Moral Luck

Moral Luck
by Thomas Nagel (1979)

Kant believed that good or bad luck should influence neither our moral judgment
of a person and his actions, nor his moral assessment of himself.
The good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes or
because of its adequacy to achieve some proposed end; it is good only
because of its willing, i.e., it is good of itself And, regarded for itself, it is to
be esteemed incomparably higher than anything which could be brought
about by it in favor of any inclination or even of the sum total of all
inclinations. Even if it should happen that, by a particularly unfortunate fate
or by the niggardly provision of a step motherly nature, this will should be
wholly lacking in power to accomplish its purpose, and if even the greatest
effort should not avail it to achieve anything of its end, and if there remained
only the good will (not as a mere wish but as the summoning of all the means
in our power), it would sparkle like a jewel in its own right, as something that
had its full worth in itself Usefulness or fruitlessness can neither diminish
nor augment this worth.1
He would presumably have said the same about a bad will: whether it
accomplishes its evil purposes is morally irrelevant. And a course of action that
would be condemned if it had a bad outcome cannot be vindicated if by luck it turns
out well. There cannot be moral risk. This view seems to be wrong, but it arises in
response to a fundamental problem about moral responsibility to which we
possess no satisfactory solution.
The problem develops out of the ordinary conditions of moral judgment. Prior to
reflection it is intuitively plausible that people cannot be morally assessed for what
is not their fault, or for what is due to factors beyond their control. Such judgment
is different from the evaluation of something as a good or bad thing, or state of
affairs. The latter may be present in addition to moral judgment, but when we
blame someone for his actions we are not merely saying it is bad that they
happened, or bad that he exists: we are judging him, saying he is bad, which is
different from his being a bad thing. This kind of judgment takes only a certain kind
of object. Without being able to explain exactly why, we feel that the
appropriateness of moral assessment is easily undermined by the discovery that
the act or attribute, no matter how good or bad, is not under the person’s control.
While other evaluations remain, this one seems to lose its footing. So a clear
absence of control, produced by involuntary movement, physical force, or
ignorance of the circumstances, excuses what is done from moral judgment. But
what we do depends in many more ways than these on what is not under our
control—what is not produced by a good or a bad will, in Kant’s phrase. And
external influences in this broader range are not usually thought to excuse what is
done from moral judgment, positive or negative.

1 Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, first section, third paragraph.


Let me give a few examples, beginning with the type of case Kant has in mind.
Whether we succeed or fail in what we try to do nearly always depends to some
extent on factors beyond our control. This is true of murder, altruism, revolution,
the sacrifice of certain interests for the sake of others—almost any morally
important act. What has been done, and what is morally judged, is partly
determined by external factors. However jewel-like the good will may be in its own
right, there is a morally significant difference between rescuing someone from a
burning building and dropping him from a twelfth-story window while trying to
rescue him. Similarly, there is a morally significant difference between reckless
driving and manslaughter. But whether a reckless driver hits a pedestrian depends
on the presence of the pedestrian at the point where he recklessly passes a red
light. What we do is also limited by the opportunities and choices with which we
are faced, and these are largely determined by factors beyond our control.
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.
I shall say more later about these and other examples. I introduce them here to
illustrate a general point. 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. Such luck can be good
or bad. And the problem posed by this phenomenon, which led Kant to deny its
possibility, is that the broad range of external influences here identified seems on
close examination to undermine moral assessment as surely as does the narrower
range of familiar excusing conditions. If the condition of control is consistently
applied, it threatens to erode most of the moral assessments we find it natural to
make. The things for which people are morally judged are determined in more
ways than we at first realize by what is beyond their control. And when the
seemingly natural requirement of fault or responsibility is applied in light of these
facts, it leaves few pre-reflective moral judgments intact. Ultimately, nothing or
almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.
Why not conclude, then, that the condition of control is false—that it is an initially
plausible hypothesis refuted by clear counter-examples? One could in that case
look instead for a more refined condition which picked out the kinds of lack of
control that really undermine certain moral judgments, without yielding the
unacceptable conclusion derived from the broader condition, that most or all
ordinary moral judgments are illegitimate.
What rules out this escape is that we are dealing not with a theoretical conjecture
but with a philosophical problem. The condition of control does not suggest itself
merely as a generalization from certain clear cases. It seems correct in the further
cases to which it is extended beyond the original set. When we undermine moral
assessment by considering new ways in which control is absent, we are not just
discovering what would follow given the general hypothesis, but are actually being
persuaded that in itself the absence of control is relevant in these cases too. The
erosion of moral judgment emerges not as the absurd consequence of an over-


simple theory, but as a natural consequence of the ordinary idea of moral
assessment, when it is applied in view of a more complete and precise account of
the facts. It would therefore be a mistake to argue from the unacceptability of the
conclusions to the need for a different account of the conditions of moral
responsibility. The view that moral luck is paradoxical is not a mistake, ethical or
logical, but a perception of one of the ways in which the intuitively acceptable
conditions of moral judgment threaten to undermine it all.

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