Samuel Adams and Moral Luck

At a recent Berkeley concert featuring Daniel Hope and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Hope introduced Max Richter’s Four Seasons Recomposed (which formed the second half of the concert), recounting the story of the piece’s creation. Richter wrote it for Hope and when he first broached the idea, Hope says he rather flippantly asked Richter what was wrong with the original. “Nothing,” said Richter. “I love the original.” But Richter thought it was hard to engage with the original as a piece of music. Its ubiquity worked against it.

Perhaps the same is true about America’s founding history. All those legendary moments in early American history are hard to separate from the childhood stories. The Ride of Paul Revere, the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party. It is truly epic stuff; the Tea Party may be the single greatest piece of revolutionary theatre ever pulled off. Yet just because of this familiarity, even those who delve deeper into Revolutionary times may find themselves gliding around or past those mythic events. Which may be why reading Stacy Schiff’s The Revolutionary:  Samuel Adams feels a bit like a joyful High-School reunion after decades away.

Because unlike Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington or even John Adams, you cannot tell the story of Samuel Adams without tracing that epic journey through nearly every mythical moment of the march to independence. Not just because Adams was there, but more often than not, because Adams was responsible.

Governor Thomas Hutchinson said of Adams, “The Devil himself is not capable of more malevolence” and “I doubt whether there is a greater incendiary in the King’s dominions or a man of greater malignity of his purposes; and I think I do him no injustice when I suppose he wishes the destruction of every friend to government in America.”

And really, he does him no injustice with this last sentiment.

Adams is merciless in his use of the mob and his ability to shape the public narrative. The “Boston Massacre” was, in many respects, the artful creation of Adam’s narrative imagination. With his countless pseudonyms, Adams reshaped and relitigated the narrative of the Massacre for years after the event – making it’s annual  commemoration a keynote of the Massachusetts calendar. His use of the purloined Hutchinson letters (obtained in London by Franklin) is a master class is showmanship and distortion. “Adams,” says Schiff, “took every liberty with the letters, cherry-picked, masterfully edited, then spliced together for maximum effect.”

The essence of revolution is outrage not truth. Hutchinson’s claim that “[Adams] made more converts to his cause by calumniating governors, and other servants of the Crown, than by strength of reasoning,” is surely true for any effective revolutionary and probably for any politician. Schiff sums up Hutchinson’s view of Adams this way, “He could blacken a character more effectively than anyone Hutchinson had ever met. He wrote with consummate talent. Adams seemed to have resolved the eternal Harvard College thesis question about ends justifying the means. Which, Hutchinson acidly supposed, quieted ‘the remorse he must have felt from robbing men of their characters, and injuring them more than if he has robbed them of their estates.’”

Of all the important figures in pre-1776 America, it is Adams who most clearly fits the modern conception of a revolutionary. A failure at nearly everything except revolutionary politics, a poor man, and far more of a troublemaker than a builder. A man who loved a fight and whose dauntlessness can easily be attributed to pugnacity more than courage. Yet Adams gained and held the esteem of many who had far more to lose and who probably enjoyed the fight rather less. More than any other man, and quite a bit earlier than most, American independence was his project.

To get there, Adams made the sacrifices that all revolutionaries and most successful politicians must make. He played fast and loose with the facts. Vilified his opponents. Denied his own aims. Threatened, abused and intimidated those who stood in his way. The founding myth (as a myth must) obscures how personal and political it all was. But while the life and history of The Revolutionary:  Samuel Adams certainly provides an entertaining look at how even the best sausage gets made, it also serves as the springboard into thoughts about how we should think about the morality of revolutionaries and perhaps even about the morality of more day-to-day politicians.

Because how we think about Samuel Adams is very much a matter of what Bernard Williams would have called moral luck. Williams described the concept of moral luck in a classic paper from 1976 with that name and he expanded on the concept in a collection of essays (also called Moral Luck) published in 1981.

