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Moral Luck

First published Mon Jan 26, 2004, substantive revision Tue Jun 3, 2008
Moral luck occurs when an agent can be correctly treated as an object oI moral judgment despite
the Iact that a signiIicant aspect oI what she is assessed Ior depends on Iactors beyond her
control. Bernard Williams writes, 'when I Iirst introduced the expression 2oral luck, I expected
to suggest an oxymoron (Williams 1993, 251). Indeed, immunity Irom luck has been thought by
many to be part oI the very essence oI morality. And yet, as Williams (1981) and Thomas Nagel
(1979) showed in their now classic pair oI articles, it appears that our everyday judgments and
practices commit us to the existence oI moral luck. The problem oI 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 Ior depends on Iactors under our control (call this the 'Control
Principle). At the same time, when it comes to countless particular cases, we morally assess
agents Ior things that depend on Iactors that are not in their control. And making the situation
still more problematic is the Iact that a very natural line oI reasoning suggests that it is
i2possible to morally assess anyone Ior anything iI we adhere to the Control Principle.
O 1. Generating the Problem oI Moral Luck and Kinds oI Luck
O 2. Implications Ior Other Debates
4 2.1 The JustiIication oI Laws and Punishment
4 2.2 Egalitarianism
O 3. Kinds oI Moral Assessment
O . Responding to the Problem: Three Approaches
4 .1 Denial
.1.1 Denying Moral Luck and Preserving the Centrality oI Morality
.1.2 Denying Moral Luck and Setting Aside Morality in Favor oI Ethics
4 .2 Acceptance
.2.1 Accepting Moral Luck and Revising our Practices
.2.2 Accepting Moral Luck without Revision
4 .3 Incoherence
O 5. Conclusion
O Bibliography
O Other Internet Resources
O Related Entries

Generating the Problem of Moral Luck and Kinds of
The idea that morality is immune Irom luck Iinds inspiration in Kant:
A good will is not good because oI what it eIIects or accomplishes, because oI its Iitness to attain
some proposed end, but only because oI its volition, that is, it is good in itselI. Even iI, by a
special disIavor oI Iortune or by the niggardly provision oI a step motherly nature, this will
should wholly lack the capacity to carry out its purpose iI with its greatest eIIorts it should yet
achieve nothing and only the good will were leIt (not, oI course, as a mere wish but as the
summoning oI all means insoIar as they are in our control) then, like a jewel, it would still
shine by itselI, as something that has its Iull worth in itselI. UseIulness or Iruitlessness can
neither add anything to this worth nor take anything away Irom it (Kant 1781998, :39).
Thomas Nagel approvingly cites this passage in the opening oI his 1979 article, 'Moral Luck.
Nagel's article began as a reply to Williams' paper oI the same name, and the two articles
together articulated in a new and powerIul way a challenge Ior anyone wishing to deIend the
Kantian idea that morality is immune Irom luck.
To see exactly how the challenge arises, let us begin with the Control Principle:
(CP) We are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed Ior depends on
Iactors under our control.
It is intuitively compelling, as is the Iollowing corollary oI it:
(CP-Corollary) Two people ought not to be morally assessed diIIerently iI the only other
diIIerences between them are due to Iactors beyond their control.
Not only are the Control Principle and its corollary plausible in themselves, they also seem to
Iind support in our reactions to particular cases. For example, iI we Iind out that a woman who
has just stepped on your toes was simply pushed, then our temptation to blame her is likely to
evaporate. It seems that the reason Ior this is our unwillingness to hold someone responsible Ior
what is not in her control. Similarly, iI two drivers have taken all precautions, and are abiding by
all the rules oI the road, and in one case, a dog runs in Iront oI the car and is killed, and not in the
other, then, given that the dog's running out was not something over which either driver had
control, it seems that we are reluctant to blame one driver more than the other. Although we
might expect diIIerent reactions Irom the two drivers, it does not seem that one is deserving oI a
worse moral assessment than the other.
At the same time, it seems that there are countless cases in which the objects oI our moral
assessments do depend on Iactors beyond agents' control. Even though 'moral luck seems to be
an oxymoron, everyday judgments suggest that there is a phenomenon oI moral luck aIter all. As
Nagel deIines it, 'Where a signiIicant aspect oI what someone does depends on Iactors beyond
his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object oI moral judgment, it can be
called moral luck. (Nagel 1979, 59). To bring out the conIlict with the Control Principle even
more starkly, we will understand moral luck as Iollows:
(ML) moral luck occurs when an agent can be correctly treated as an object oI moral judgment,
despite the Iact that a signiIicant aspect oI what he is assessed Ior depends on Iactors beyond his
We certainly seem to be committed to the existence oI moral luck. For example, we seem to
blame those who have murdered more than we blame those who have merely attempted murder,
even iI the reason Ior the lack oI success in the second case is that the intended victim
unexpectedly tripped and Iell to the Iloor just as the bullet arrived at head-height. Since whether
the intended victim tripped or not is not something in control oI either would-be murderer, we
appear to violate the Control Principle and its corollary.
It might be tempting to respond at this point that what people are really responsible Ior are their
intentions or their 'willings, and that we are thus wrong to oIIer diIIerent moral assessments in
this pair oI cases. Adam Smith (17901976), Ior example, advocates this position, writing that
To the intention or aIIection oI the heart, thereIore, to the propriety and impropriety, to the
beneIicence or hurtIulness oI the design, all praise or blame, all approbation or disapprobation,
oI any kind, which can justly be bestowed upon any action, must ultimately belong.
But this tempting response Iaces diIIiculties oI its own. First, as we will see, the would-be
murderers oIIer only one oI many cases in which our intuitive moral judgment appears to depend
on 'results beyond one's intentions, as Smith himselI noted (II.iii.intro.5). And even more
importantly, luck can aIIect even our 'willings and other internal states (Feinberg 1970, 3-38).
As Nagel develops the point, there are other types oI luck that aIIect not only our actions but also
every intention we Iorm and every exertion oI our wills. Further, once these kinds oI luck are
recognized, we will see that not one oI the Iactors on which agents' actions depend is immune to
Nagel identiIies Iour kinds oI luck in all: resultant, circumstantial, constitutive, and causal.
#esultant Luck. Resultant luck is luck in the way things turn out. Examples include the pair oI
would-be murderers just mentioned as well as the pair oI innocent drivers described above. In
both cases, each member oI the pair has exactly the same intentions, has made the same plans,
and so on, but things turn out very diIIerently and so both are subject to resultant luck. II in
either case, we can correctly oIIer diIIerent moral assessments Ior each member oI the pair, then
we have a case oI resultant 2oral luck. Williams oIIers a case oI 'decision under uncertainty: a
somewhat Iictionalized Gauguin, who chooses a liIe oI painting in Tahiti over a liIe with his
Iamily, not knowing whether he will be a great painter. In one scenario, he goes on to become a
great painter, and in another, he Iails. According to Williams, we will judge Gauguin diIIerently
depending on the outcome. Cases oI negligence provide another important kind oI resultant luck.
