The Problem with Polanski

The debate over the director isn't new — it all started 200 years ago.


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Roman Polanski may have finally turned out to be morally unlucky. Let me explain what I mean.

When Immanuel Kant was thinking about morality, lo those many years ago in Königsburg, he made an important distinction. Morality, he reasoned, cannot be about what actually happens in the world — it has to be about the pure moral will. Here’s why. Let’s say I walk out of the house on my way to murder as many people as possible. I trip over a vagrant and accidentally push a small child. The child falls down and thus narrowly misses being decapitated by a falling sheet of glass. Whoopee, I’m the moral hero of the day, having saved the little tyke’s life.

“No way,” says Kant. I am still morally bad because I was a murderous fiend in intent, even as I saved the tiny crumb snatcher. Morality is about the purity of my choices and decisions, not about happenstance. One can’t be accidentally good, or bad.

A century and a half or so after Kant, Bernard Williams — a Cambridge man who eventually ends up at Berkeley in the 1980s — thinks about moral philosophy and warms his disapproval of strict Kantians. For Williams, outcomes matter. Let’s say, after inadvertently preventing the gruesome decapitation of the child, I intend to resume my killing spree but, curses! my weapon jams. According to Williams I am less morally culpable (as an attempted murderer) than if I actually achieved the intended body count (as a first-degree murderer). Outcomes matter, and we prove it in the way we treat crime and justice all the time.

In one of Williams’ examples, we consider the painter Gauguin. He leaves his wife and children (a morally lousy act) in order to paint young, scantily clad native beauties in the Pacific isles. The morality changes according to what he accomplishes. If he stinks, if he can’t paint a lick, then he has simply done a bad thing. If he becomes one of the great painters of his age, the moral impact of his original decision becomes, at the least, less black and white. Moral luck also matters. Circumstances beyond our control have a determining effect on our moral judgments.

Fast-forward a few more years to New York City, somewhere in the vicinity of Washington Square Park. Thomas Nagel (another philosopher) is thinking about moral luck. Considering Bernard Williams, Nagel realizes that the moral luck issue brings up an even deeper problem with morality. On one hand, we are all people; we know what it is like to act. We know we’re responsible when we do something good, or something bad. On the other hand, we all live in the world. We see that people are a product of circumstances, history, and a million other determining factors. We can see that every decision a person makes is affected by so many other factors beyond their control that we lose touch with the individual moral responsibility. Here’s Nagel:

About ourselves we feel pride, shame, guilt, remorse — and agent-regret. … And this remains true even when we have seen that we are not responsible for our own existence, or our nature, or the choices we have to make, or the circumstances that give our acts the consequences they have. Those acts remain ours and we remain ourselves, despite the persuasiveness of the reasons that seem to argue us out of existence. … The inclusion of consequences in the conception of what we have done is an acknowledgment that we are parts of the world, but the paradoxical character of moral luck which emerges from this acknowledgment shows that we are unable to operate with such a view, for it leaves us with no one to be.

We know about moral responsibility because we feel it, we experience the shame and pride of our moral decisions. But when we consider individual actions in a greater context, in terms of the world around us, the individual moral responsibility fades away and we see all the other causes for the way people act.

Roman Polanski, since being arrested in Switzerland for his rape of a 13-year-old, is being argued in and out of existence. On the one side, there is the act. Roman Polanski, a human being, did something terrible. He made a morally contemptible decision, him, alone, inside his own head. Here’s Kate Harding, for instance, at Salon:

Roman Polanski may be a great director, an old man, a husband, a father, a friend to many powerful people, and even the target of some questionable legal shenanigans. He may very well be no threat to society at this point. He may even be a good person on balance, whatever that means. But none of that changes the basic, undisputed fact: Roman Polanski raped a child. And rushing past that point to focus on the reasons why we should forgive him, pity him, respect him, admire him, support him, whatever, is absolutely twisted.

That is to argue Polanski into existence. There is Polanski and there is his act of rape, irreducible. To bring in other factors would be to dilute the way in which his acts are his own, the way in which his self and moral responsibility are intertwined. Thus the power and the immediacy of the statement, “Roman Polanski raped a child.”

But here’s what Anne Applebaum wrote in The Washington Post:

He can be blamed, it is true, for his original, panicky decision to flee. But for this decision I see mitigating circumstances, not least an understandable fear of irrational punishment. Polanski’s mother died in Auschwitz. His father survived Mauthausen. He himself survived the Krakow ghetto, and later emigrated from communist Poland. His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 by the followers of Charles Manson, though for a time Polanski himself was a suspect.

Similar thoughts have been voiced by Patrick Goldstein in The Los Angeles Times, by French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand, and many others. Here, Roman Polanski fades away, replaced by personal history, trauma, social history, unbelievable tragedy. Roman Polanski is not so much a person as a swirling collection of forces: Auschwitz, Krakow, Manson, Cinema, etc. Here, one does not want to say, “Roman Polanski raped a child,” so much as “a child was raped in an ongoing story that begins, at the earliest, with the death camps of the Third Reich.”

It is probably no surprise that this moral battle, the arguing in and out of Roman Polanski’s existence, plays itself out in a broader civilizational dispute between Europe and America. In a piece for Time, Bruce Crumley wrote:

“To the French mind, this has made Polanski a combination of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Dreyfus — the victim of systematic persecution,” [Ted] Stanger says. “To the American mind, he’s proof that no one is above the law.” That’s a perception gap as wide as the Atlantic.

As the problem of moral luck shows us, it is wider even than that. It gets down to the very root of what you think a person is, to what you make of the very concept of moral responsibility.

Many years ago Mark Twain, writing about his days on the Mississippi River, noted that “a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived on earth.” That’s been an American ideal ever since. We’re always looking for the human being in the purity of that individual existence, the self and the act and the simplicity that comes of those two real things.

Around the same time that Mark Twain was thinking about the Mississippi, Nietzsche was penning the following thoughts:

Actions are never what they appear to us to be! We have expended so much labor on learning that external things are not as they appear to us to be — very well! The case is the same with the inner world! Moral actions are in reality “something other than that” — more we cannot say: and all actions are essentially unknown.

The person dissolves again in the infinity of causes, the maelstrom of countless forces and motivations. All of this is little help to Roman Polanski or the young girl (now a middle-aged woman) he raped. But here we are again, after more than 200 years of sustained discussion on the matter, still trying to figure out how and why we act, still trying to navigate between the irreducibility of our moral responsibility and its annoying elusiveness. The idea of moral luck haunts us because it brings together two things we’re pretty sure are true — that humans are both morally responsible and a product of greater forces — without any clue of how to fit them together. Moral luck shouldn’t exist, but it does, and Roman Polanski’s may have run out. • 2 October 2009