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Moral luck

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What is Moral luck?

When luck creates a moral difference, it is said to be an instance of moral luck. The moral luck problem arises from a conflict between the widely held idea that moral luck should not occur and that it is arguably impossible to avoid such occurrences. Following publications by Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams, the literature on moral chance exploded. Before Nagel and Williams' publications, the issue of moral luck had been examined, but not under the category of "moral luck." Even though Nagel's work was created as a response to Williams', the two papers have different emphases. Regardless, the central topic in both volumes and the literature on moral chance is whether luck can ever make a moral difference. The concept of a moral difference is broad.

Table of contents:
  1. The History
  2. Four Types of Luck
  3. Circumstantial Luck
  4. Causal Luck
  5. Constitutive Luck
  6. The Problem of Moral Luck and Potential Solutions
  7. Problem
  8. Responses to the Problem

The History

Philosophers Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel popularized the concept of moral luck in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it has been a popular topic ever since. Nagel utilized the concept of moral chance to refute Immanuel Kant's belief that luck should not be included in moral decisions. A car drove past the same area where Esteban's baseball fell at the same moment, and Nagel realized that certain things were unavoidably beyond one's control. How can someone be held responsible for something they had no control over? He expanded on this idea by distinguishing four different forms of luck that might influence how one comes to a moral assessment of action.

Four Types of Luck

What exactly are these details? Nagel suggests four ways that chance influences our moral judgments: Resultant Luck Circumstantial Luck Causal Luck Constitutive Luck Resultant Luck

Nagel presents various examples of luck as a result of this. The example of the lucky and unfortunate drunk drivers is one that we have previously observed. Nagel also emphasizes the need to make decisions, particularly political ones, in the face of ambiguity. He uses the example of someone who is faced with whether or not to start a revolt against a terrible tyranny. She understands that the revolution will be bloody and that if it fails, those who participated will be killed, and the dictatorship will become even harsher.

She also understands that if no revolution comes, the dictatorship will continue to be as ruthless as now. She will be a hero if she succeeds; if she fails, she will face "some responsibility" for the disastrous repercussions of her failure.

Circumstantial Luck

Just as luck can intervene in the course of our acts to generate outcomes that significantly impact how we are regarded morally, our luck in being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong moment can have a significant impact on how we are considered morally. Nagel uses the example of a person who stays in Germany during WWII and "behaves terribly." We are prone to blaming such a person and holding them accountable for their actions.

However, Nagel invites us to compare this individual to a German who relocated to Argentina for economic reasons soon before the war. Assume that if the expatriate had stayed in Germany, he would have acted similarly to the German.

Causal Luck

Like many who have written about moral luck after him, Nagel says very little about causal luck. The concern about causal chance should be obvious, as it is similar to the concern expressed in the argument over free will and determinism. It also appears to be a redundant type of luck, as Nagel only mentions it to draw attention to the relationship between the problem of moral luck and the argument over free will and determinism. Circumstantial and constitutive luck appear to cover the same region; thus, it's redundant. Constitutive luck is concerned with who we are, whereas circumstantial luck concerns what occurs to us. There doesn't appear to be anything else that can influence what we do.

Constitutive Luck

Concerns regarding consequent and contextual luck are sometimes met with the suggestion that what counts is what is in a person's "heart," rather than how their actions end out or what circumstances they happen to face. As Nagel puts it, we "pare each act down to its morally fundamental core, an inward act of pure will judged by aim and intention." However, doing so exposes one to concerns about constitutive moral luck.

If we concentrate on a person's personality, what about the element of chance in determining that personality? Jane may not have acted with good intentions in a certain scenario, but this might be due to Jane's unfortunate birth as a bitter or spiteful person.

The Problem of Moral Luck and Potential Solutions

By now, it should be obvious that the control principle is incompatible with how we do moral evaluations. This is the moral luck issue.

There are two common solutions to this issue. To begin with, some argue that we should reject the control principle to retain our moral judgment methods. Second, some argue that we should change the moral evaluation method to retain the control principle.

If neither of these possibilities seems feasible, one may completely give up on moral judgment or accept a revisionist approach. For example, Bernard Williams suggests that we distinguish between two types of evaluation: moral and ethical. While acknowledging the reality of the control principle, which states that individuals cannot be morally judged for what is beyond their control, Williams contends that people can be ethically judged for what is beyond their control. In addition, he claims that ethical assessment is the more significant of the two types of evaluation.


The dilemma of moral luck, according to Nagel, arises from a discrepancy between our behavior and a moral sense that most of us share. The following is how he expresses his intuition:

Before thought, it is intuitively reasonable to believe that people cannot be morally judged for things that are not their fault or are due to circumstances beyond their control.

Situations of moral luck contradict the above-mentioned moral sense. Despite this sense, Nagel contends that we regularly form moral judgments about others based on events that are beyond their control. The only substantial difference between the two scenarios is that a child played on the road at the incorrect spot on the unfortunate driver's journey home. We could criticize a drunk motorist who kills a child harsher than one who does not.

This is significant because there is reason to believe that equating luck with a lack of control is incorrect. Even if an occurrence is beyond one's or anyone else's control, it is unlikely that we would consider it fortunate that it occurred. Even if an occurrence like the sun's rising this morning was completely beyond one's control, it's not apparent whether one feels lucky that the sun rose this morning, yet it is undeniably a good thing that it occurred.

Responses to the Problem

The first type of answer has received the least amount of support. When this argument has been made, it has typically been made to indicate that if situations of moral luck are problematic, it is only because we have a faulty understanding of morality. For example, Brynmor Browne has argued that moral luck is only problematic when people incorrectly associate moral judgment with punishment. He claims that incidents of moral luck become less troublesome after we change our thinking.

The second type of approach to the problem of moral luck has been to deny that examples of moral luck ever happen. This is frequently accomplished by arguing that circumstances where luck appears to make a moral difference, are cases where luck makes an epistemic difference--that is when luck puts us in a better or worse position to judge a person's moral standing. Consider the situation of the lucky and unlucky drivers. According to this line of reasoning, there is no moral difference between them; the only difference is that in the instance of the unlucky driver, we have a clear indicator of his moral deficiency.

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