Imagine that two otherwise conscientious people have Iorgotten to have their brakes checked
recently and experience brake Iailure, but only one oI whom Iinds a child in the path oI his car. II
in any oI these cases we correctly oIIer diIIerential moral assessments, then again we have cases
oI resultant moral luck.
ircumstantial luck. Circumstantial luck is luck in the circumstances in which one Iinds
oneselI. For example, consider Nazi collaborators in 1930's Germany who are condemned Ior
committing morally atrocious acts, even though their very presence in Nazi Germany was due to
Iactors beyond their control (Nagel 1979). Had those very people been transIerred by the
companies Ior which they worked to Argentina in 1929, perhaps they would have led exemplary
lives. II we correctly morally assess the Nazi collaborators diIIerently Irom their imaginary
counterparts in Argentina, then we have a case oI circumstantial moral luck.
onstitutive luck. Constitutive luck is luck in who one is, or in the traits and dispositions that
one has. Since our genes, care-givers, peers, and other environmental inIluences all contribute to
making us who we are (and since we have no control over these) it seems that who we are is at
least largely a matter oI luck. Since how we act is partly a Iunction oI who we are, the existence
oI constitutive luck entails that what actions we perIorm depends on luck, too. For example, iI
we correctly blame someone Ior being cowardly or selI-righteous or selIish, when his being so
depends on Iactors beyond his control, then we have a case oI constitutive moral luck. Further, iI
a person acts on one oI these very character traits over which he lacks control by, say, running
away instead oI helping to save his child, and we correctly blame him Ior so acting, then we also
have a case oI constitutive moral luck. Thus, since both actions and agents are objects oI moral
assessment, constitutive moral luck undermines the Control Principle when it comes to the
assessment oI both actions and agents.
ausal luck. Finally, there is causal luck, or luck in 'how one is determined by antecedent
circumstances (Nagel 1979, 60). Nagel points out that the appearance oI causal moral luck is
essentially the classic problem oI Iree will. The problem oI Iree will to which Nagel reIers arises
because it seems that our actions and even the 'stripped-down acts oI the will are
consequences oI what is not in our control. II this is so, then neither our actions nor our willing
are Iree. And since Ireedom is oIten thought to be necessary Ior moral responsibility, we cannot
be morally responsible even Ior our willings. Sometimes the problem is thought to arise only iI
determinism is true, but this is not the case. Even iI it turns out that determinism is Ialse, but
events are still caused by prior events according to probabilistic laws, the way that one is caused
to act by antecedent circumstances would seem to be equally outside oI one's control (e.g.,
Pereboom 2002, 1-5, Watson 1982, 9). Finally, it is worth noting that some have viewed the
inclusion oI the category oI causal luck as redundant, since what it covers is completely captured
by the combination oI constitutive and circumstantial luck (Latus 2001).
Upon reIlection, it seems that we morally assess people diIIerently Ior what they do (or who they
are) when their actions and personal qualities depend on luck oI all kinds. And it is not only in
unusual cases like that oI would-be murderers that people are subject to the various types oI luck.
For example, whether any oI our intentions are realized in action or not depends on some Iactors
outside oI our control. Thus, iI resultant luck undermines our assessments oI moral
responsibility, as the Control Principle suggests, then many oI our everyday judgments ought to
be abandoned. Still, applying the Control Principle to resultant luck continues to leave open the
possibility that we are correctly assessed Ior things like our intentions, just not Ior the results oI
our intentions. But consideration oI the other sorts oI luck leads to more and more global
skepticism about moral assessment. For example, circumstantial luck aIIects even our intentions,
so it seems that we cannot be assessed in virtue oI our intentions. Once again, though, we might
still be able to retain the idea that we are morally assessable Ior something, even iI only Ior what
we ould have intended in various situations. But reIlection on constitutive luck and causal luck
can make it seem as though we cannot be properly assessed Ior anything we do. For iI who we
are and thereIore what we would have done are themselves subject to luck, then according to the
Control Principle, we cannot be properly assessed even Ior those things. What is leIt as an object
oI assessment? As Nagel puts it, '|t|he area oI genuine agency, and thereIore oI legitimate moral
judgment, seems to shrink under this scrutiny to an extensionless point (1979, 66.) He goes on,
I believe that in a sense the problem has no solution, because something in the idea oI agency is
incompatible with actions being events, or people being things. But as the external determinants
oI what someone has done are gradually exposed, in their eIIect on consequences, character, and
choice itselI, it becomes gradually clear that actions are events and people things. Eventually
nothing remains which can be ascribed to the responsible selI, and we are leIt with nothing but a
portion oI the larger sequence oI events, which can be deplored or celebrated, but not blamed or
praised (1979, 68).
II this is right, then we could not simply revise our everyday moral judgments in accordance with
a more diligent application oI the Control Principle; at best, iI we adhere to the Control Principle,
we should reIrain Irom making any moral judgments. Not everyone shares this skepticism, and
there is naturally a wide variety oI responses to the challenge oI how to reconcile our adherence
to the Control Principle with our everyday judgments that commit us to the existence oI moral
luck. At stake are not only our seemingly ubiquitous practices oI moral praise and blame, but
also the resolution oI other central debates in ethics, philosophy oI law, and political philosophy.
Implications for Other Debates
BeIore turning to proposed solutions to the problem, it will be helpIul to see just what rests on
resolving the problem oI moral luck.
The 1ustification of Laws and Punishment
Whether or not we accept, reject, or qualiIy the Control Principle has implications Ior the law,
and Ior punishment in particular. The question oI how resultant luck should aIIect punishment
has been debated at least since Plato (The Laws IX, 876-877). One can argue that iI results are
not in our control, then our attributions oI moral responsibility should not be aIIected by them.
And since moral desert and thus punishment should reIlect moral responsibility, the degree oI
punishment we allot should not be based even in part on results. H.L.A. Hart puts this conclusion
in the Iorm oI a rhetorical question: 'Why should the accidental Iact that an intended harmIul
outcome has not occurred be a ground Ior punishing less a criminal who may be equally
dangerous and equally wicked? (1968, 129). It turns out, however, that the idea that results
should not be taken into account in determining punishment is in direct tension with a variety oI
criminal laws, including, Ior example, the diIIerential punishment accorded attempted murder
and murder in the United States. It is also in direct tension with parts oI the tort law in the United
States such as the diIIerential treatment accorded the merely negligent person and the negligent
person whose negligence leads to harm. Yet the line oI reasoning that leads to this conclusion
explicitly invokes the Control Principle, particularly as applied to resultant luck; thus, whether or
not we accept or reject the Control Principle in this context has important implications Ior views
oI punishment whose justiIication rests on moral desert. The implications oI the status oI the
Control Principle are not limited to results, however. For example, iI we accept the Control
Principle in unqualiIied Iorm, and deny the existence oI moral circumstantial, character, and
causal luck, then it seems that no actual punishment could be justiIied on the basis oI moral
desert. For no one would be morally responsible Ior anything, and so not morally deserving. (See
Moore (1997).) (On the debate concerning diIIerential punishment Ior attempts and successIul
criminal behavior, see Alexander et al (2008) Davis (1986), Feinberg (1995), Kadish (199),
Lewis (1989), and Ripstein (1999). On luck and tort law, see Waldron (1995).)
Whether or not the Control Principle is true either in its general or in some restricted Iorm also
has implications Ior the debate over what, iI anything, justiIies egalitarianism. Let us understand
egalitarianism as the view that a distribution oI relevant goods that is more equal over a relevant
population is more just than one that is less equal. Inspired by the work oI John Rawls, some
egalitarians have invoked the idea that our constitution and circumstances are out oI our control
in the justiIication oI their view. For example, Rawls writes that
The existing distribution oI income and wealth, say, is the cumulative eIIect oI prior distributions
oI natural assetsthat is, natural talents and abilitiesas these have been developed or leIt
unrealized, and their use Iavored or disIavored over time by social circumstances and such
chance contingencies as accident and good Iortune. Intuitively, the most obvious injustice oI the
system oI natural liberty is that it permits distributive shares to be improperly inIluenced by these
Iactors so arbitrary Irom a moral point oI view. (Rawls 1971, p. 72.)
Egalitarians who treat luck in this way are sometimes called 'luck egalitarians. (For examples
oI various versions oI luck egalitarianism, see Arneson 1997, 2001, Cohen 1989, Dworkin 1981
and 2000, Roemer 1996; Ior criticisms see Nozick 197, Anderson 1999, Hurley 2001, and
ScheIIler 2003.) It is oIten diIIicult to see exactly how the appeal to constitutive luck is meant to
Iunction in various arguments Ior egalitarianism. There are two very general ways the reasoning
might go: a 'positive and a 'negative way (Nozick 197). According to one positive line oI
reasoning, it is Iirst observed that one's natural talents, circumstances oI birth, and so on are
things that are beyond one`s control, and at the same time, iI a natural 'Iree market system
operates, these circumstances give rise to many advantages and disadvantages relative to others.
By the Control Principle, one is not responsible Ior these advantages and disadvantages. Further,
it is wrong Ior people to have advantages and disadvantages Ior which they are not responsible.
ThereIore, justice requires a more egalitarian redistribution oI goods to rectiIy this wrong.
