Sustainability & Moral Luck


Luck plays a crucial role in moral development. As the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle observed, without luck, you can’t develop a virtuous character. To become generous, for example, you need situations to arise where generosity is called for. Unless you can practice at being generous, you won’t develop the virtue of generosity. Beyond this, Aristotle claimed, nobody can lead the good life without adequate fortune-dependent goods, such as health, friends, and money.

Moral luck is a distinctive way of thinking about the relation between luck and responsibility. Specifically, “Moral luck occurs when an agent can be correctly treated as an object of moral judgment despite the fact that a significant aspect of what she is assessed for depends on factors beyond her control.”

Instances of moral luck thus push back on what has come to be called The Control Principle:  “We are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control.”  This idea received deep support in Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment Age deontological ethics. Kant basically argued that moral worth should be decided solely upon intentions because that’s where freedom lies.  People are free to determine intentions; they lie within control.  But, people often lose control when confronted with things that are unexpected.  Thus, adverse outcomes might result from even the best intentions.

Thomas Nagel wrote the classic essay on moral luck and The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a fantastic summary of the four categories he identified: resultant luck, circumstantial luck, constitutive luck, and causal luck.  Each is paraphrased below:

Resultant Luck is luck in the way things turn out.  When decisions are made under uncertainty, we judge the decision-makers differently depending on the outcome.  For example, imagine that two otherwise conscientious people have forgotten to have their brakes checked recently and experience brake failure, but only one of whom finds a child in the path of his car.  If we offer different moral assessments based upon the different outcome of their crashes, then we have a case of resultant moral luck.

Circumstantial luck is luck in the circumstances in which one finds oneself.  A morally virtuous person who never faces circumstances that reveal that virtue may not be recognized as such.  Similarly, a moral turpitude may never be revealed, depending on the circumstances that offer alternatives to make immoral choices.

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 influences 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 of luck.  Since how we act is partly a function of who we are, the existence of constitutive luck entails that what actions we perform depends on luck, too.

Causal luck is luck in “how one is determined by antecedent circumstances”.  Nagel points out that the appearance of causal moral luck is essentially the classic problem of free will.  The problem of free will to which Nagel refers arises because it seems that our actions — and even the “stripped-down acts of the will” — are consequences of what is not in our control. If this is so, then neither our actions nor our willing are free.  And since freedom is often thought to be necessary for moral responsibility, we cannot be morally responsible even for our willings.  Sometimes the problem is thought to arise only if determinism is true, but this is not the case.  Even if it turns out that determinism is false, 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 of one’s control.

Some view causal luck as redundant, since what it covers is completely captured by the combination of constitutive and circumstantial luck.

Different dimensions of moral luck might be present in simultaneously. Louis CK‘s admission of his own good fortune at being white calls attention to constitutive luck, although he carefyully notes that white people are not “better” (thus avoiding moral judgment), simply that it is better to be white.

But in this video, Eddie Murphy’s dramatization the inequalities of racial prejudice concludes by satirically suggesting that blacks might have greater agency with regard to choice of race than previously imagined — exactly the hypothetical question that Louis CK also explores.  Both suggest that, given the choice, they would prefer to be white — although most people clearly have no choice at all.



Because sustainability ethics involves making decisions about an uncertain future, it is not possible to think about sustainability without confronting the question of moral luck.

For example, imagine future generations living in a world ravaged by disasters brought about by global climate change.  People living there might feel unlucky.  They might wish they lived in the past, when folks could walk outside with skin protected only by inexpensive sun block.  They might feel a cosmic injustice occurred by being born so late in the game, deprived of a quality of life previously taken for granted.  If they believe their predecessors didn’t care enough about the future, they could claim the obligations of intergenerational justice weren’t met by their forebears.

Consider two hypothetical ways of addressing the possibility of catastrophic climate change.

Possible Future 1.  Imagine Americans continue living more or less the way we do now.  According to philosopher John Nolt (“Morally Significant Effects of Ordinary Individual Actions“), greenhouse gas emissions attributable to a single person today will cause the death of one or more persons in the future.

Possible Future 2.  Although present-day behavior is exactly the same as in #1, thanks to some powerful techno-fix, or a massive volcanic eruption, or some other improbable intervention, greenhouse gases don’t harm anyone.

