What Is Moral Luck?

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.

- Thomas Nagel, Moral Luck

Podcast of the Day

Why do many of use feel that there is something more culpable about a drunk driver who happens to kill someone accidentally on the way home than one who, though equally drunk, manages to get home without incident? Fiery Cushman, a psychologist, has done some fascinating research on the phenomenon of moral luck. In this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast he sets out his explanation of why outcomes agents' control function as they do in relation to culpability and punishment. 

Listen to Fiery Cushman on Moral Luck

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

While my brother and I were growing up, our father would tell us stories from his time as a police officer. One of those stories was about a teenager who fell asleep at the wheel, crossed over the center line, and hit an oncoming vehicle containing two passengers, an elderly couple, both of whom were killed in the crash.

Years later, a friend of mine told me a similar story. Driving home one night, he fell asleep at the wheel, crossed over the center line, and hit an oncoming vehicle containing one passenger, a middle-aged woman. Though seriously injured, she survived.

Given these details, you might be tempted to think that the teenager is morally worse than my friend because the results of his actions were worse than the results of my friend’s actions. If this is what you think, then you believe in the existence of moral luck, for you believe that how good a person is can depend on factors beyond one’s control...

Continue reading Jonathan Spelman's article: Moral luck

Further Reading

Moral luck occurs when an agent can be correctly treated as an object of moral judgment despite the fact that a significant aspect of what she is assessed for depends on factors beyond her control. Bernard Williams writes, “when I first introduced the expression moral luck, I expected to suggest an oxymoron” (Williams 1993, 251). Indeed, immunity from luck has been thought by many to be part of the very essence of morality. And yet, as Williams (1981) and Thomas Nagel (1979) showed in their now classic pair of articles, it appears that our everyday judgments and practices commit us to the existence of moral luck. The problem of moral luck arises because we seem to be committed to the general principle that we are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control (call this the “Control Principle”). At the same time, when it comes to countless particular cases, we morally assess agents for things that depend on factors that are not in their control. And making the situation still more problematic is the fact that a very natural line of reasoning suggests that it is impossible to morally assess anyone for anything if we adhere to the Control Principle.

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Moral Luck by Dana K. Nelkin

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