burr. He’s got problems: I’m not saying he’s a saint, but as Lin Manuel Miranda notes, he is cautious his whole life except for this one time, where he thinks he’s in mortal danger and so he shoots Hamilton. He doesn’t repent this for years. He regrets it: he refers to Hamilton as “my friend, who I shot”, but it’s not until he’s an old man that he accept that killing him was wrong, rather than unlucky. In Dante’s version, that gets young Burr a spot in Hell, except if his shot misses. Then young Burr still might get in for pride, or wanting to kill someone, but he doesn’t get the lower circle treatment. Luck: the good fortune to get what you want, at the moment of moral weakness, is damning in Mythic Europe.

This means that a demon sticking around Burr can just be persistently helpful. It doesn’t need to ask for his soul: it just needs him to fire first, or fire cleanly, or notice that Hamilton is wearing his glasses and link that to him intending to aim precisely. Demons don’t need to be metal guys, demanding you sacrifice kittens and write contracts in blood. Many of them like that sort of thing, because they have no self-restraint, but they don’t require it to damn people. They can just give you what you want, for free. I can see this as a new character creation Virtue.

How Hermetic Law deals with moral luck is interesting: it cares about outcome, about harm. It does this because it can’t know motive. It doesn’t know if you are thinking the wrong thing, so it need to find people who have done things and make examples out of them, as a form of societal deterrence.  I’m not sure intention matters much: this may vary by House. In some Greek philosophy, for example, intent doesn’t matter. Oedipus kills his father and has sex with his mother by accident. When he discovers this, he destroys himself. His antecedent moral luck is terrible, and it over-rides the modern idea that if you don’t know something, you aren’t culpable for that thing. Some faeries have a similarly literal interpretation of agreements. Hermetic law forbids acts: you not knowing the consequences may mitigate what a Tribunal assesses as your penalty, but it’s the act, not the motive, that matters.

This is important because the self is less united in Mythic Europe than we like to think. Each person is body, spirit and soul, and there are cases of the spirit acting on its own, or even parts of the spirit acting on their own. I’m not talking a strict Jekyll and Hyde here (although there is the moral question of if Jekyll is responsible for Hyde’s action), but there are related cases. If, while you sleep, your spirit takes the form of a wolf and worries cattle, or even eats people, to what extent are you morally culpable? If part of your spirit is sheared off and becomes a monster you must defeat, are you still the monster? In Hermetic law, yes: you are responsible, otherwise House Tytalus could just use their habit of creating false personae to commit crimes, then have the criminal melt away into nothing, unreachable by the law.

This means that all a faerie or demon has to do to damn you in the eyes of the Order is make sure that your consequential luck is bad. Criminality having a moral as well as a legal outcome, your character’s lucky Virtues don’t just protect from bad in-game events, they shield from the moral consequences of causing harm.


2 replies on “Moral Luck in Mythic Europe

  1. Very interesting, thanks.
    I don’t think I’m intelligent enough to grasp this easily, so I’ll need to read it several times, I think, but I liked it.


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