Although this line oI reasoning has received much criticism, it is arguable that a weaker, and so
less vulnerable 'negative line oI reasoning is really behind much oI luck egalitarianism (see, Ior
example, Arneson 2001).
The 'negative luck argument Ior egalitarianism is really a rebuttal to the objection that people
should not be deprived in the name oI egalitarianism oI what they have earned. The argument
goes like this: Take as a starting point a presumption in Iavor oI equality oI condition. Next
observe, as beIore, that one's natural talents, circumstances oI birth, and so on are things beyond
one`s control, and, again, that these Iactors oIten give rise to advantages and disadvantages
relative to others. ThereIore, by the Control Principle, one is not responsible Ior many
advantages and disadvantages. II one is not responsible Ior these, then one is not deserving oI
them. And iI one is not deserving oI them, then it is not wrong to redistribute goods in a more
egalitarian way that eliminates many advantages and disadvantages.
The explicit appeal to the Control Principle in both oI these lines oI reasoning shows ways in
which the plausibility oI Luck Egalitarianism depends on the resolution oI the problem oI moral
luck. It is also notable that some luck egalitarians attempt to draw a line between certain sorts oI
luck; Ior example, it is sometimes argued that iI one suIIers a great Iinancial setback due to one`s
choice to engage in high-stakes gambling, then there might be circumstances in which it would
be wrong to seek to treat one in the same way as another whose equal suIIering was brought on
by, say, a devastating earthquake. It might be that underlying this move is acceptance oI a
restricted version oI the Control Principle; Ior example, one that allows that one can be
responsible Ior one's choices and their expected consequences, but not Ior the results oI one's
choices that are in large part beyond one's control. Here, too, it is clear that how one resolves the
problem oI moral luck whether one rejects the possibility oI moral luck altogether, accepts it
in all Iorms, or accepts certain kinds and not others has implications Ior the ultimate success
oI Luck Egalitarianism. Thus, much is at stake in the resolution oI the problem oI moral luck.
BeIore turning to suggested solutions, a brieI bit oI ground-clearing will be necessary.
Kinds of Moral Assessment
The Control Principle states that we are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are
morally assessed Ior is under our control. But it is important to recognize that there are many
diIIerent kinds oI moral assessment. For example, there are judgments about a person's character,
Ior example, as 'good or 'bad (sometimes called 'aretaic judgments). There are also
judgments oI states oI aIIairs that concern people's actions as ' good or ' bad (sometimes
called 'axiological judgments. Then there are judgments oI actions as 'right or 'wrong
(sometimes called 'deontic judgments). There are also judgments oI responsibility, blame, and
praise. As we will see, this category can be Iurther divided in various ways.
Distinguishing between the various notions oI moral assessment allows Ior the possibility that
the Control Principle should be read as applying to some, but not to other Iorms oI moral
assessment. For example, some argue that there is a perIectly acceptable Iorm oI moral luck
which does not conIlict with the true spirit oI the Control Principle, namely, luck in what you are
responsible 1or (e.g., Richards 1986, Zimmerman 2002). For example, it will be readily admitted
by many that the successIul murderer can be responsible Ior a death, whereas the one who
unsuccessIully attempts murder is not responsible 1or a death. At the same time, both could be
equally responsible in degree (Zimmerman 2002, 560) or both could be equal in their moral
worth (Richards 1986, 171, Greco 1995, 91). II the most important kind oI moral assessment is,
say, one's moral worth, then the Control Principle can be suitably restricted to apply to
assessments oI moral worth. As will become clear, a number oI responses to the problem oI
moral luck appeal to the general strategy oI distinguishing among diIIerent Iorms oI moral
assessment. Most Iocus on two Iamilies oI moral assessment: (i) the Iamily that includes
responsibility, blame, and praise Ior actions andor Ior one's own traits or dispositions, and (ii)
the Iamily that includes the notion oI the moral worth oI an agent and the moral quality oI her
character. (But see Zimmerman 2006 Ior a recent discussion oI luck and deontic judgments.)
#esponding to the Problem: Three Approaches
There are three general approaches to responding to the problem oI moral luck: (i) to deny that
there is moral luck despite appearances, (ii) to accept the existence oI moral luck while rejecting
or restricting the Control Principle, or (iii) to argue that it is simply incoherent to accept or deny
the existence oI some type(s) oI moral luck, so that with respect to at least the relevant types oI
moral luck, the problem oI moral luck does not arise.
Some who respond to the problem oI moral luck take a single approach to all kinds oI luck. But
many take a mixed approach; that is, they embrace one approach Ior one kind oI luck and
another approach Ior another kind oI luck, or address only a certain type(s) oI luck, while
remaining silent about the other types. Is taking a mixed approach legitimate? AIter all, it seems
that iI the Control Principle is true, then there is no moral luck, and iI it is Ialse, then there can be
any type oI moral luck. But, alas, matters are not necessarily so simple. It is possible at least in
theory to oIIer a principled reason Ior qualiIying the Control Principle so that it applies only to
certain sorts oI Iactors and not others. At the same time, as we will see, providing just such a
principled way oI distinguishing certain kinds oI luck Irom others turns out to be a Iormidable
Most oI those who deny that one or more types oI moral luck exist are those who seek to
preserve the centrality oI morality in our lives. But it is also possible to adopt a position oI
denying the possibility oI moral luck while at the same time showing that the Control Principle,
while true, prevents morality Irom playing the central role we might have hoped Ior it.
Something like this position seems to be the one Williams adopts in his (1993) 'Postscript to
'Moral Luck, Ior example.
Denying Moral Luck and Preserving the entrality of Morality
Let us begin with the Iirst and larger group oI those who embrace the approach oI denying the
existence oI moral luck. One oI their main tasks is to explain away the appearance oI moral luck.
A second main task is to paint a plausible and coherent picture oI morality that avoids luck.
An important tool Ior those who wish to explain away the existence oI moral luck is what Latus
(2000) calls the 'epistemic argument. (See Richards, Rescher, Rosebury, and Thomson.) To see
how it goes, let us begin by Iocusing on resultant luck. Why do we Ieel diIIerently about the
successIul and unsuccessIul murderers? Because, according to the epistemic argument, we rarely
know exactly what a person's intentions are or the strength oI her commitment to a course oI
action. One (admittedly Iallible) indicator is whether she succeeds or not. In particular, iI
someone succeeds, that is some evidence that the person was seriously committed to carrying out
a Iully Iormed plan. The same evidence is not usually available when the plan is not carried out.
Thus, rather than indicating our commitment to cases oI resultant moral luck, our diIIerential
treatment oI successIul and unsuccessIul murderers indicates our diIIerent epistemic situations
with respect to each. II we were in the unrealistic situation oI knowing that both agents had
exactly the same intentions, the same strength oI commitment to their plans, and so on, then we
would no longer be inclined to treat them diIIerently. Thomson represents a number oI those who
employ this strategy when she asks, 'Well do we regard Bert |a negligent driver who causes a
death| with an indignation that would be out oI place in respect to Carol |an equally negligent
driver who does not|? Even aIter we have been told about how bad luck Iigured in his history
and good luck in hers? And Thomson answers: 'I do not Iind it in myselI to do so (1993, 205).
Not everyone shares this intuition, however, as we will see in the next section.
The epistemic argument can be extended to circumstantial luck. Consider again the Nazi
sympathizer, and a counterpart who moved in 1929 to Argentina on business. The counterpart
has exactly the same dispositions as the Nazi sympathizer, but lives a quiet and harmless liIe in
Argentina. According to this line oI reasoning, while it is true that the counterpart is not
responsible 1or the same deeds as the Nazi sympathizer, he should be judged precisely Ior what
he would have done. Richards argues that we do judge people Ior what they would have done,
but that what they do is oIten our strongest evidence Ior what they ould have done. As a result,
given our limited knowledge, we might not be entitled to treat the counterpart in the same way as
the Nazi sympathizer, even though they are equally morally deserving oI such treatment
(Richards 1986, 17 II.). Thus, circumstantial luck, like resultant luck, aIIects the basis available
to us when we judge agents, but does not aIIect what those agents deserve.
It is hard to see how the argument can be extended Iurther to cover constitutive or causal luck.
