Moral Luck and Moral Character

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Moral Luck and Moral Character

“Things happen to people by accident,” she used to say. “A lot of nice accidents have happened to me. It just happened that I always liked lessons and books, and could remember things when I learned them. It just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me everything I liked. Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything that you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered? I don’t know”—looking quite serious—“how I shall ever find out whether I am really a nice child or a horrid one. Perhaps I’m a hideous child, and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials.”

“Lavinia has no trials,” said Ermengarde, stolidly, “and she is horrid enough.”

--from A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
People can have all sorts of good or bad luck in their circumstances and personal characteristics. One person may be born in a loving family, in good health, and with keen senses and intelligence. Another is born in the middle of a war, loses her parents early, and suffers physical ailments or disabilities, or is blind, or is mentally ill. We agree that it is a bad thing that some people’s circumstances and capacities are so much worse than they could be, and that sometimes we should do what we can to improve their situation. We don’t deny that some people have more good luck than others.

But when it comes to moral assessment, some people do deny that some have more good luck than others. As Thomas Nagel puts it, “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.”1 Our being good or bad, or our action’s being right or wrong, cannot be due to luck.

And yet, Nagel goes on to say, it seems impossible to rule out the influence of luck in how our actions turn out, what actions we attempt, and even whether we are good or bad. When we focus on the need for control in matters of moral responsibility, we find that “[t]he things for which people are morally judged are determined in more ways than we at first realize by what is beyond their control”: that is, the things that affect how our actions turn out, the range of opportunities to act that we encounter, the temperament and personality we have, and any antecedents that may determine our volitions. We come to believe that “nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control” and so that it is never or almost never the case that anyone is correctly morally assessed for anything.2 But as soon as we cease to focus on this need for control, we resume making moral assessments. Nagel concludes from this that there is moral luck, though he thinks it is paradoxical.

So there appears to be a conflict between our belief that we can sometimes morally assess people and their actions, and our belief that people cannot be morally assessed for things that result from factors beyond their control. One type of response to this apparent conflict, made (in different ways) by Nicholas Rescher and Norvin Richards, is to say that what appears to be moral luck is really luck in our perceived moral standing. Luck affects the accuracy with which other people evaluate us morally, but it does not affect the things for which we are correctly morally assessed. People cannot be correctly morally assessed for things not fully under their control.

I will argue that there is at least one kind of moral luck, and that some of our judgments and actions show that we implicitly recognize this kind of luck. The explanations Richards and Rescher offer in order to show that moral luck does not exist, do not show that this kind of moral luck does not exist.
The kind of moral luck that I will argue exists is luck in the circumstances that influence one’s character. Since it is a kind of luck in what one’s character is like, it seems to be what Nagel calls “constitutive luck”.3 However, discussions of constitutive luck often focus on whether character is something we are given (and for which we are not responsible) or is rather something we can to some extent change (and so may be responsible for). The luck I am interested in is luck in how our surroundings influence our character.

One might be tempted to label this kind of luck “circumstantial luck”, since it is a matter of the circumstances that affect our character morally for better or worse. The phrase “circumstantial luck”, though, tends to be used for the way that our opportunities affect our actions, rather than our character traits, by providing opportunities to act badly or heroically.4 The emphasis in those discussions is on our responsibility for whether or not our actions are bad, or are heroic.

In order to show that there is moral luck in the circumstances that influence one’s character, I will first discuss the problem just mentioned: that is, the fact that what actions one is morally responsible for depends on one’s opportunities, despite one’s opportunities being (at least partly) a matter of luck. I will describe a solution that has been offered to this problem, and then describe how the solution brings us to the problem that luck affects what sort of person one is, and so affects the moral assessment of one’s character. I will discuss the problem of constitutive luck and the two solutions that Richards and Rescher offer to this problem, and show that these solutions will not solve the problem of luck in our circumstances affecting our character traits.

It will help to start with one of the examples used to illustrate circumstantial luck. As in most moral luck examples, we take two people, describe a way in which their situation differs due to luck, and remark how that difference appears to make a moral difference by affecting what people do or what they are like. One such example compares a person who lives in Nazi Germany and becomes an officer in a concentration camp with a person who moves to Argentina before the Nazis become influential, and leads a quiet life.5 The first person has opportunities to do some very bad things that the second person never has an opportunity to do. So the first person seems to have behaved in a morally bad way, but the second has not, and yet we may think that had the second person lived in Nazi Germany, she might well have done the same. So her not behaving in a morally bad way is to this extent a result of good luck in where she lives. And, correspondingly, the other person has had bad luck which has resulted in morally bad behavior.

