Is there a relationship between luck and morality?

23 January 2016

reading time:  minutes

For most people, it’s fairly easy – and natural – to think of ourselves or others as moral or ethical people. Or otherwise. 

It’s an internal trait, that’s largely independent of context or circumstances. Right?

But… what if the context or circumstances play a significant role in determining our actions of the consequences of our actions? And what about if we have limited control on the context or circumstances?

What if there is an element of luck involved?

What then? Can we receive moral blame or praise for an action, or the consequences of an action?

It’s a thorny question. And one that has been considered by several philosophers in the past few decades, using the phrase “moral luck“. 

There are a number of dimensions of moral luck. When I think of moral luck, I think of “the three Cs”: consequential luck, constitutive luck, and circumstantial luck. 

  • Consequential luck

Consider two scenarios: A woman tries to kill a man by shooting him and succeeds. Or a woman tries to kill a man by shooting him but for some reason outside of her control the gun doesn’t work and she fails.

The intentions and situations were otherwise identical. The only difference is that in the second scenario, a factor outside of the woman’s control intervened and resulted in a different outcome. The first woman is found guilty of murder. The second woman is found guilty of attempted murder. Assuming they’re both convicted (which is another matter – it’s harder to prove attempted murder than actual murder), they receive very different terms of imprisonment. But is the second woman really deserving of less blame than the first?

Another example: A man drives home after having three drinks too many. A second man drives the exact route home after having three drinks too many, but hits another car and causes the two people in the other car to die. If the same car had been at the same place and the same time, the first man would have done exactly the same thing. But he was lucky. The action was the same but the consequences vastly different. The consequences of the second man’s actions are significant. But because the first man was lucky, does this make him less culpable?

  • Constitutive luck

We are born with different personalities and propensities.

Did the young man born without empathy choose to be born this way, or to be raised in circumstances that have brought out the worst in his innate tendencies? Is he fully to blame for the behaviour that flows from the constitution he was handed?

Does the fact that someone is agreeable and conscientious (two traits that many psychologists consider to be part of the “big 5” traits that are largely inherited, and consistent within a person over time and across circumstances), make that person more moral? Or is there a degree of luck involved?  

  • Circumstantial luck

I was born and raised in wealthy countries which observe the rule of law. I have lived in neighbourhoods and spent my time in environments where the social and cultural norms, and economic and other relevant incentives, support acting in ways that might be considered “moral” or “ethical”.

What about if I had been raised in a very different environment? 

Would it be so easy to act like this in the event of a zombie apocalypse?

Would it have been so easy to act like this if, instead of being a young man in Australasia at the turn of the 21st century, I’d been a young man in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s? 

Keeping the fundamental attribution error in mind

Considering our “moral luck” is a fascinating thought experiment. And it’s another good reason to keep the fundamental attribution error in mind. 

To quote Wikipedia:

the fundamental attribution error… is the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation rather than considering the situation’s external factors.


[The fundamental attribution error] does not explain interpretations of one’s own behavior, where situational factors are more easily recognized and can thus be taken into consideration… [T]his error is known as the actor–observer bias, in which people tend to overemphasize the role of a situation in their behaviors and underemphasize the role of their own personalities.

Is it possible that most morally or ethically compromised people don’t deserve all of the blame for acting in ways that trigger our blame? Or that the rest of us aren’t necessarily angels, but have also been lucky?

By all means – I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a moral code and stick to it! It’s important to have a personal moral compass. But that doesn’t stop this from being an area where there’s more nuance than meets the eye. 


ethics, luck, morality, sunshine

About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or a popular author of erotic, supernatural, mystery novellas. Sometimes he says he was in a band that opened for Robbie Williams. None of these are true.

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