But even iI the epistemic argument is limited in this way, it can still be part oI a good overall
strategy oI responding to the problem oI moral luck insoIar as it is possible to take a mix-and-
match approach to diIIerent kinds oI luck.
A second strategy Ior explaining away moral luck is most naturally applied to resultant luck.
Those who adopt this strategy argue that it is understandable or even appropriate to Ieel
diIIerently about the driver who kills a child than about the one who does not. What is not
appropriate is to oIIer diIIerent 2oral assessments oI their behavior (e.g., Rosebury, Richards,
WolI, Thomson).
Williams elucidates a notion oI 'agent-regret, a sentiment whose 'constitutive thought is a
subject's Iirst-person thought that it would have been much better had she done otherwise. Agent
regret also requires a certain sort oI expression that is diIIerent Irom that oI what we might call
'bystander regret. For example, it might include the willingness to compensate a person who
was harmed by one's actions. In the case oI a lorry driver who, through no Iault oI his own, runs
over a child, Williams writes, 'we Ieel sorry Ior the driver, but that sentiment co-exists with,
indeed presupposes, that there is something special about his relation to this happening,
something which cannot merely be eliminated by the consideration that it was not his Iault
(1981, 3).
It is possible to take this thought still Iurther and argue that it is reasonable to expect and perhaps
even demand that one who kills the child respond in a diIIerent way Irom the other. For example,
WolI argues that there is a 'nameless virtue which consists in 'taking responsibility Ior one's
actions and their consequences (2001, 13). It is the virtue oI taking responsibility in some sense
Ior the consequences oI one's actions, even iI one is not responsible Ior them. In some ways it is
akin to the virtue oI generosity in that it 'involves a willingness to give more.that justice
requires. (1) To take another example, Richards suggests that we oIten have negative Ieelings
about those who cause harm, even when we realize that they are not deserved, and that these can
be Ieelings we ought to have. For example, it ought to be distressing Ior a parent to encounter a
girl who accidentally dropped your baby, even iI you know that no one could have held on
(1986, 178-79). The Ieelings that both agents and observers naturally do or even ought to have
can easily be conIused with judgments that commit us to the existence oI moral luck. Yet once
we distinguish these legitimate Ieelings Irom moral judgments, we can and should eliminate the
judgments that entail a commitment to moral luck. Again, this strategy is most naturally applied
to resultant luck.
Recently, critics oI this strategy have objected to it on a variety oI grounds. For example, it has
been argued against WolI's view, in particular, that once we acknowledge the appropriateness oI
greater selI-blame in cases oI greater harm, no good reason Ior denying moral luck remains. (See
Moore, Iorthcoming.) It has also been argued that WolI's description oI our phenomenology is at
best incomplete: it is not merely that we wish people to blame themselves more when they cause
greater harm, but that we judge them to be more blameworthy. Our judgments oI greater
responsibility also require explaining away. (See Domsky 200.)
A variant oI this strategy employs the idea that one can justiIy diIIerential treat2ent oI, say, the
negligent driver who hits a child and one who does not, even iI both are equally morally
blameworthy. For example, Henning Jensen (198) argues that while both are equally culpable,
there are consequentialist reasons Ior not subjecting the Iirst negligent driver to the same degree
oI blame behavior. Since we all take some risks, and some are less likely to lead to harm than
others, to blame everyone Ior simply taking such risks would require such a high standard oI care
as to risk destroying our ability to Iunction as moral agents. On the other hand, requiring
punishment Ior or compensation Irom those who do cause harm is required to provide a
'restorative value Ior those agents and preserve their integrity.
A third strategy is to point out that we mistakenly inIer moral luck Irom legal luck. While there
might be good reasons Ior the law to treat people diIIerently even iI what they do depends on
Iactors beyond their control, we (understandably) make the mistaken inIerence that the law
directly reIlects correct moral assessment in such cases. For example, there are a number oI
reasons why the law might justiIiably punish successIul crimes more severely than merely
attempted ones, including the balancing oI deterrence and privacy (Rosebury 521-2). II reasons
like this provide the justiIication Ior the diIIerential treatment oI such cases in the law, then it
would indeed be wrong to inIer that the successIul and unsuccessIul murderers are deserving oI
diIIerent moral assessments. However, the Iact that we do make such a mistaken inIerence
explains why we oIten commit ourselves to the existence oI moral luck, when reIlection can
show that doing so is a mistake.
In addition to explaining how there can be an appearance oI moral luck, despite the Iact that
there is not any, some oI those who wish to deny the existence oI moral luck take on the task oI
oIIering a coherent and plausible picture oI morality that avoids luck.
Some oI those engaged in the Iree will debate have denied the existence oI causal, and perhaps
also oI constitutive, moral luck by oIIering a distinctive metaphysical account oI human agency.
(See, Ior example, Chisholm, Taylor, Clarke, and O'Connor. See also Pereboom who argues that
such an account is coherent, but not true.) The view is known as 'Agent-Causal Libertarianism,
and the basic idea is that agents themselves cause actions or at least the Iormation oI intentions,
without their being caused to do so. Thus, the agent herselI as a substance, exercizing her causal
powers is an undetermined cause oI her intentions. On some agent causal views, only the agent,
as opposed to events caused by other events is the cause oI the intention (e.g., O'Connor), while
on another view, the agent acts in tandem with events that probabilistically cause the action
(Clarke 1993). Particularly on the Iirst sort oI view, we seem to avoid the conclusion that our
actions must depend on causal Iactors that are beyond our control. At the same time, it is not
clear exactly how the move to agent causation is supposed to restore the kind oI control we seek.
For we might ask why we should consider the agent cause in control oI her actions, while we can
imagine that other substance causes (e.g., tables or billiard balls) would not be in control oI what
they cause. It might be stipulated that the exercise oI the particular causal power to cause
intentions simply is an exercise oI control, but we need Iurther details to see that the challenge
has not been stipulated away. (See Clarke 2005 and Mele 2006 Ior recent discussions oI agent
causation and luck.) It is also important to note that Agent-Causal views are consistent with
actions and even intentions depending in part on Iactors beyond one's control, such as the
reasons people have available at the time oI decision or action.
In a very diIIerent way, as we have seen, it is possible to take on a part oI the task oI describing a
coherent picture oI luck-Iree morality by identiIying an object oI moral assessment in the case oI
circumstantial luck. For example, Richards suggests that people should be assessed Ior what they
would have done in diIIerent circumstances. More Iundamentally, people should be assessed Ior
their characters, oI which their actions in diIIerent circumstances are maniIestations.
Zimmerman begins where Richards leaves oII, proposing to pursue 'the implications oI the
denial oI the relevance oI luck to moral responsibility to their 'logical conclusion (2002, 559).
With the possible exception oI some kinds oI constitutive luck, Zimmerman rejects the
possibility oI moral luck oI all Iour kinds while proposing a coherent picture oI moral
assessment. He rejects the possibility oI resultant luck by Iirst acknowledging that a man who
(by luck) succeeds in his plan to cause harm is responsible Ior more things than one who (by
luck) Iails to carry out an identical plan. But, according to Zimmerman, we must distinguish
between scope and degree oI responsibility. Both men are responsible to the same degree, and it
is this kind oI moral assessment to which the Control Principle ought to apply. When it comes to
circumstantial luck, things are more diIIicult. For when it comes to cases like those oI resultant
luck in which we want to hold people responsible, we can Iind so2ething to hold them
responsible Ior, namely, their plans or intentions or attempts. However, when it comes to cases
oI circumstantial luck, such as the Nazi collaborator and his counterpart, there are no counterpart
plans or intentions or attempts that have simply Iailed to come to Iruition. Zimmerman suggests
that there is nothing that we hold the counterpart responsible Ior; in this case, the scope oI the
agent's responsibility is 0. But we can and should still hold him responsible to the same degree as
the Nazi sympathizer. He is responsible tout court even iI he is not responsible 1or anything
(2002, 565). He is responsible in the sense that his moral record is aIIected Ior better or worse in
virtue oI something about him. For there is something in virtue oI which he is responsible,
namely, his being such that he would have Ireely perIormed the very same wrong actions had he
been in the same circumstances as the Nazi sympathizer.
