On Tuesday (coincidentally the title of one of my favourite songs by the Men Without Hats on their gorgeous synth-pop album Pop Goes the World), I was invited to The Ship pub to give a talk for the Department of Philosophy’s Public Lecture Series. The 40-minute talk was on the philosophical concept of moral luck as seen in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films. This entry of the blog is a highly compressed version of the talk, which was in itself a shortened version of an essay published earlier this year in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Film-Philosophy.
At its simplest, moral luck is a factor when we judge people “responsible for events that are not entirely within their control” (Gregory par. 25). The philosopher Bernard Williams coined the term “moral luck” at Cambridge University in the very late 1970s, and he thought it would seem like an oxymoron or a contradiction at the time (251), but he and others have since shown that—yes—luck does matter morally.
One of the classic examples is of two drivers: one passes a stop sign without stopping and nothing happens, and another also passes a stop sign without stopping—but hits and kills a pedestrian walking through the crosswalk (Nagel 25). Although the collision is bad luck, we want to judge the driver who killed the pedestrian, not the luck, because luck has no moral agency by itself, right? But luck seems to have made the difference. We also want to judge the driver who killed the pedestrian as worse than the driver who didn’t.
Williams and Thomas Nagel were writing about moral luck around the same time, but neither mentions Dirty Harry—but the first Dirty Harry film in 1971 happens to use one of the examples that they would use later in the 1970s and early 1980s. The main character, Harry Callahan, explains that his wife died when struck by a drunk driver. He rationalizes her death with these words: “There was no reason for it, really.” From this, I assume that the death of his wife helped to create the Callahan we know by adapting him to the unpredictability of others. He is highly tolerant of luck.
I think that he believes that the morality of the luck depends on others, which is why he is often casually willing to allow other men to decide whether to escalate violence. I’m going to try to explain moral luck through a few movies in the series that many of you will have seen: the five Dirty Harry movies, starring Clint Eastwood.
Because most of us probably haven’t seen Dirty Harry in a while, I’m going to remind everyone about how it goes as we start thinking about moral luck and how we know who we are, and which invites a trio of big words: epistemology, which is the study of how we know something; ontology, the study of being, of who and what we are; and existentialism, which is a belief in being defined by our free will and responsibility. I won’t dwell on these concepts; my purpose right now is to show that the first Dirty Harry film is unexpectedly ambiguous and full of subtle hints about philosophical concepts of who we are, and how we know what we are.
This ambiguity can be interpreted not as a hidden ideological message but as respect for the intelligence of the viewer. Maybe at other times I’d be less generous, but I think that Dirty Harry has, in a sense, a both conservative and liberal respect for our own free will, as in classical liberalism, our ability to think and interpret for ourselves. Unlike so much of today’s media, the Dirty Harry films seem like they’re in dialogue with a variety of political views.
In Dirty Harry, Callahan wants to bring criminals to justice without interference from what he perceives as an overly liberal police department and government. He seems conservative, today, but the film itself, with his name on it, seems liberal in preferring the attitudes and actions of African American criminals over those of white criminals. I’ll return to this deliberate contrast at the end of this entry, but first let me describe the most iconic scene. At the start of the film, Eastwood’s character defeats a series of bank robbers of African descent. The first man to shoot at Callahan (mildly hurting his leg) and to be shot by Callahan is about to retrieve his shotgun when he is targeted again, at close range. Eastwood then delivers the famous lines that I mentioned earlier: “I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?” Satisfied that all is under control, Callahan begins to walk away, but the robber calls after him, “Hey! I got to know.” Notice that both the robber and Callahan say “I know” or “I got to know,” signalling epistemology or how we know. Callahan returns, aims at the man, and pulls the trigger—but the gun has no more bullets. By seeming to involve chance in the moral work of stopping a criminal, Callahan invokes moral luck, and the question of who is responsible.
Whether Callahan is bluffing by saying that he “lost track” of the shots he fired is a related question. My published essay does not mention the fact that Callahan repeats this speech with a different outcome at the end of the film, but I’ll return to this repetition at the end here too. At this moment in the story, his potential bluffing can be interpreted as surprisingly epistemological and ontological, about knowing and being. It’s involved in Callahan’s moral ambiguity.