The idea of moral luck is that contrary to both Kantian and Utilitarian moral theories, there are life projects whose moral status cannot be judged except in light of what happens in the world. And since the success or failure of projects in the world is always contingent – the moral status of the person investing in the project is necessarily a matter of luck. Williams put forward a number of cases that he thought embodied the notion of moral luck (some are closely associated with his even more compelling arguments for agent regret), with the case of Gauguin being his favorite. Williams describes Gauguin’s case this way:

“Let us take first an outline example of the creative artist who turns away from definite and pressing human claims on him in order to live a life in which, as he supposes, he can pursue his art. Without feeling that we are limited by any historical facts, let us call him Gauguin. Gauguin might have been a man who was not at all interested in the claims on him, and simply preferred to live another life, and from that life, and perhaps from that preference, his best paintings came. That sort of case, in which the claims of others simply have no hold on the agent, is not what concerns me here, though it serves to remind us of something related to the present concerns, that while we are sometimes guided by the notion that it would be the best of worlds in which morality were universally respected and all men were of a disposition to affirm it, we have in fact deep and persistent reasons to be grateful that that is not the world we have.

Let us take, rather, a Gauguin who is concerned about these claims and what is involved in their being neglected (we may suppose this is to be grim), and that he nevertheless, in the face of that, opts for the other life….it is a life which will enable him really to be a painter.

Whether he will succeed cannot, in the nature of the case, be foreseen. We are not dealing here with the removal of an external obstacle to something which, once that is removed, will fairly predictably go through. Gauguin, in our story, is putting a great deal on a possibility which has not unequivocally declared itself. I want to explore and uphold the claim that in such a story, the only thing that will justify his choice will be success itself. If he fails…then he did the wrong thing, not just in the sense in which that platitudinously follows, but in the sense that having done the wrong thing in those circumstances he has no basis for the thought that he was justified in acting as he did. If he succeeds, he does have a basis for that thought…

One should be warned…that even if Gauguin can be ultimately justified, that need not provide him with any way of justifying himself to others, or at least to all others. Thus he may have no way of bringing it about that those who suffer from his decision will have no justified ground of reproach. Even if he succeeds, he will not acquire a right that they accept what he has to say; if he fails, he will not even have anything to say.”

I give this extended introductory passage not only to set the table for the idea of moral luck but to give readers who might be unfamiliar with Williams’ a taste of his crystalline style. Williams is the apogee of English-language analytic philosophy: remarkably clear and always compelling.

Having described the case, Williams explains why a rule based approach to solving Gauguin style problems won’t work.  “What could that rule be? It could not be that one is morally justified in deciding to neglect other claims if one is a great creative artist: apart from doubts about its content, the saving clause begs the question which is at the relevant time one is no position to answer. On the other hand, ‘…if one is convinced that one is a great creative artist’ will serve to make obstinacy and fatuous self-delusion conditions of justification, while ‘…if one is reasonably convinced that one is a great creative artist’ is, if anything, worse. What is a reasonable conviction supposed to be in such a case? Should Gauguin consult professors of art?”

Williams attacks a consequentialist interpretation with equal vigor. “They can offer the thought ‘it is better (worse) that he did it’, where the force of that is, approximately, ‘it is better (worse) that it happened’, but this in itself does not help towards a characterization of the agent’s decision or its possible justification, and Utilitarianism has no special materials of its own to help in that.” Williams develops the attack further with a remarkable turn in the argument. “The Utilitarian perspective, not uniquely but clearly, will miss a very important dimension of such cases, the question of what ‘failure’ may relevantly be. From the perspective of consequences, the goods or benefits for the sake of which Gauguin’s choice was made either materialise in some degree, or do not materialise. But it matters considerably to the thoughts we are considering, in what way the project fails to come off, if it fails. If Gauguin sustains some injury on the way to Tahiti which prevents him from ever painting again, that certainly means that that his decision…was for nothing, and indeed there is nothing in the outcome to set against other people’s loss. But that train of events does not provoke the thought in question, that after all he was wrong and unjustified. He does not, and never will, know whether he was wrong.”

This is brilliant and captures something profound about the example. The status of Gauguin’s choice is not simply a matter of judging outcomes. If his ship sinks on the way to Tahiti the consequences are the same as if he is merely a bad painter (no great art gets produced by Gauguin). But if his ship sinks, no one will ever be able to say whether he was justified. We do not know if his paintings would have justified his abandonment of his family responsibilities. Only a failure to paint great art will make his failure truly something that undercuts his justification.