This reasoning can be extended still Iurther to cover the case oI constitutive and even one kind oI
causal luck. Suppose that Georg does not kill Henrik, and George does kill Henry. Further
suppose that 'the reason Ior Georg's not killing Henrik was that he was too timid, or that he had
a thick skin and Henrik's insults did not upset him in the way that Henry's insults upset George,
or that he was deaI and simply did not hear the insults that Henrik hurled his way. II it is
nonetheless true that Georg would have Ireely shot and killed Henrik but Ior some such Ieature
oI the case over which he had no control, then, I contend, he is just as responsible, in virtue oI
this Iact, as George is (2002, 565). Zimmerman acknowledges that there are Ieatures oI one's
constitution that are essential to who one is, although he denies that timidity, thick-skinnedness,
and so on count among them. However, iI such Ieatures are essential, then it will not be true to
say that had Georg lacked them, he would have Ireely killed Henrik. Since Georg is responsible,
on Zimmerman's view, precisely in virtue oI such counterIactuals being true, he would be
absolved oI responsibility iI such Ieatures were essential to him. For this reason, Zimmerman
concedes that 'the role that luck plays in the determination oI moral responsibility may not be
entirely eliminable. (2002, 575).
Finally, Zimmerman goes on to claim that his reasoning applies even to cases in which a person's
actions are causally determined. II it is true that, say, Georg would have killed Henrik iI his
deterministic causal history, over which he has no control, had been diIIerent, then Georg is as
responsible as he would have been had he killed Henrik in a world that was not determined. The
upshot oI the application oI Zimmerman's reasoning is that we are all responsible, blameworthy,
and even praiseworthy in ways we have never imagined. II Zimmerman is right, there are
countless counterIactuals that apply to each and every one oI us, in virtue oI which we are
responsible to one degree or another. The view thus takes the Control Principle extremely
seriously, and applies it in the broadest possible way. The price we pay Ior 'taking luck
seriously is that our everyday moral judgments are, iI not always mistaken, at the very least
radically incomplete.
A number oI objections can be raised to Zimmerman's view, including (i) that at least large
classes oI the counterIactuals in virtue oI which he thinks people are responsible lack truth value
(e.g., Adams 1977, Nelkin 200, and Zimmerman 2002, 572), and (ii) that he is simply mistaken
that one can be responsible without being responsible Ior anything. Even iI one or both oI these
objections are on target, Zimmerman's article is very helpIul in showing what an attempt to
Iollow out the denial oI moral luck to its logical conclusion looks like.
Unlike Zimmerman, most oI those who adopt the denial strategy do so only Ior certain sorts oI
moral luck. By treating all sorts oI luck in the same way (with the exception oI constitutive luck
with respect to one's essential properties), Zimmerman challenges those who adopt this strategy
to deIend the drawing oI the line between resultant and other sorts oI luck. As we will see, this
very same challenge is also issued by those who take a diametrically opposed position and accept
all Iorms oI moral luck.
Denying Moral Luck and Setting Aside Morality in Favor of Ethics
BeIore turning to the approach oI accepting the existence oI moral luck, it remains to consider
the view ascribed earlier to Williams' 'Postscript (1993). Extracting Williams' position on
'Moral Luck is a notoriously diIIicult task, made easier only by Williams' own
acknowledgment in the 'Postscript that his original article 'may have encouraged some
misunderstandings (251). Many commentators have read Williams as advocating the position
that moral luck exists and is deeply threatening to morality. There is certainly a line oI reasoning
in Williams' original article that suggests this (see 37-2, 51-53). But in the Postscript, Williams
makes a distinction between morality and ethics that allows him to deny the existence oI moral
luck, thus preserving a certain integrity Ior morality.
Williams understands morality to embody the Kantian conception oI it described above,
accepting that the essence oI the Control Principle is 'built into morality so understood (1993,
252). At the same time, examples like the Gauguin case described earlier show that one can be
rationally fusti1ied in one's decision in virtue oI its outcome. Further, such a case shows that our
overall value judgment oI someone's decision can depend on Iactors beyond the control oI the
agent. We must conclude, then, that there is a kind oI value that competes with, iI not trumps,
moral value. And iI that is right, then we must give up 'the point oI morality so understood,
namely, to 'provide a shelter against luck, one realm oI value (indeed, o1 supre2e value) that is
deIended against contingency (1993, 251, emphasis mine). It seems that morality can only
insulate itselI Irom luck at the expense oI Ioregoing supreme value. Once we acknowledge this
cost, we can keep morality intact (although skeptical doubts about its ability to resist luck can
still be raised), but we have lost our reason to care about it. Instead, Williams suggests, we
should care about ethics, where ethics is understood to address the most general question oI how
we ought to live.
Questions can be raised about this line oI reasoning. For example, we can ask whether there is
any sense in which Williams' Gauguin ought to have leIt his Iamily, despite the Iact that the
result was so welcome. II there is not, then Williams has not shown that morality competes with,
or is trumped by, some other value. From the other direction, we can ask whether Williams is
right that morality loses its point iI it is not the supreme source oI value. OI course, even iI
Williams' reasoning is unsound, the conclusion could still be correct, and others have oIIered
diIIerent routes to it.
The idea that we ought to care about ethics, understood as Williams does, Iinds inspiration in the
work oI Aristotle. Aristotle is concerned with the nature oI the good liIe in the broadest sense
in what he calls 'eudaimonia, oIten translated as 'happiness. Aristotle deIends the idea that
happiness consists in being a virtuous person over a complete liIe, and, in turn, the idea that
being a virtuous person requires not only that one have virtuous qualities and dispositions, but
also that one act on them. Luck enters into the account in at leat two ways. First, on Aristotle's
account, one becomes a virtuous person by undergoing the right kind oI upbringing and training.
Since whether one receives this training is at least to some extent beyond one's control, one's
ability to live a virtuous liIe is deeply dependent on luck. Second,the Iact that being a virtuous
person requires the perIormance oI certain kinds oI activities means that the world must
cooperate in various ways in order Ior one to be truly virtuous, and so be truly happy. Aristotle
writes that happiness 'needs the external goods as well; Ior it is impossible, or not easy, to do
noble acts without proper equipment (198 NE 1099a 31-33). For example, in order to engage
in acts oI generosity, one must have resources at one's disposal to share. And since having the
right equipment is at least to some extent a matter oI circumstantial luck, the value oI one's liIe
itselI will depend in part on what is not in one's control. On one interpretation oI Aristotle, luck
enters into the account in yet a third way. Acting in accordance with virtue does not suIIice Ior
happiness, on this interpretation, although it is the 'dominant component oI Aristotle's account
oI happiness (Irwin 1988, 5). According to this view, one must also have a minimum provision
oI external goods (e.g., health, security, access to resources) whose contribution to happiness is
independent oI their making virtuous activity possible. II this is right, then the value oI one's liIe
will depend at least in part on Iactors beyond one's control. In sum, while there is some dispute
about whether Aristotle thought 2ore than a liIe oI virtuous activity is required Ior happiness, it
is clear that luck plays a signiIicant role in determining both whether people are truly virtuous
and whether people's lives are good in the broadest sense. Hence, 'the Iragility oI goodness
All oI those who accept the existence oI some type oI moral luck reject the Control Principle and
the Kantian conception oI morality that embraces it. As a result, they must either explain how we
can revise our moral judgments and practices in a coherent way or show that we are not
committed to the Control Principle in the Iirst place.
Accepting Moral Luck and #evising our Practices
Some who accept luck argue that doing so requires a signiIicant change in our moral practices.
Browne (1992), Ior example, suggests that iI the Control Principle is Ialse, we ought not to
respond to an agent's wrongdoing with anger and blame that is 'against him, but rather with
anger that does not include hostility or the desire to punish. Nevertheless, we can still respond to
the successIul murderer with more oI the 'right kind oI anger than we Ieel toward the
unsuccessIul one. One question that might be raised here is whether we are leIt with enough oI
our ordinary conception oI morality to include genuine notions oI blame and responsibility.
Accepting Moral Luck without #evision
Others suggest that the Control Principle does not have nearly the hold on us that Nagel and
Williams assume, and that rejecting it would not change our practices in a signiIicant way.