The scene of the robbery offers a rather dizzying array of potential meanings, and it requires some close attention before we hear more about how Eastwood involves luck in representations of heroism. It would appear that Callahan is ready to murder the subdued man because of an implied question: “I got to know” how bad you really are, or if your gun is still loaded.
But his desire “to know” has more to it than that. To know is not to be deceived. It’s shorthand for knowing the truth, and so the final pulling of the trigger is even surprisingly existential. The robber might be asking his question to know a truth about himself, in addition to the more obvious possibility of wanting to dare the policeman to kill him. If he’s asking about himself, it’s about whether he is a good and virtuous man despite the robbery. If Callahan is bluffing and knows that the gun is empty, his pulling of the trigger is, first, a sign of his merciless sense of humour.
Second, it’s a judgment. Yes, we can imagine Callahan thinking, you backed down, so you’re good enough not to die right now. Callahan also implies that, unlike the robber, he knows himself to be good and would not fire a loaded gun at a defenceless man. He refers to “the truth” here in a moment that is wryly confessional, especially when he says, “I kinda lost track myself,” but he could be lying about having lost track. Callahan’s attitude and his personality do suggest that he is bluffing: he exudes self-control, or at least confidence—but then there are so many times in the Dirty Harry films when his behaviour is so reckless that he could not possibly know in advance the results of all his actions. When he asks the robber if he feels lucky, for example, Callahan knows at least that he has already won, even if he does not know the extent of the damage that he might cause in winning.
What if Callahan is not bluffing? If Callahan really did lose track of the number of shots he fired, then he's playing a version of Russian roulette that does not risk the life of the person holding the gun. Notably, he does this only when asked, “I got to know.” Impulsive and irresponsible, he projects some of the responsibility for his action onto the robber, as if the robber’s guilt or innocence could be decided not by the robber’s violence, because that was already settled, but by his taunting or his curiosity, “I got to know.”
The modified Russian roulette in Dirty Harry implies that the action of killing is the responsibility not of the policeman but of the other man, or of luck. This theme suggests that in the Western and cop movies the hero acts according to the morality or immorality of others, and that his own character is not intrinsically moral or immoral, because he applies his ethics to a limit and then he refuses to assume further responsibility. In other words, he might be saying, hey, I’m not really responsible for killing a man who dared me to pull the trigger.
The potential for self-deception implied here might call to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of bad faith, which refers to self-deception or inauthenticity. If you want more on that, please read the published version of this entry. In brief, as I see it, the moral character of people with bad faith is related to their existential dilemmas of agency—and Callahan is hardly in an existential dilemma. You don’t look at him and think, here is a man who is searching his soul, wondering how to act. If he is deceiving anyone, it is another person, not himself—except that he might be mistaken about the number of bullets in his gun.
Much like the gun, moral luck—to me—is more political than some of the debaters admit. Their points seem to assume, without ever saying it, that moral luck aligns with a liberal or leftist view: that criminals, like anyone, are often the result of circumstances beyond their control that may be described as bad luck. So, when the robber in Dirty Harry seems to want to know if he’s virtuous in spite of being in a robbery, the question is political: liberals tend to see past a person’s crime toward the conditions that led to it, such as poverty, whereas conservatives tend to focus on the deed itself, and then judge accordingly. These generalizations are up for debate, of course, and we could also debate whether Callahan wants to be involved in them—but I think he does. My view here is that moral luck is not all that liberal as a concept, because it enables Dirty Harry to coerce the bad guys into a mimicry of free will and responsibility, and this coercion is not a liberal style of rehabilitating criminals.
Brian Rosebury at the University of Central Lancashire, who comes out of literary studies into philosophy as I do, is more worried than I am that moral luck seems to align with a liberal view. Rosebury’s concern is that “we do not choose our acts either, just because we do not choose what causes them” (508); similarly, maybe we can’t judge anyone, ever, because everyone is created “by biological luck and developed by cultural luck” (292). If this alleged moral relativism is truly a problem, and if it is politically liberal in orientation, as in Rosebury’s allusions to social constructedness, why would a figure as conservative as Callahan invite luck to determine his moral judgment or morality?