Most moral philosophers have never accepted Williams’ critique. A Kantian will insist that it makes no sense to judge people based on the contingencies of the world and a consequentialist will do the same albeit in a slightly different fashion (the consequentialist believes that the rightness of an action is determined by its consequences but pretty much all consequentialist thinkers would insist that if a person thought carefully about the likely consequences and chose the one with the highest expected value they chose appropriately regardless of the contingent outcome). But when it comes to decisions that involve fundamental transformations of the self or of society (becoming a great painter or becoming a free or equal state), decisions are inherently contingent in a way not readily captured by  expected outcomes.

That’s why, when it comes to thinking about a revolutionary like Samuel Adams the intuitive power of Williams’ model shines. Because how we think about Samuel Adams is tied to the success of the revolutionary project in the very specific way that the quality of Gauguin’s painting is tied to how we think about his project. And in both cases, we recognize that there’s really no way the decision-maker can have knowledge about the outcome or its expected values.

Indeed, in Moral Luck Williams lays out in his usual parsimonious style a theory of transformative choice that effectively renders Consequentialist and Rawlsian perspectives on decision-making moot. Williams first lays out the classic case for a decision-maker to treat decisions as if they were a trustee to their future self:

 “These strains come together in Rawls’ advocacy of ‘the guiding principle that a rational individual is always to act so that he need never blame himself no matter how things finally transpire’.

Rawls seems to regard this injunction as, in a sense, formal, and as not determining how risky or conservative a strategy the agent should adopt, but it is worth remarking that if any grounding for self-reproach about deliberative error is to be found in the notion of the recriminations of one’s later self, the injunction will in fact have to be taken in a more materially cautious sense. The grounding relies on an analogy with the responsibility to other persons: I am a trustee for my own future. If this has any force at all, it is hard to see why it does not extend to my being required, like any other trustee, to adopt a cautious strategy with the entrusted goods – which are, in this case, almost everything I have.”

And then proceeds to destroy the point.

“However that may be, the model that gives rise to the injunction is false. Apart from other difficulties, it implicitly ignores the obvious fact that what one does and the sort of life one leads condition one’s later desires and judgments. The standpoint of that retrospective judge who will be my later self will be the product of my earlier choices. So there is no set of preferences both fixed and relevant, relative to which the various fillings of my life-space can be compared. If the fillings are to be evaluated by reference to what I variously, in them want, the relevant preferences are not fixed, while if they are to be evaluated by what I now (for instance) want, this will give a fixed set of preferences, but one that is not necessarily relevant. The recourse from this within the life-space model is to assume (as  Utilitarianism does) that there is some currency of satisfaction, in terms of which it is possible to compare quite neutrally the value of one set of preferences together with their fulfillments, as against a quite different set of preferences together with their fulfillments. But there is no reason to suppose there is such a currency, nor that the idea of a practical rationality should implicitly presuppose it.”

This is why L.A. Paul’s elaboration of the existence of transformative experience and its ramifications for a theory of rationality has direct and powerful implications for ethics.

William’s point was that our justifications about ourselves and others are rightly bound up with the actual outcomes in the world. They do not begin and end with those outcomes, but neither can they be entirely removed from them or excused based on our knowledge of prior probabilities. Insofar as we admire an Adams, it is a matter of moral luck. Not because our judgements are capricious or flawed but because it is truly impossible to separate the agent from the project and the project from its success or failure in the world. Adams, like Gauguin, may have been SURE that his project of independence was right. But people are constantly wrong about things they are sure of. In 1770, Samuel Adams could not have known how things would be in 1800, any more than Lenin in 1910 could have seen 1940.

If the American revolution had been superseded by some greater natural or man-made calamity (a Yellowstone super-eruption for example), the status of Adam’s project would be indeterminate. We’d have no way to see if his vision of an independent colony would have been worthwhile. Of course, in such a case we probably wouldn’t give two thoughts two Samuel Adams any more than most Americans think about James McFarlane. But the point is that neither we nor Adams could ever say whether he was justified in his actions on behalf of revolution. On the other hand, if the revolution had spun out of control and become an exercise in tyranny then Adam’s project would have failed in the way most significant to how we judge it and him.