Among these are some who Iocus on the Iree will debate and others who take on the broader
problem oI moral luck directly.
Accepting Moral Luck and the Free Will Debate
A large group who accept moral luck do not explicitly address the problem oI moral luck as so
Iormulated because they Iocus on what Nagel identiIies as a narrower issue, namely, that oI Iree
will. One traditional problem oI Iree will is posed by the Iollowing line oI reasoning: iI
determinism is true, then no one can act Ireely, and, assuming that Ireedom is necessary Ior
responsibility, no one can be responsible Ior their actions. Compatibilists have argued that we
can act Ireely and responsibly even iI determinism is true. Since most do not adopt Zimmerman's
radical account oI moral assessment in which one can be responsible despite not being
responsible 1or anything, they admit the existence oI causal moral luck. II, as some have argued,
causal luck is exhausted by constitutive and circumstantial luck, then they also accept that there
can be these sorts oI moral luck, as well.
A basic compatibilist strategy is to argue that agents can have control over their actions in the
sense required Ior Ireedom andor responsibility even iI they do not control the causal
determinants oI those actions. For example, iI one acts with the ability to act in accordance with
good reasons (WolI 1990) or iI one acts with 'guidance control which consists in part oI acting
on a reasons-responsive mechanism Ior which one has taken responsibility, (Fischer and Ravizza
1998), one can be responsible Ior one's actions. The key move here is to distinguish between
diIIerent kinds oI Iactors over which one has no control. II one's actions are caused by Iactors
that one does not control and that prevent one Irom having or exercizing certain capacities, then
one is not responsible. However, iI one's actions are caused by Iactors that one does not control,
but that do allow one to have and exercize the relevant capacities, then one can be 'in control oI
one's actions in the relevant sense, and so responsible Ior one's actions.
Interestingly, compatibilists are oIten silent on the question oI resultant and circumstantial moral
luck, although these Iorms oI luck might represent an underutilized resource Ior them. For iI it
turns out that the luck or lack oI control delivered by determinism is but one source oI luck
among others, then determinism does not embody a unique obstacle to Iree will and
responsibility, at least when it comes to control. This is to expand the application oI a widely
used compatibilist strategy to show that when it comes to causal luck, compatibilists are not
For within the Iree will debate, compatibilists are not alone in accepting the existence oI certain
types oI luck. Many libertarians assume that our actions are caused by prior events (not
themselves in our control) in accordance with probabilistic laws oI nature (see, Ior example,
Kane 1996, 1999, Nozick 1981). Given this view, it is natural to conclude that iI determinism is
Ialse, there is at least one kind oI luck in what sort oI person one decides to be and so in what
actions one perIorms. That is, there is luck in the sense that there is no explanation as to why a
person chose to be one way rather than another. At the same time, Kane, Ior example, denies that
there must be luck in the sense that one's choices are Ilukes or accidents iI determinism is Ialse.
In Kane's view, what is important is to be Iree Irom luck oI the second kind. For even iI one's
action is not determined, it can still be the case that the causes oI one's action are one's own
eIIorts and intention. And iI one's action is caused by one's own eIIorts and intentions, then one's
action is not lucky in the sense oI being a Iluke or accident. But while this shows that one's
actions can be Iree oI luck oI an important kind, it still leaves unaddressed luck oI a third kind,
namely the kind at issue in the moral luck debate: the dependence oI agents' choices on Iactors
beyond their control. And it appears that on the libertarian view in question, our choices are
indeed subject to luck oI this sort. (See Pereboom (2002) Ior a discussion oI the similar burdens
shared by compatibilists and this sort oI libertarian.) Only the agent-causal libertarians discussed
above oIIer an account that aims speciIically at eliminating a type oI moral luck.
Accepting Moral Luck and Distinctive onceptions of Morality
It is also possible to argue that we are not committed to the Control Principle by taking on the
problem oI moral luck directly.
One strategy is to argue that moral luck is only a problem Ior an overly idealized conception oI
human agency. But once we adopt a realistic conception oI human agency, the problem
evaporates. Margaret Urban Walker (1991) argues in this vein that moral luck is only
problematic Ior a conception oI moral agents as 'noumenal or pure (238). In contrast, adopting
a conception oI morality that applies to human beings in all oI their impurity will not be
threatened by moral luck. According to Walker, the Control Principle is Iar Irom obvious, and
we would not want to live in a world in which it held sway. The argument appears to rest on the
idea that without moral luck, we would lack several virtues that allow us to help each other in
most essential ways. Our very reactions to moral luck can be virtuous. For example, by accepting
that our 'responsibilities outrun control, we are able to display the virtue oI dependability by
accepting that we will be there Ior our Iriends, even iI their needs are not in our control. In
contrast, pure agents who are only responsible Ior what they control 'may not be depended on,
much less morally required, to assume a share oI the ongoing and massive human work oI
caring, healing, restoring, and cleaning-up on which each separate liIe and the collective one
depend. (27). Thus, iI we Iocus on our actual moral commitments, we will see that the Control
Principle is neither attractive nor necessary Ior morality.
It is not obvious that a world in which people denied the existence oI moral luck would be as
bleak as the one Walker envisions. Moral luck skeptics have material with which to question
Walker's claim. For example, those who deny resultant moral luck can still agree that agents
have an obligation to minimize their risks oI doing harm, and those who deny circumstantial
moral luck can still agree that agents have an obligation to cultivate qualities that prepare them to
act well in whatever circumstances arise.
A second strategy Ior rejecting the Control Principle turns Nagel's argument on its head by
taking as a starting point ordinary judgments and reactions that reveal our implicit rejection oI
the Control Principle. Adams (1985) adopts this strategy, drawing our attention to common
practices, such as blaming people Ior their racist attitudes even iI we do not think that such
people are in control oI their attitudes. Since Adams Iocuses primarily on agents' states oI mind
that have intentional objects such as anger and selI-righteousness, it is possible to see him as
accepting the existence oI constitutive moral luck in particular. But it is also possible to adopt the
same sort oI strategy Ior other sorts oI luck, including resultant luck. Moore (1997), Ior example,
points to the Iact that we resent those who succeed in causing harm more than those who do not,
we Ieel greater guilt when we ourselves cause harm, and when we Iace decisions, we Ieel that the
consequences oI matter to the moral quality oI our choices.
Now opponents who deny the existence oI moral luck have ways oI explaining away these
phenomena. When it comes to cases oI constitutive luck, like the case oI the racist, they can say
that what we really (ought to) blame people Ior are the maniIestations oI their attitudes and their
omitting to take steps to eliminate the oIIending attitudes. But, on reIlection, we ought not to
blame people Ior the mere having oI attitudes beyond their control. Similarly, as we saw earlier,
when it comes to resultant luck, moral luck skeptics have a variety oI strong alternative
explanations oI our judgments and emotional responses. It is possible that there is a disagreement
here at the level oI intuitions: some Iind it easier on reIlection to reject moral judgments that
depend on results than others. Further, those accepting resultant moral luck Iace a challenge oI
articulating a positive theory oI how exactly results aIIect one's moral status while at the same
time acccounting Ior our intuitions. Sverdlik (1988) argues that it is not obvious how such a
challenge can be met.
At this point in the debate, those who accept moral luck oIIer ordinary judgments and responses
in their deIense, while moral luck skeptics oIIer alternative explanations oI those practices and
hold up the Control Principle itselI as reason to reject moral luck. We seem to have something oI
a stalemate. So it is no surprise that those who accept moral luck tend not to rely exclusively on
ordinary judgments to make their case, but rather go on to try to undermine the Control Principle
in other ways.
Another way oI trying to undermine the appeal oI the Control Principle itselI is to show how it
might be mistaken Ior something else that is more plausible. For example, Adams (1985)
recognizes that there are limits to what we can be responsible Ior, and writes that the states oI
mind 'Ior which we are directly responsible are those in which we are responding, consciously
or unconsciously, to data that are rich enough to permit a Iairly adequate ethical appreciation oI
the state's intentional object and oI the object's place in the Iabric oI personal relationships (26).