One attempt to show that moral luck is not involved is to say that the moral significance of the first person’s actions is that those actions reveal a bad character trait. If the second person has the same sort of character trait as the first, such that she would have behaved equally badly in the same circumstances as the first person, then she is morally just as bad—her moral standing is just as bad—even though she has not done the same bad actions.6 Sara Crewe, in the passage quoted at the beginning, seems to be thinking something along these lines when she wonders if perhaps she is really a hideous child, and simply hasn’t had a chance to show it.

This attempted solution to the problem posed by circumstantial luck moves the evaluation to character traits rather than actions, and in doing so raises the issue of constitutive luck. The solution only works if the luck that posed a problem for moral evaluation of actions does not also pose a problem for the moral evaluation of character. But we do not choose our own character, so isn’t it a matter of luck that I am the sort of person that I am, having the (apparently) morally significant character traits that I do? And yet, I can be judged for being a good or bad person.

Nicholas Rescher’s response to this problem is to say “One cannot meaningfully be said to be lucky in regard to who one is, but only with respect to what happens to one. Identity must precede luck.” We are our characters, and so we cannot be said to have good or bad luck in the character we have. Who would there be to have the luck?7 Norvin Richards’ response is that we may contribute to our character by our actions, and to the extent that we have contributed to our character, we are morally responsible for it. To the extent that actions result from character to which we have not contributed, we are not morally responsible for either that part of our character or for the resulting actions, though other people, not knowing this, may be justified in blaming us.8 What appears to be bad moral luck is really bad luck in what others see reason to blame us for.

To demonstrate that these solutions do not succeed in showing that luck does not affect the character traits for which we are correctly morally assessed, I will give an example in which a person has bad moral luck in the character she comes to have. Rescher’s solution will not work for this example, because in the example we have a person whose character changes as a result of something that happens to her. Though she will not turn out to be exactly the same sort of person she would have been, had things gone differently, it still makes sense to say that she would have been morally better off had things gone differently. Richards’ solution will not work, because it is a case in which her character is changed as a result of circumstances entirely beyond her control, yet our reaction implies that she is morally assessable for the worsened character and for her resulting actions.

Consider Alice and Bernice, two women addicted to cocaine. Suppose they both are stealing to support their habit, and lying to friends and family to conceal it. But both want to quit, have been unable to do so alone, and are searching for rehab programs to help them do it.

Now suppose that Alice is able to find a spot in a rehab program, but Bernice is not. (Perhaps she lives in an area where there are few such programs, or she is at risk of losing her job if she does, or there is some other such factor beyond her control). Suppose further that Alice is successfully helped, and also makes new friends and learns new ways of coping with her life. She leaves rehab optimistic and better-disposed toward other people. She goes on to become a model of civic virtue.

Bernice, who would have responded well to the same treatment, instead finds life increasingly difficult, the people around her less and less admirable, and eventually ceases even to want to enter rehab. She comes to mistrust the sort of people that run rehabs, and most other people as well. She becomes cynical and opportunistic, lying and stealing more than ever, whether her habit requires it or whether it is simply more convenient to do so.

If there is no moral luck, then the change in Bernice’s character (relative both to how it used to be, and to Alice’s) cannot make a difference to her moral standing: it is a matter of luck and so it cannot make a moral difference. So it does not make her a morally worse person. It was a matter of bad luck that she was unable to enter rehab when she wanted to, and so did not have the opportunity to lose her cocaine habit and learn better ways of coping.

But we do think that Bernice was somehow unfortunate in not being able to enter rehab, and this turns out to imply our recognition of the existence of moral luck. Why was she unfortunate? To show that it is not some bad effect unrelated to moral assessment, let us change the story in order to take away all such effects. At the point in the story at which her character has become worse and she is no longer interested in rehab, we take away the unfortunate effects of her addiction and the non-moral effects of her worsened character. Her addiction (and its consequences for her physical and economic well-being) is removed, almost miraculously, by a new drug. We give her the ring of invisibility that Gyges tells us of, and the intelligence to use it, without undoing any of the changes in her character that resulted from her lack of rehab (she remains a cynical, lying thief). If the misfortune in not getting rehab was only that it left her poor, addicted, and powerless, then she should no longer be unfortunate. But clearly she is still unfortunate.

Is there some other non-moral misfortune associated with Bernice’s not getting into rehab? Is she unhappy in some other way? We can arrange the two examples so that Bernice is no less happy than Alice. Perhaps Alice now has high standards for herself (as a result of her experience in rehab) and is often unhappy that she doesn’t meet them.

Is Bernice unfortunate simply because she wanted to go into rehab and this desire was disappointed? Suppose neither Alice nor Bernice had wanted to go into rehab, but Alice was caught stealing and sentenced to rehab, with the results previously described. Bernice was not caught and did not get rehab, with the results as previously described. Now Bernice has not had a desire for rehab that was disappointed.

