Luck is one of the words that people use without thinking. Whether in regard to grades, gambling, or even driving, many people ascribe the results to luck. But luck as a concept is difficult to define, despite its importance to our understanding knowledge and morality.
Ian Church, assistant professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College, and Robert J. Hartman, postdoctoral research fellow at Stockholm University recently edited “The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy and Psychology of Luck.” The book contains a collection of essays from various philosophers, psychologists, and theologians and serves as a guide to those who wish to know the various ways luck has been understood and its connection to the human experience.
“Ian and I edited the book because we noticed a growing interest in luck,” Hartman said in an email. “There are bodies of literature in philosophy — epistemology, ethics, political philosophy — and psychology that do not often interact. Our handbook will be a great aid for interaction in these fields.”
Church uses various examples to why our concept of luck matters.
“Imagine two drunk drivers. One gets in a car and drives it home,” Church said. “The other, in a perfectly identical situation, gets in a car and drives home, but they crash on the way and kill someone.”
Church says the situations are identical except the first driver was lucky and the second was not. Philosophers disagree on whether the drivers bear equal moral responsibility or to what extent, and why, the driver who killed someone bears more blame.
In the introduction to the book, Hartman writes, “The killer driver deserves more blame than the merely reckless driver.”
As Carolyn McLeod and Jody Tomchishen argue in a chapter of the book, luck shapes how we ascribe blame in society. But it also shapes our understanding of knowledge.
Senior and philosophy major Kyle Huitt said the classical definition of knowledge is justified true belief. Church raised the role luck plays in the concept of knowledge by raising the Gettier Problem, named after 20th century philosopher Edmund Gettier.
“Say I’m staying at a bed-and-breakfast in Scotland, and I look out my window and I think, ‘Oh, look, there’s a sheep in that field.’ But what I was seeing was a sheep-shaped rock,” Church said. “But it just so happens that there is a sheep somewhere else in that field. My belief that there is a sheep in that field turns out to be true, and seems like I’ve got some justification for it. But nevertheless, I don’t know it. Despite my justification, it is a matter of luck that my belief turns out to be true.”
Church said philosophers would not consider the aforementioned belief to be knowledge that “there is a sheep in that field,” because the justification for the belief is disconnected from what makes it true.
In their introduction, Hartman and Church reiterate the common claim that knowledge is incompatible with luck. With luck, people are left with lucky guesses, not justified true beliefs.
Some philosophers, like Wayne Riggs, tie the concept of luck to control. If an event occurs outside of an individual’s control, then the event is lucky. He also addresses counterpoints like the rising of the sun not being considered a lucky occurrence.
“Whether the sun rose this morning wasn’t in our control,” Church said. “But that doesn’t seem terribly lucky.”
Some essays in the book, like Duncan Pritchard’s, turn to a modal conception of luck: how likely the event would have been to occur in similar worlds.
“Suppose I was walking through the forest and I bent down to tie my shoe laces and a branch swoops right over my head such that if I were standing, I would have been blinded,” Church said. “And then I come through a clearing, and I see a turtle. There’s an element of luck that I can see the turtle and form beliefs based on that perception.”
Church said that the world wouldn’t have to be very different for the person to be blinded by the branch. Perhaps they bend down a second later, and because they narrowly avoided the negative outcome, they were lucky.
Hartman and Church’s book aims to help a person understand the concept of luck in a broad variety of circumstances.
“The average person desires to understand the concepts that they use,” Hartman said. “Although reading our handbook won’t help them put dinner on the table, it will help them to understand their relation to the world anew and in a deeper way.”