Thus, according to Adams' conception oI morality, adherents oI the Control Principle are correct
in an important respect, namely, in their understanding that what one is responsible Ior springs in
the right way Irom onesel1. But this requirement is more general than a strict requirement oI
control, and although easily conIused with the Control Principle, is superior to it, on this view.
Adopting the same general strategy, Moore (1997) identiIies still other principles with which the
Control Principle might be conIused. He points out that when we use the word 'luck in the
context oI moral assessment, we tend not to mean that the person lacked control over what he
did, but rather that what happened was Iar oII oI 'some moral baseline oI the normal (213). For
example, consider two would-be murderers, one oI whom Iires his gun and hits his target, and
the other oI whom Iires in the same way, Irom the same distance, and so on, but whose bullet is
deIlected by an unexpected and unusually strong wind. Moore suggests that the Iirst gunman is
not 'lucky in the ordinary sense, even though it is true that whether a hurricane-Iorce wind
arose or not was not in his control. According to Moore, there is something intuitively right
about morality being immune to luck, but only iI we understand 'luck in the sense oI
'Ireakishness. Further, the successIul murderer is 'in control oI his action in the normal sense
oI the word 'control, even though he doesn't control the wind. Thus, while we do care about
luck and control in making both moral and legal assessments, they aren't Nagel's concepts, on
this view. Thus, according to Moore, there is no contradiction in our everyday commitments.
Now those who think we are naturally drawn to the Control Principle can respond by pointing
out both the intuitive plausibility oI the principle in the abstract and the cases described earlier
that seem to support it. They might then accept the alternative principles suggested by Adams
and Moore while claiming that the Control Principle is true as well. Again, diIIering intuitions
about cases and about the Control Principle itselI have the potential to make a big diIIerence to
one's view at this point.
There is a Iinal argument in Iavor oI the acceptance oI moral luck oI a very diIIerent kind that
might ultimately help decide the issue in one direction or the other. It explicitly encompasses
every kind oI luck and thus poses a deep and diIIicult challenge to moral luck skeptics,
particularly the large group who Iocus exclusively on resultant luck. The main idea is that
rejecting resultant luck, but not other sorts oI luck, is an unstable position (Moore 1997). In a
nutshell, one cannot Iind a principled place to draw the line at reIusing to accept moral luck. In
eIIect, this argument is Nagel's argument in reverse. Begin by observing that we lack control
over everything: the results oI our actions, our circumstances, our constitution, and our causal
history. II we are to avoid moral skepticism, then we must accept moral luck in some areas, and
iI we do that, then we ought to accept it in the area oI results. Particularly iI we accept that we
are not predisposed to accept the Control Principle in the Iirst place, then we ought to accept luck
in all areas, thereby avoiding moral skepticism.
Now even iI no one has adequately deIended a way oI drawing a line between diIIerent sorts oI
luck, it is not obvious that the door has been closed on all Iuture attempts. Thus, one way oI
seeing this argument is as a shiIt-the-burden one. Those who wish to draw a line between
diIIerent sorts oI moral luck must oIIer a deeper rationale Ior doing so than has yet been oIIered.
According to this approach, it is simply incoherent to accept or deny the existence oI some
type(s) oI moral luck. This approach has been used Ior constitutive luck in particular.
Among those who wish to preserve the centrality oI morality in our lives, many have appealed to
an idea Iormulated by Nicholas Rescher (1993), according to which '|o|ne cannot meaningIully
said to be lucky in regard to who one is, but only with respect to what happens to one. Identity
must precede luck (155). It is easy to take Rescher's point out oI context without realizing that
he is working with a notion oI luck that diIIers Irom the notion oI 'lack oI control. According to
Rescher, something is lucky iI (i) it came about 'by accident where this seems to mean
something like 'unplanned or 'unexpected or 'out oI the ordinary and (ii) the outcome 'has a
signiIicantly evaluative status in representing a good or bad result, a beneIit or loss(15). Taken
this way, it does seem at least very odd to say that one's identity is (or is not) a matter oI luck.
But it is less clear that there is anything odd let alone incoherent about saying that one's
identity is not a matter within one's control.
Could there nevertheless be some truth to Rescher's claim even iI we understand 'luck as 'out
oI one's control? Perhaps it does not make sense, Ior example, to say that a person is in control
oI who she is. For one could argue that this would amount to saying that a person is a selI-
creator. And in Iact the Control Principle, taken to its logical extreme, seems to lead to just such
a requirement (see, e.g., Browne 1992, Nagel 1986, 118). II it turns out that selI-creation is
conceptually impossible as many argue (e.g., Galen Strawson 1986), then perhaps there is a
sense in which it is right to say that being in control oI one's constitution makes no sense. But it
does not Iollow Irom this that it is meaningless to deny that one can control one's constitution.
Perhaps the best way oI deploying the insight that there is something special about luck and
constitution is not to say that it is meaningless to discuss it, but to say that constitutive moral
luck is simply unproblematic Ior morality in the way that resultant moral luck is. This would be
to take up the 'line-drawing challenge as described in the last section. On this line oI reasoning,
Ior purposes oI moral assessment, it does not matter how you came to be; what matters is what
you do with what you are. OI course, as we saw,this requires deIense and explanation, but it is a
way oI capturing the insight that constitutive luck is relevantly diIIerent Irom the resultant luck
that has captivated a number oI commentators.
The problem oI moral luck is deeply unsettling. Naturally, there is a wide variety oI responses to
it. On the one extreme are those who deny that there is any sort oI moral luck, and on the other
are those who accept every sort oI moral luck. Most writers who have responded to the problem
Iall somewhere in between; either they explicitly take a mixed approach or they conIine their
arguments to a careIully delineated subset oI types oI moral luck while remaining uncommitted
with respect to the others. The extreme positions are vulnerable to the objection that they have
leIt some consideration or other completely unaccounted Ior. But those who occupy the middle
also Iace a Iormidable challenge: where can one draw a principled line between acceptable and
unacceptable Iorms oI luck? As we have seen, one apparently natural place to draw a line is
between resultant luck and all oI the other sorts. On this view, there is no resultant moral luck,
despite initial appearances, although there is moral luck oI all the other kinds. Thus, occupiers oI
this position Iace the challenge oI setting out a plausible rationale Ior drawing the line where
they do. But they also Iace the challenge oI where precisely to draw another line, namely, the
line around what counts as 'results. For we can ask on which side oI this line do intentions,
willings, bodily movements, and so on, Iall. Do results include everything that happens aIter the
Iormation oI an intention or the exertion oI the will, Ior example? Or everything that Iollows the
beginning oI the Iormation oI an intention or the beginning oI the exertion oI the will? Or
everything that Iollows the 'aIIection oI the heart oI which Adam Smith wrote so eloquently?
These are diIIicult questions Ior those who would draw a line at resultant luck. But diIIicult
questions await every other proposal, too. Fortunately, there is a rich and growing literature
providing a Iull spectrum oI responses to explore.
O Adams, R. M., 1973, 'Middle Knowledge, The Journal o1 Philosophy, 70: 552-55.
O Adams, R. M., 1985, 'Involuntary Sins, The Philosophical Revie, 9: 3-31.
O Adler, J., 1987, 'Luckless Desert is DiIIerent Desert, Mind, 96: 27-29.
O Alexander, L., K. Ferzan, and S. Morse, 2008, A Culpability-Based Theory o1 Cri2inal
La, Cambridge University Press.
O Anderson. E, 1999, 'What is the Point oI Equality, thics, 109: 339-39.
O Andre, J., 1983, 'Nagel, Williams, and Moral Luck, Analysis, 3: 202-207; reprinted in
Statman 1993b.
O Arneson, R., 2001, 'Luck and Equality, Proceedings o1 the Aristotelian Society,
supple2entary volu2e, 75: 73-90.
O Arneson, R., Iorthcoming, 'Rawls, Responsibility, and Distributive Justice, in Justice,
Political Liberalis2, and Utilitarianis2 The2es 1ro2 Harsanyi and Rals, M. Salles
and J.A. Weymark (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O Aristotle, 198, The Co2plete Works Revised Ox1ord Translation, J. Barnes (ed.),
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
O Browne, B., 1992, 'A Solution to the Problem oI Moral Luck, The Philosophical
Quarterly, 2: 33-356.