Now that we have taken away the non-moral effects of Bernice’s not entering rehab, is it no longer true that she was unfortunate in ending up with the character she does? No. Bernice is unfortunate in both cases, and the only way to make sense of this fact is to say that it is morally bad that she have such a character. Being morally good is important to us, and failing to have a good moral character through bad luck is a misfortune.9 It is largely for this reason that we are concerned about not spoiling our children, and about the sort of example that their teachers and classmates set. This is also the reason why we are inclined to say in cases of criminals coming from recognizably bad environments that having grown up in such an environment is really bad luck for them. While we may be led to think that its being luck removes responsibility, our initial thought that it is bad luck seems to assume that having the resulting character is not morally neutral, but rather a bad thing for the moral agent.

Let me give one more example, using a real case to show that people are inclined to regard circumstances that influence one’s character for the worse as a misfortune, precisely because the circumstances have moral effects. Clarence Darrow argued against the death penalty for Leopold and Loeb on the grounds that both young men were acting as their environment and nature inevitably made them act when they carried out a murder. He argued that they were not responsible for their environment or nature, hence not responsible for the deed. Although he blamed their upbringing, among other things, it was not the sort of obviously horrible upbringing that is sometimes blamed in these cases—there was no abuse, deprivation, or social isolation. While their circumstances also led to their being charged with murder, and eventually punished, their upbringing would hardly have been perfectly fine for them if they had committed murder and simply never been caught. The only thing that was clearly bad about the boys’ upbringing was that it led (to some extent, presumably) to their becoming morally appalling people capable of murder.10 That is, it contributed to their having a bad moral character.

It is not just our judgments that reflect an implicit recognition of moral luck. We recognize the importance of our surroundings for our own behavior, and this is reflected in our practices. We try to avoid temptation. We hope that we are not, unbeknownst to us, in the equivalent of Nazi Germany or the slave-owning antebellum South. When we hear about Milgram’s experiment, we make resolutions to be alert for pressure from authorities, and not to be one of the 60% that caved in to pressure from authority when they clearly shouldn’t have.11 We do what we can, at least sometimes, to make behaving well easier for ourselves. And by “easier”, we don’t just mean that avoiding temptation will make resisting temptation feel less unpleasant and annoying, but rather that it will make it more likely that we will do so. In taking it to be important to avoid temptation and bad company, we implicitly acknowledge the existence of moral luck. We don’t want our circumstances to cause us to become worse people.

The examples I have given show that we are subject to moral luck in the character traits we come to have. They also show that we cannot deny this by saying, as Rescher does, that our character is who we are, nor by saying, as Richards does, that luck does not really affect our actual moral standing, but only our perceived moral standing. We judge Bernice to be unfortunate because bad luck has resulted in her becoming morally worse. We hope, in providing good examples and good education, to help others avoid similar luck.

1 Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck”, in Moral Luck, ed. Daniel Statman (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993), 58.

2 Nagel, 59.

3 Nagel, 60. The term apparently comes from Bernard Williams in “Moral Luck”.

4 Daniel Statman defines “circumstantial luck” with a quote from Nagel: it is luck in “the kind of problems and situations one faces”. Nagel simply calls it “luck in one’s circumstances”.

5 Nagel, 58-59, and also used by Norvin Richards and probably others.

6 Both can be condemned for being the sort of person that would act that way, though only one has actually done so. Circumstances do not change that assessment. Norvin Richards (“Luck and Desert”, in Moral Luck, 167-180) seems to think that having the same character trait will lead her to do equally bad actions in her current circumstances, though they may not be as dramatic.

7Nicholas Rescher, “Moral Luck”, in Moral Luck, Daniel Statman, ed., 155-156.

8 Norvin Richards, 172. He puts this point in terms of what we deserve praise or blame for.

9 That Bernice does not have a good moral character is obvious, even if we didn’t know whether this was a bad thing for her. The way Nagel sets up the problem is to highlight the intuition that what we are morally assessable for cannot be a result of luck. Suppose one accepts this and objects that it is not a morally bad thing to have a bad character, and so not moral bad luck. Then her moral standing is unaffected by either her worsened character or her actions (which stem from her character and so are indirectly a result of luck). In that case, what makes her unfortunate?

10 Though many people may not look upon the two boys’ circumstances as “unfortunate”, they may be thinking that with all their opportunities and privileges, the boys really ought to have been able to turn out better than they did. If their circumstances really did make it inevitable that the boys become capable of murder, this does seem to be unfortunate for them.

11 Milgram, Obedience to Authority: an Experimental View.


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