Williams’ view is compelling partly because it puts our moral judgements in both conflict and complement to our other values. Williams did not believe that a moral judgement must trump any other concern. Gauguin’s justification hinges on his belief that he can make great paintings. The justification involves both a claim about himself (I can be a great painter given the right circumstances) and a claim about value (producing great paintings will justify abandoning my family). Outside of schools of philosophy, everyone believes this second claim. We believe it in our personal decisions. We believe it in our choice of exemplars. And we believe it in the way, as a culture, we distribute praise and blame.

What you do in the world matters a great deal and moral value is not the only kind of value. On the other hand, Williams was not willing to let consequentialist probability calculations supersede reality either. Williams would certainly have thought that no realistic calculation of probabilities is possible in Gauguin’s or Adam’s situation (see TW2BR’s article on Utilitarian Public Policy for why expected value calculations are incoherent in most big public policy decisions), but he would have insisted that only with respect to what actually happened and only in some cases can a justification be evaluated. Doing your best to estimate probable outcomes is not sufficient as a justification, and even a full accounting of the outcomes is insufficient to establish the relevant kind of failure.

So how we think about Gauguin is tied to our view of his life project and its success in its own terms. And, in fact, the same would have been true for Gauguin thinking how his own life and self. If his ship went down in a storm, his last thought would not have been “I failed as a painter”. But if he went to Tahiti and nothing came, he might well have recognized that his fundamental project and the actions he took to pursue it were all a mistake.

This matters because in the political sphere we recognize that people must often do bad things to accomplish good ones. You really cannot make an omelet without cracking some eggs. And in the world, political good is usually accomplished with forms of offsetting harm. Yet it is easy for those with power (or the desire for it) to care very little for the eggs and to crack far too many in the service of projects that turn out to be inedible. It’s no surprise Williams also wrote on the problem of “dirty hands” and how we should think about them. In particular, we have a right to be concerned (especially with revolutionaries) that the dirtier a politician’s hands get, the worse they become. If we are changed by experience, we should we wary of experiences that will change us for the worse and even warier of encouraging those with power to do things that will make them worse.

The problem of dirty hands is tightly bound to how we judge revolutionaries like Samuel Adams or Vladimir Lenin. Can we admire Samuel Adams but not Lenin? John Adams but not Samuel Adams? A revolutionary will have dirty hands. How dirty matters, but so too does the project those hands were in service to. We can admire the gadfly Adams threatening customs collectors with tar and feather because his project turned out to have justified his vision. At the same time, success is not a blank check on justification – especially with respect to those who are harmed. Even from the outside, we might admire John Adams more. Not because he was more or even as effective in creating that life project, but because he seems to have enjoyed a better balance between revolutionary and builder and between man and politician.  We don’t want our political leaders to be squeamish, but neither do want them to revel in the muck.

There is, of course, a real distinction between the violence of Adams and the violence of Lenin. We live in a world of slippery slopes and not every harm is the same. But we should keep in mind that not everyone is blessed with having the right kind of opponent.  While Adams ascribed every form of tyranny to Hutchinson, his only real sin seems to have been a considerable abuse of patronage. Adams was lucky in his opponents.

Some revolutions are easier than others, and it would be a mistake to assume that the moral standards of one must be the moral standards of another. Yet every revolutionary must be justified (not in some abstract trial sense but in the court of our own opinions) by the internal success of their project. Not just in making a revolution, but in making one that fulfills their vision and that we (who are reflecting on that justification) can endorse. William’s idea of moral luck captures this relationship and its subtleties better than any other moral theory. It makes it clear why we can, should, and do admire one revolutionary and not another. It also makes clear that we are not always in a position to make a good judgement (positive or negative) about a revolutionary until well after the events have played out. This, too, squares well with our everyday and historical experience.

Samuel Adams, unlike many of his brethren, might have adapted well to the far harsher means of the twentieth century. He was a wily dog. An obstinate plotter. A politician. A revolutionary. Like many such, he lived for the fight. We may admire these things, but we admire them because he put these qualities in service of the political equivalent of great art. When you are a politician, a plotter and a revolutionary, the life project you choose, and its success or failure, is the most important moral fact about you. Given the history of revolutions since 1776, it’s easy to see just how morally lucky Adams was.

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