One answer comes indirectly from professor Claudia Card of the University of Wisconsin, who joins the debate in 1995 with her book called Unnatural Lottery: Character and Moral Luck. Her book openly acknowledges the political relevance of moral luck. Rather than put a Sartrean emphasis on free will, Card puts will into the context of political, social, and economic limitations—such as repressive sexual laws, sexism and racism, and poverty—that people must work against to be responsible.
Card focuses on one of Nagel’s four related kinds of luck, one I haven’t mentioned yet, that has been called “circumstantial luck.” Her first sentence, in fact, is that “[m]uch of the luck with which this book is occupied attaches to politically disadvantageous starting points or early positionings in life” (Card ix). Partly because she is not a relativist, Rosebury’s review of her book is positive. Card explains her own not-relativist-but-liberal position when she says she does not want “to let us off the hook morally by showing that fate determines who we become. I am no fatalist [says Card]. [She says,] I find luck influential but not ordinarily determining. It narrows and expands our possibilities, often through the agency of others over whom we have no control and often through the medium of social institutions” (x). For Card, and seemingly for Rosebury, luck can be accepted as an influence but not as the determiner of someone’s morality. So, through Card I might answer my own question. Perhaps Callahan invites luck to determine his morality to suggest (perhaps especially to liberals) that mitigating circumstances are not as important as they might seem and can still be strictly controlled: if there is a bullet left in his gun or not, he has demonstrated how effective a strong and punishing response to crime can be. That’s usually a conservative view.
Now, as this entry approaches a conclusion, I want to shift our attention to the men defeated by Dirty Harry, men I’m going to call, ironically, the lucky punks. There’s a pattern in how Eastwood’s characters from the late 1960s through the end of the Dirty Harry series speak with the lucky punks. They are almost always African American men who evoke American racial politics from the era of civil rights to Reaganomics.
Let me remind you that, in Coogan’s Bluff, Eastwood’s character was ready to stab a man and, when he’s asked if he would have done it, he says, “I don’t know. That was up to him,” which is the prototype of Callahan’s “Do I feel lucky?” It is also the origin of a third statement, when Callahan says, “Go ahead. Make my day,” in Sudden Impact, from 1983, the fourth of the five Dirty Harry movies.
In all three scenes, Callahan’s foe is a black man; each one commits a crime, but each one backs down, luckily for him and for Callahan. If you're not convinced by my argument about the first shootout, above, think about the pattern of these three scenes. I would go so far as to say that they're a stereotypical and wishful commentary on American race relations during the time of the black power movement. This movement was meant to address civil and socio-economic inequalities, such as systematic or systemic racism and its impoverishing effect on Americans of African descent. Coogan and Callahan project responsibility onto what they might assume is blind luck (a synonym for chance that, like the free market, is not supposed to be prejudiced), whereas the pattern of skin colour suggests that it is definitely not blind. I’m fascinated to see that Callahan is represented as poor or at least cheap throughout his first story—cheap pants, hot dogs for lunch and supper—and maybe his lack of money gives him sympathy for the black men who rob the bank. Still, Eastwood’s characters seem to be telling black men (and I’m aghast at the message), “Quit stealing—and be responsible to yourselves and to us.” Upholding the generally anti-governmental position of these films, Callahan and Coogan would probably not be willing to supply the coin to pay the cost of fairer government and justice.
Here I have to admit that Callahan uses his “Do I feel lucky” speech twice in the film, once with a black man who backs down and once with a white man who chooses to try to get his gun, and Callahan shoots him. The black criminal is a bank robber, and he is spared. The white criminal is a serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, and extortionist, a much worse criminal, and he is killed at the climax of the film because Callahan does have one more bullet in his gun the second time. We realize then that Callahan’s “Do I feel lucky” speech is a script, possibly one he has used more than once before. If he has used it more than once before, then he probably was bluffing and was in control when he stopped the bank robbers. Maybe it wasn’t moral luck, and in fact Claudia Card argues that “[t]aking responsibility [...] is likely to involve consciously developing an integrity that does not develop spontaneously” (24). I wonder, then, if making others responsible is usually going to be scripted and not “spontaneous.”
