Moral Luck and Voluntary Action: Is There a Corresponding Pedagogical Luck?

Moral luck (sometimes described as moral accident) describes a situation where someone is assigned moral blame or praise for something happening, even though the person was either not in control of what was happening or could not affect its consequences. There are many examples, including the traffic accident scenario described in the Moral Luck link, and there are several different classifications of moral luck but let me focus on one: the situation where you either take no positive steps to address a situation, or actively take negative steps, yet the outcome is still positive. To a consequentialist, this is a beneficial outcome and constitutes an example of Resultant Moral Luck. One of the most extreme examples is that you randomly stick your foot out, hoping to trip someone in the street, and accidentally bring down a criminal being pursued by the police. The outcome is good, you are possibly a hero, but any assignation of a moral intention to your actions is deeply flawed: you weren’t in control of the situation, you did not intend the outcome and, in fact, you had hoped to cause harm. The voluntary action that you took was in no way intended to cause this outcome. Yet, you are a hero.

When we look at methods and practices of teaching, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many different approaches and, upon doing some reading, that these have different utilities and efficacies. Your choice of pedagogy is rarely a one-size-fits-all approach and, especially if your institution takes a relatively traditional approach, we have to start to wonder exactly which part of the evolutionary selection stage we are in. Have we, by chance and/or design, arrived at an elegant and efficient design years ago that cannot be improved upon by recent findings or are we ripe for new development, new directions and entirely different ways of teaching?

I would argue that, if we are not taking steps to confirm where we are in the developmental timeline or we are not taking steps to examine what we do with the intention of improving,  then we are wandering in an area that we could call pedagogical luck, where any positive teaching outcomes that may arise cannot be attributed to our voluntary actions and intentions. Are we in the territory that Feynman was referring to when he quoted Gibbon:

“The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous”?

The notion of pedagogical luck, much like moral luck, raises questions of responsibility and accountability. It also explains how we can misattribute blame, because we risk not having a clear ethical framework that can ascribe intention, action and outcome in a meaningful way. In moral luck two people can speed through the same red light, yet only one causes an accident because a child runs into an intersection and the other one may receive a fine for running the light. The outcomes could almost not be any more starkly different: in one a human is injured or killed, the other is a purely administrative outcome. We certainly will attribute more blame to the first driver than the second, despite the fact that both had no desire to kill, nor did they act any differently – the reason that this is resultant is because this is just the way things turned out.

If an academic works with a class and, as it happens, everyone passes, then we would usually assume some intention and voluntary action was involved on the part of that academic. The outcome, for the students and the academic, are both beneficial. It is… unlikely… that said academic would then walk around stating “I’m amazed that they all passed – I barely even showed up to class and I didn’t revise the notes.” However, where someone has done nothing (or has not taken a voluntary action to cause change) and all of the students fail, we can expect (with a reasonable certainty) that the usual statements of blame shifting may start to occur: the students were stupid, lazy, unprepared, insufficiently attentive, the material was pitched at the right level but the students didn’t work hard enough, et cetera. “I have kept the course the same, it is obviously the students who are at fault.” Of course, it’s easy to see why if we have not taken any active steps to change anything – why should we be held responsible for an action that has had either neutral or positive outcomes in the past? Why should we judge the killer-driver any more harshly than the red-light-runner? The outcome is a matter of luck.

This is highly undesirable behaviour so how can we avoid the issues involved in depending upon pedagogical luck? I’m tempted to delve into virtue ethics here and argue that, of all places, that if you can’t find a virtuous seeker of knowledge in a University then perhaps we should all go back to a simple agrarian existence and wait to die of some horrifically mutated bovine disease that we no longer have the wit or wisdom to cure. However, I suspect that we don’t need to all be virtuous, all the time, to adopt a simple maxim that commits us to seeking improvement in our learning and teaching, or to confirming that our approaches are still valid. Where possible, such endeavours should be public and shared widely, so that our lessons can be learned elsewhere. Yes, we’ve wandered fairly heavily into Kant because I’m effectively arguing good will as a stand-alone virtue, regardless of what is achieved. In the absence of a guarantee of virtuous people, and we all have bad days, then perhaps it is a commitment to scholarship, review and reflection that can allow us to take that fresh approach to pedagogical development and implementation that will cause us to be less susceptible to blame shifting where it is inappropriate and less likely to form cargo-cultish ideas as to why certain courses are succeeding or failing.

It is a simple idea: claiming beneficial outcomes as caused by us when we have done nothing is questionable, ethically, especially when we refuse to accept negative outcomes under the same scenario. By identifying that pedagogical luck is possible and readily identifiable in certain practices around the world, we clearly identify the need to avoid the situations where it can dominate.

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