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Kind of seems like you’re cherrypicking outcomes. Reckless future knowledge use also helps them and precipitates good outcomes. For example, the core Vader prophecy was correct and thinking they knew it ultimately saved the entire galaxy. Alternatively, appropriate future knowledge use also causes plenty of harm. For example, Luke’s “fairness” in balancing concerns ultimately results in a million deaths abroad the death star, and as some have pointed out, destroying it may have been worse for the galaxy. (I also don't understand the Luke thing; it does not balance concerns to promise to fix things if you happen to survive being reckless.)

Marcus Arvan

wes: good worry. I don’t have time to give an in-depth reply right now (I’ll get to it first thing tomorrow!), but as a very rough first gloss I want to say:

(1) In terms of outcomes, anyone (the Jedi, the Emperor, Luke, Anakin) can get lucky or unlucky.

(2) On my account, morality and prudence are not to be understood in terms of actual outcomes (i.e. saving the Galaxy, etc) but instead in terms of what is rational given imperfect knowledge of the future.

(3) Even though Luke takes a risk in leaving Degobah, risks are unavoidable and someone who makes decisions the way Luke does (both on Degobah and in the Emperor’s throne room)—in terms of seeking to be fair to all those one’s actions might affect—is likely to enjoy better outcomes over the course of a life than people who make them in the ways that lead to tragedy in the series (viz. Anakin, the Jedi, etc.).

(4) On my account, it is rational for someone in Luke’s position (both on Degobah and in the throne room) to choose the things he does for their *own* sake, recognizing that while the future is inherently uncertain (he could fail to save his friends, Vader could fail to come to his rescue, etc.), fairness to all those who one could care about for its own sake is all that person ultimately has control over in the face of an otherwise uncertain future.

Anyway, this isn’t to say that I’m right about any or all of these things, and I’ll explai some uncertainties I have tomorrow. But I hope this reply helps give you a rough sketch of how I’m thinking about these things in the interim.


Thanks Marcus, it's pretty hard to see how Luke's choice on Dagobah is rational on your view, let alone according to basic common sense.

Perhaps I'm confused: If actual outcomes are irrelevant, rationality is determined in part by appeal to imperfect knowledge of the future, and force visions tend to give you that knowledge, then it seems perfectly rational for Jedi to act on them. For example, that it was rational for Anakin to go save Natalie Portman. The fact that choice ending up being disastrous is beside the point. In any event, why doesn't your reasoning about Luke's choice apply to Anakin's?

Marcus Arvan

Hi wes: thanks again for your comments! They raise very good worries. This is one of the trickiest parts of my account in Rightness as Fairness, and I'm not sure I have the details right. Still, I'm hopeful my account is at least in the ballpark.

I'll try to spell everything out in greater detail in Part 2 of this series, but here's a first stab at answering your last question about the difference between Luke and Anakin.

One key to my account is that it holds that we should not evaluate choices as "one-off" things. Rather, on my view, rational choice is matter of (1) *becoming* a person who is disposed to make fair choices, and then (2) makes them. Allow me to explain.

In Chapter 3 of RF, I allow that when considered in isolation, an immoral/unfair choice can have higher likely utility than a fair choice. This is why, I argue, immoral choices are so tempting: they *look* like they are advantageous simpliciter, because in a one-off case they can actually have a higher likely utility. The problem, I argue, is that being a *person* who thinks this way has lower likely utility over the course of a complete life. To be genuinely rational, on my account, one must not always aim to maximize expected utility in one-off cases, because the psychology that fosters than form of decisionmaking actually undermines the maximization of likely utility over the course of a life. Instead, to maximize expected utility over the course of a life, one must become the kind of person who sometimes worries that aiming to maximize expected utility may result in irreversible tragedy--and, from time to time, prioritize avoiding such *possible* tragedies above all (prioritizing risk-aversion). My argument then is that once one develops this adaptive disposition--a psychological disposition to encounter the "problem of possible future selves"--from *that* dispositional standpoint norms of fairness are uniquely rational to pursue.

Here is how this analysis applies to Luke and Anakin. Luke and Anakin plainly have very different characters and deliberation-styles. Anakin repeatedly acts on impulse, always doing what appears to him to have the greatest expected utility. He wants Padme, and despite warnings from Obi-Wan, thinks he is likely to get away with a relationship with her, and so he does it. By a similar token, he wants to take on Count Dooku on Geonosis and thinks his powers are likely superior, but despite Obi-Wan's admonition to take him on together, Anakin acts impulsively. Then, in Episode III, when egged on by the Emperor to execute Dooku, Anakin once again acts impulsively. Although he considers the possible tragic consequences very briefly (viz. "It is not the Jedi way"), he immediately suppresses those worries and goes through with the execution. And, of course, in Episode III instead of respecting Mace Windu's request that he stay home while the Jedi go to arrest the Supreme Chancellor, Anakin once again succumbs to his belief that it is likely that Padme will die unless he intervenes. Finally, there is his fateful choice to kill Mace Windu, once again on the impulse that Padme's death is likely unless the Emperor survives (viz. "I need him"). Luke, on the other hand, acts on impulse only very occasionally, usually pausing to consider the possible ramifications of his actions before he acts--and when he does act impulsively he learns (often at key points in the saga) to not doing it again.

