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What is Moral Luck?

By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge


Usually, both in philosophy and our commonplace ideas about ethics, we believe that luck should have nothing to do with morality. Kant famously argued that we can only morally evaluate a person’s will; not the consequences it leads to. For example, it should make no difference to the moral standing of a person if their bad intentions inadvertently lead to good results – a mad scientist attempting to poison a city’s water supply is still a bad person even if they accidentally end up curing cancer. This might even be a comforting thought, since it implies that everyone is equally able to become a good person in spite of the substantial influence that luck has on other areas of our lives. As a result, many will see the phrase ‘moral luck’ as an oxymoron. However, on closer inspection it is clear that luck is a significant, even an essential element of our moral lives.

Thomas Nagel points out that the success or failure of our actions is almost always partially determined by factors outside of our control. Consider the following case:

Drunk Driver: Person A, driving home while drunk, runs a red light as a child is crossing the street. A tries to avoid hitting the child but fails and the child dies. Person B, similarly drunk, also runs a red light, but no one is crossing and gets home safely.

Is the drunk driver who kills the child morally worse than the one who doesn’t? (Note here that we are talking about moral standing rather than legal culpability). In this case, there is no difference in controllable behaviour - the only difference comes in a random external event. Intuitions tend to divide on this case, but most people tend to think that Person A is worse in some sense – after all, they have killed someone. If this judgement is true, then it is clear that luck can be morally relevant.

We might want to resist this move and argue that our ordinary judgement is mistaken. Our intentions are the only thing we are in control of and so are the only things that we can be assessed for. Given this, there are no grounds to say that one driver is morally better than the other – they are both as good or bad as each other. This might seem like a tempting counterargument, but it brings with it a host of complications.

In response, Nagel’s next step is to draw our attention to the luck involved in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. For example, consider the case of Nazi collaborators in the 1930’s. For many of these people, their presence in Germany at that time will have been partially due to circumstances beyond their control. For example, imagine if the company they worked for had transferred them to Argentina before the Nazis came to power. As Nagel puts it, ‘Someone who was an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had never come to power in Germany. And someone who led a quiet and harmless life in Argentina might have become an officer in a concentration camp if he had not left Germany for business reasons in 1930.’ The point here is that our intentions themselves are partially determined by our circumstances, making it much easier for some to become good people than it is for others. (This type of luck is also a major theme in Shusaku Endo’s novel ‘Silence’ in the context of being a good Christian in difficult times.) As such, it seems like if we are committed to removing luck from our moral assessments, then many of our ordinary judgements need to be thrown out.

This type of argument can also be raised at an even higher level. Think about the influence of luck on the type of person you are and the actions you perform. These are certainly morally important and yet are at least partially determined by a combination of things like genetics, upbringing and other environmental influences which we have no control over. The worry here is that if we try to bracket the influence of luck from our moral judgements, then we are left with nothing that resembles morality. On this point, Nagel writes, ‘The area of genuine agency, and therefore of legitimate moral judgment, seems to shrink under this scrutiny to an extensionless point’.

We can now see clearly that luck is an essential element to our moral practices, whether we like to admit it or not. Perhaps it is uncomfortable to hold that it is easier for some to do good things than others and that we can sometimes still be morally bad even when trying hard to do good. However, in my view, one important takeaway raised by the Moral Luck debate is that we should often be less quick in our moral condemnations. After all, many of our moral decisions can often be reflections of our circumstances as much as they are reflections of our character.

Further reading:

  • Bernard Williams – Moral Luck

  • Thomas Nagel – Moral Luck

  • Shusaku Endo - Silence

  • Stanford Encyclopaedia Entry on Moral Luck


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