Ultimately, however, I can only interpret what the film offers me, and there are only two “Do I feel lucky speeches,” and the real script is the screenplay that the writers gave to Clint Eastwood—the actor not the character—and these writers probably realize that there’s an aesthetic balance in having only two “Do I feel lucky” speeches, and there’s dramatic irony because the serial killer doesn’t know that Callahan is basically comparing him with the bank robber. I doubt that Callahan’s just repeating the same script in every showdown, going throughout the city, asking, “Do I feel lucky? Do I? Do you? How about you? Scale of one to ten…”
More important, the political commentary seems to be that, on the one hand, that whiteness is associated with the worst crimes (quite a left-leaning admission in the North American context, these days); and, on the other hand, that the white criminal is not subject to luck and cannot be forced to take responsibility, but the black criminal is and can. For Eastwood’s characters, black men must be pressured to conform to expectations of non-violence and obedience. But, unlike the white criminal in the first movie, at least the black criminals have respect for their own lives and are willing to stop violence—and I want to take this detail as the film’s respect for African Americans, even though I can’t entirely.
While the filmmakers represent black men with consistent symbolism related to luck throughout the Dirty Harry movies, not all of these men are stereotyped as criminals, and I have one final example to show that moral luck is connected especially to black men in these films. There are many white criminals in these films, and many of them are also stereotyped as symptoms of liberalism, as with the murderer and his girlfriend in Coogan’s Bluff. Sudden Impact plays on our expectations of seeing threatening black men in Dirty Harry movies, but then it introduces Horace, played by Albert Popwell, as an ally to Callahan.
It’s interesting to see the sequels respond, or seem to respond, to political critiques of the earlier films, because this kind of listening suggests a style of conservatism that is still open to thoughtful debate. In Magnum Force, the second of the five, which came out in 1973, Callahan’s partner Early Smith, played by Felton Perry, is also a black man. One of their conversations suggests that Smith is aware that Callahan takes risks with people of his colour. In a scene where the two policemen are following suspects by car and beyond their jurisdiction, Callahan says that he wants to confirm a hunch and decides to antagonize the suspects—but Smith doesn’t want to be caught in the middle of a gunfight. He says, no, “I don’t want to be winning bets for anybody.” His reference to “bets” implies that he would agree with my argument that his partner uses others while depending on luck to seek justice. Callahan would disagree; he persists and says, “I’ve never been wrong yet, have I?” But later, after Callahan warns him to take care of himself, the corrupt policemen assassinate Smith because of his partnership with Callahan. Magnum Force suggests that Callahan’s hunches are never wrong, contrary to my argument about his partial uncertainty in the first Dirty Harry film, but he is unquestionably sometimes wrong: Smith dies because Callahan takes risks and cannot take responsibility for everyone; other people, including good people who are on his side, are forced to take responsibility for his actions. Because he cannot save everyone, he is not God, and if he is not God, his claims to certainty must sometimes be in error. He might be on a lucky streak, at least as far as his own survival goes.
Although I’ve entertained other points of view, I’ve argued that Callahan was being honest about his partial uncertainty in the first “Do I feel lucky” showdown—though he’s probably confident that he’d win regardless. This discrepancy is ethical and political. He and his prototype Coogan have a common mission, not only to get their men regardless of the law but also to offer a final choice to the enemy, who may be punished if he continues to be violent. Their ethical shortcoming is that their respect for the African American men who confront them is limited to these men’s potential to be coerced into responsibility.
In another way, however, the black robber is the most interesting character in the first Dirty Harry film, because he is the one whose unpredictability—and his potential to make a decision—is the truest unpredictability, and the truest potential. The robber is the one character who might want to know himself better. Callahan might want to know others but seems entirely confident in who he is, perhaps too confident. In contrast, we expect that the serial killer is going to try to kill again. He’s predictable.
Because of this expectation, moral luck is more a factor in Callahan’s and the robber’s decisions. They are the interesting characters, and moral luck can be a plot device that creates suspense through the unpredictability of these characters.
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Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.