Ethical Theory Spring 2022

Moral Luck


Can it ever be a matter of luck whether what you do is right or wrong?

On the one hand, it seems obvious that it can. For almost everything you do, some things are out of your hands. If they turn out well, you’re fine; if not, you’re not. It is pretty easy to imagine, or even remember, doing something that you feel terrible about even if you did not know that it would turn out badly at the time.

On the other hand, Nagel makes a good case for thinking that there is something about morality that resists luck. Morally good and bad actions do not just happen, he maintains. Rather, people get praised or blamed for doing them. Praising or blaming a person for having done something, Nagel contends, makes sense only if that person was in control of what was done. As he puts it, “people canot be morally assessed for what is not their fault or for what is due to factors beyond their control” (Nagel 1979, 25).

This leads to a definition of moral luck as praise or blame for things that happen outside of your control: “where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck” (Nagel 1979, 26).

So that’s what the phrase “moral luck” means. The question is whether it makes sense to judge someone for what is a matter of luck. If there cannot be such a thing as moral luck, does that mean that there is something we are fully in control of or does it mean that there is no such thing as moral responsibility for our actions?

Four Kinds of Luck

Nagel describes four ways that luck seems to influence our judgments about what is morally good and bad.

First, there is luck in consequences. For example, one negligent driver hits a child while another equally negligent driver misses. In one way, they are equally bad, but, at the same time, one is thought to have done something worse than the other. If you were the one that missed, you would probably think “that was lucky” rather than “I am devastated by what I did,”

The second category is constitutive luck. This is luck in the kind of person you are. We are all shaped by some combination of nature and nurture. And the kind of person who comes out of this process is judged as greedy, envious, cowardly, generous, brave, and so on. But none of us are in control of the forces of nature and nurture that make us greedy, envious, cowardly, generous, or brave people.

Third, we have luck in circumstances. Some of us face unusual challenges while others do not. Some who face the unusual challenges perform admirably while others fail miserably. How many Nazis would have led perfectly respectable lives if they had grown up in another place or time? And how many perfectly respectable people would have been Nazis if they had grown up in their place? But where and when we are born is, obviously, out of our control.

Coming in fourth is luck in the causes of behavior. This is the problem of free will. Our behavior is caused by forces outside of our control. So how can we be responsible for what we do? This one is the nuclear option. The other three pick out particular things about ourselves and what we do. This one covers everything: if your actions and character are both determined by causes outside of yourself, you cannot be held responsible for any of it.

Key Points

These are the points you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. The control condition.
  2. The central cases Nagel discusses, such as the driving case.


Nagel, Thomas. 1979. “Moral Luck.” In Mortal Questions, 24–38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107341050.005.