Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Moral Luck


Can it ever be a matter of luck whether your do something 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.

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 aren’t just things that 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. That is why he says that, “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 behavior that we commonly judge as being morally good or bad.

First, 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.

Second, 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, luck in circumstances. Some of us face unusual challenges while others don’t. 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.

Fourth, 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?

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.