I've done a lot of research on psychopaths. Anakin's style of deliberation is, by and large, precisely how psychopaths (and criminals) deliberate. They focus primarily--indeed, almost exclusively--on what they think is likely to satisfy their impulses. And, of course, in some cases, they are right. In any given crime, it may *be* likely that they will get away with it and not get caught--just as Anakin gets away with impulsivity for several decades. The problem, though--one that most of us learn--is that this strategy of deliberation is *not* utility-maximizing over the course of a complete life. If it were, we would all be criminals and psychopaths. What we learn, however, is that if even "getting away with it" is likely in a single case, the probability that one will repeatedly get away with it over the course of many iterations is close to zero (thanks to our inability to be omniscient about the future). Further, we also learn to recognize that the more we engage in this type of deliberation, the more reckless we are apt to become at it--as we have a tendency to become over-confident in our abilities to get away with it (think here of the student who cavalierly plagiarizes a paper in your class because they've gotten away with so easily many times before). Anakin is just Bernie Badoff with a lightsaber. Like Madoff, his focus on likely outcomes worked to his advantage in the short-run. But, just like Madoff, his decisionmaking style predictably led to tragedy in the long-run. Which is why we learn not to be like Anakin or Madoff. We learn to become people who deliberate differently.

How then do we learn to deliberate? Answer: by becoming people more like Luke. We learn to become people who *worry* about merely possible (if seemingly unlikely) tragic outcomes, because we learn from experience that sometimes that outcomes are so tragic and irreversible that they are not worth risking (note: this is the basic point of almost every "after-school" special, viz. "You might think you can lie to your parents and get away with it, but Aha!, the unexpected happens and you suffer...learn the lesson!").

Let's think, then, about Luke's character. Again, the question here is *not* whether every single action of Luke's is likely to maximize utility. I don't think that's true of the choice he made on Dagobah. Luke realized full well it was a risk, and that he would making a risk either way: the risk of allowing Leia and Han to die if he didn't go, and the risk of failure if he did. Because he had no idea how to weigh these risks, but was concerned about tragedy either way, he aimed simply to be *fair* to all those involved. He cared about Han and Leia's interests (which is why he attempted saving them), and he cared about Yoda and Obi-Wan's interests and wisdom (which is why he promised to return and kept his promise).

Now, on a one-off case, this could have gone badly for Luke. Right? In real life, he could have been killed and the entire rebel cause lost. However, in real life there is also no way he could have known which would actually be better. No, what he could do--and did do--is what *we* do who understand the dangers of Anakin's single-minded focus on seemingly likely outcomes. He (Luke) became a person of conscience. What kind of conscience? Answer: the kind of person who *worries* about possibly tragic outcomes and (following my account) grapples with the problem of possible future selves by aiming to be fair.

We can see how this aspect of his psychology leads to very different types of choices than Anakin. Whereas Anakin always acts impulsively, Luke does on occasion but mostly does not. For instance, when Obi-Wan holds his dream of leaving Tatooine and joining the rebellion in front of his nose--something Luke very much wants--Luke demurs, recalling the promise he made to Uncle Owen. He worries that he could *regret* breaking his promise. Similarly, consider the scene on Dagobah. Although he initially rushes to his X-wing, he does not merely act on impulse or what he thinks is likely. When Obi-Wan warns him that it is "too dangerous" and Yoda says, "Yes, you must complete your training", Luke once *pauses* and thinks about very carefully. Although we can only speculate what went on in his head, I think Rightness as Fairness tells a plausible story. He recognized that he could regret *either* decision, and thus, that all he could do is try to be *fair* to all of the individuals whose interests he could care about. This is, on my account, why he was led to "split the difference" between his own desires and his mentors'. Unlike Anakin, who simply ignored Mace Windu's interests (leading to tragedy), Luke saw that he could regret not helping his friends *and* regret not completing his training. So, what he did--and what I think is rational--is he tried to be fair to both. And I think, as my account recommends, he did this for its *own* sake, believing that it would be better to try to save Han & Leia *and* try to keep his promise because this, fairness, is *all* he could really do given the uncertainty of the future. In other words, given his character--which is rational to have (more below)--he did what is rational: aim to be fair for its own sake.

Now, the final question is why it is rational to be someone who deliberates this way. Well, the answer I think is fairly clear, both from the saga and from real-life. The kind of impulsivity Anakin demonstrates is precisely what lands criminals and psychopaths in prison (or worse). The kind caution and risk-aversion Luke demonstrates is not easy--and may not always be utility-maximizing in the short-run--but leads to better, safer deliberation in the long-run. The moments that define our lives--whether it is cheating on an exam, or cheating on a spouse, etc.--are, in greater or lesser ways, a lot like Luke's moment in the Emperor's throne room (and Anakin's moment with Dooku). Impulsive people do what Anakin did with Dooku: act impulsively, chopping his head off, failing to adequately attend to the pain and suffering it *might* cause later on (viz. cheating on exams, spouses, etc.). People of conscience do what Luke does when he looks at his own severed hand, realizing that if he kills Vader his future *could* be just as tragic: they stop short of doing the tragic thing (they don't cheat).

This what morality is all about on my account, and I think the picture it draws is plausible or at the very least onto something important, even if I haven't gotten all of the details right!


It's hard to follow this in the present case because Luke is actually an incredibly impulsive and reckless character throughout the original trilogy. Despite your spin, blatantly rushing off to save friends at Cloud City when he isn't ready and the rest of the galaxy counting on him to become a Jedi is a good example of this. He's pretty clearly blinded by emotion and inexperience and in doing so foolishly endangers everything they ever fought for. Doesn't seem like too much fairness or rationality.

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