O Chisolm, R., 196, 'Human Freedom and the SelI, The Lindley Lecture, University oI
Kansas; reprinted in Watson 1982.
O Clarke, R., 1993, 'Toward a Credible Agent-Causal Account oI Free Will, ous, 27:
O Clarke, R., 2005, "Agent Causation and the Problem oI Luck," Paci1ic Philosophical
Quarterly, 86: 08-21.
O Cohen, G.A. 1989, 'On the Currency oI Egalitarian Justice, thics, 99: 906-.
O Davis, M., 1986, 'Why Attempts Deserve Less Punishment Than Completed Crimes,
La and Philosophy, 5: 1-32.
O Domsky, D., 200, "There is No Door: Finally Solving the Problem oI Moral Luck," The
Journal o1 Philosophy 101: 5-6.
O Dworkin, R., 1981, 'What is Equality? Part 2: Equality oI Resources, Philosophy and
Public A11airs, 10: 283-35.
O Dworkin, R., 2000, Sovereign Jirtue The Theory and Practice o1 6uality, Cambridge:
Harvard University Press.
O Enoch, D. and A. Marmor, 2007, "The Case Against Moral Luck," La and Philosophy
26: 05-36.
O Feinberg, J., 1970, oing and eserving ssays in the Theory o1 Responsibility,
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
O Feinberg, J., 1995, 'Equal Punishment Ior Failed Attempts: Some Bad But Instructive
Arguments Against It, The Ari:ona La Revie, 37: 117-133.
O Fischer, J.M., and Raviza, M., 1998, Responsibility and Control A Theory o1 Moral
Responsibility, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O Greco, J., 1995, 'A Second Paradox Concerning Responsibility and Luck,
Metaphilosophy, 26: 81-96.
O Hurley, S., 2003, Justice, Luck, and Knoledge, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
O Hurley, S., 2001, 'Luck and Equality, Proceedings o1 the Aristotelian Society,
supple2entary volu2e, 75: 51-72.
O Irwin, T., 1988, Aristotles First Principles, OxIord: Clarendon Press.
O Jensen, H., 198, 'Morality and Luck, Philosophy, 59: 323-330; reprinted in Statman
O Kadish, S., 199, "Forward: The Criminal Law and the Luck oI the Draw," Journal o1
Cri2inal La and Cri2inology, 8: 2183-2237.
O Kane, R., 1996, The Signi1icance o1 Free Will, New York: OxIord University Press.
O Kane, R., 1999, 'Responsibility, Luck, and Chance: ReIlections on Free Will and
Indeterminism, The Journal o1 Philosophy, 96: 217-20.
O Kant, I., 1781998, roundork o1 the Metaphysics o1 Morals, M. Gregor (ed. and
transl.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O Latus, A., 2000, 'Moral and Epistemic Luck, Journal o1 Philosophical Research, 25:
O Latus, A., 2001, 'Moral Luck, The Internet ncyclopedia o1 Philosophy, J. Feiser (ed.).
O Levi, D., 1989, 'What's Luck Got to Do With It?, Philosophical Investigations, 12: 1-
13; reprinted in Statman 1993b.
O Lewis, D., 1989, 'The Punishment That Leaves Something to Chance, Philosophy and
Public A11airs, 96: 227-22.
O Mele, A., 1999, 'Ultimate Responsibility and Dumb Luck, Social Philosophy and
Policy, 16: 27-293.
O Mele, A., 2006, Free Will and Luck, OxIord University Press.
O Moore, M., 1997, Placing Bla2e A Theory o1 the Cri2inal La, OxIord, Clarendon
Press, especially chapter 5.
O Moore, M., Iorthcoming, Causation and Responsibility, OxIord University Press.
O Nagel, T., 1979, Mortal Questions, New York: Cambridge University Press; page
reIerence is to the reprint oI chapter 3 in Statman 1993b.
O Nagel, T., 1986, The Jie 1ro2 ohere, New York: OxIord University Press.
O Nelkin, D.K., 200, "Irrelevant Alternatives and FrankIurt CounterIactuals,"
Philosophical Studies, 121: 1-25.
O Nozick, R., 197, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.
O Nussbaum, M., 1986, The Fragility o1 oodness Luck and thics in reek Tragedy and
Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; page reIerence is to the reprint oI
pages 1-8, 322-30 in Statman 1993b.
O O'Connor, T., 2000, Persons and Causes the Metaphysics o1 Free Will, New York:
OxIord University Press.
O Pereboom, D., 2001, Living Without Free Will, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O Plato, 1997, Plato Co2plete Works, J. Cooper (ed.), Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
O Rawls, J., 1971, A Theory o1 Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
O Rescher, N., 1993, 'Moral Luck, in Moral Luck, D. Statman (ed.), Albany: State
University oI New York Press.
O Richards, N., 1986, 'Luck and Desert, Mind, 65: 198-209; page reIerence is to the
reprint in Statman 1993b.
O Ripstein, A, 1999, 6uality, Responsibility, and the La, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
O Roemer, J 1996, Theories o1 istributive Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
O Rosebury, B., 1995, 'Moral Responsibility and Moral Luck, Philosophical Revie, 10:
O ScheIIler, S., 2003, 'What is Egalitarianism, Philosophy and Public A11airs, 31: 5-39.
O Smith, A., 17901976, The Theory o1 Moral Senti2ents, D. D. Raphael and A. L. MacIie
(ed.s), OxIord: Clarendon Press.
O Statman, D., 1991, 'Moral and Epistemic Luck, Ratio, :16-156.
O Statman, D. 1993a, Introduction to Moral Luck, Albany: State University oI New York
O Statman, D. (ed.), 1993b,Moral Luck, Albany: State University oI New York Press.
O Statman, D., 2005, "Doors, Keys, and Moral Luck: A Reply to Domsky," The Journal o1
Philosophy, 102: 22-36
O Strawson, G., 1986, Freedo2 and Belie1, New York: OxIord University Press.
O Sverdlik, S., 1988, 'Crime and Moral Luck, A2erican Philosophical Quarterly, 25: 79-
86; reprinted in Statman 1993b.
O Taylor, R., 1966, Action and Purpose, Englewood CliIIs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
O Thomson, J. J., 1993, 'Morality and Bad Luck, in Moral Luck, D. Statman (ed.),
Albany: State University oI New York Press.
O Waldron, J., 1995, 'Moments oI Carelessness and Massive Loss, in Philosophical
Foundations o1 Tort La, David Owen(ed.), OxIord: Clarendon Press.
O Walker, M. U., 1991, 'Moral Luck and the Virtues oI Impure Agency, Metaphilosophy,
22: 1-27; page reIerence is to the reprint in Statman 1993b.
O Watson, G., 1982, Free Will, New York: OxIord University Press.
O Williams, B., 1981, Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; page reIerence
is to the reprint oI chapter 2 in Statman 1993b.
O Williams, B., 1993, 'Postscript, in Moral Luck, D. Statman (ed.), Albany: State
University oI New York Press.
O WolI, S., 1990, Freedo2 Within Reason, OxIord: OxIord University Press.
O WolI, S., 2001, 'The Moral oI Moral Luck, Philosophic xchange, 31: -19.
O Zimmerman, M., 1987, 'Luck and Moral Responsibility, thics, 97: 37-386; reprinted
in Statman 1993b.
O Zimmerman, M., 2002, 'Taking Luck Seriously, The Journal o1 Philosophy, 99: 553-
O Zimmerman, M., 2006, "Moral Luck: A Partial Map," Canadian Journal o1 Philosophy,
36: 585-608.
Other Internet #esources
|Please contact the author with suggestions.|
#elated Entries
Aristotle, General Topics: ethics , causation: in the law , character, moral , compatibilism ,
determinism: causal , egalitarianism , Iree will , incompatibilism: (nondeterministic) theories oI
Iree will , moral responsibility , punishment , punishment, legal
I am very grateIul to David Brink, Nina Davis, Derk Pereboom, and Sam Rickless Ior their very
helpIul input and constructive suggestions. I also beneIited greatly Irom participation in the
University oI San Diego Institute Ior Law and Philosophy Roundtable on Moral Luck in April