If #2 occurred, it is unlikely that future generations will hold their predecessors accountable for what could have happened if something else didn’t provide salvation.  Instead, they’ll judge history based on its consequences, where no harm means no foul.

But why should this be?  The individuals #1 and #2 behaved exactly the same way.  They were both equally unwilling to make sacrifices on behalf of future generations and their intentions were equally callous or possibly egoistic.

The main difference between #1 and #2 is luck.

To put it in terms of Nagel’s categories of “moral luck,” we’re dealing with a case of circumstantial luck.  A contingent outcome affects how judgments of past behavior and character get made.  Different outcomes yield different judgments, and the folks  in #2 get a free pass for things that happened that they actually had no control over.  Since history only happens once, there is no alternative to compare what is to what might have been.  Sure, historians or writers might offer counter-factual models.  But what is the chance that people would look at them and feel outrage?  Instead, folks will say, “Why fret over abstract possibilities?  There’s plenty of real problems to concern ourselves with.”

With regard to climate change, it seems that lots of people today are hoping that something like #2 occurs.  If it does, a history of blame might instead become a history of technological triumph.

Concerns about inequalities that result from luck are the center of different theories of justice.  Perhaps the most famous was developed by John Rawls. Our colleague at the University of Boulder, Ben Hale, recently wrote a NY Times essay, “The Veil of Opulence” in which he does an excellent job summarizing how Rawls creates the thought experiment of an “original position” underwritten by a “veil of ignorance” as a means of helping us thinking about how to create a fair society–one that prevents undue privilege from creating moral problems.  As Hale writes, the veil is a means of conceptually stepping outside of our own skin to consider the hardships others face and the responsibility the more fortunate have to them.  It is means shedding “selfish predispositions” and thinking about fairness as impartial, not good for the self or other special interests.  Hale points out that when people think of themselves as lucky, they are more willing to accept unfair circumstances, thinking that their own luck will protect them from adversity.  Moreover, when they are confronted others’ misfortunes, they don’t necessarily see poor luck a justification for assistance.

The idea behind the veil of ignorance is relatively simple: to force us to think outside of our parochial personal concerns in order that we consider others.  What Rawls saw clearly is that it is not easy for us to put ourselves in the position of others.  We tend to think about others always from our own personal vantage; we tend to equate another person’s predicament with our own.  Imagining what it must be like to be poor, for instance, we import presumptions about available resources, talents and opportunities — encouraging, say, the homeless to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to just get a job, any job, as if getting a job is as simple as filling out an application.  Meanwhile, we give little thought to how challenging this can be for those who suffer from chronic illnesses or disabling conditions.  What Rawls also saw clearly was that other classic principles of justice, like the golden rule or mutual benevolence, are subject to distortion precisely because we tend to do this.


Although Rawls’s ambition are noteworthy, it is a matter of intense debate whether his approach to justice succeeds. For example, even when we concede equality of opportunity as a worthy moral goal, we are not necessarily disposed to view poor luck as justifying the assistance of the more fortunate  Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, contends that Rawls’ “original position” doesn’t go far enough.  In this clip, she contends it excludes excludes vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities, and contends an alternative approach to justice — namely, the “capabilities approach“– is better.

Whether Nussbaum is right is matter of debate, too, but her guiding point is well-taken.  It is extremely difficult identify all of the advantages that luck brings about which can cause injustices.  Even with good intentions, we readily impose taken-for-granted and hard-to-shake biases when considering proposals like the “original position.”  The more removed a difference is from our own experience, the harder it is for us to avoid translating it into something similar, something we can grasp.  Because Rawls models his views on international relations (The Law of Peoples) on the “veil of ignorance,” the same identification problem might persist in his globalized extension of social contract theory.

The challenge of stepping outside of our own personal skin isn’t the only reason luck is difficult to perceive.  In cultures with a strong individualist ethos, people are encouraged to see successes as a result of their own hard work and failure as a result of their mistakes.  In a recent NY Times article, “Deluded Individualism,” philosopher Firmin DeBrabander contends “there is something profoundly American” in seeing ourselves as governed by “self-determination” instead of mutual interdependence.  He argues that people who resent government assistance programs fail to appreciate:

That we are all thoroughly saturated with government assistance in this country: farm subsidies that lower food prices for us all, mortgage interest deductions that disproportionately favor the rich, federal mortgage guarantees that keep interest rates low, a bloated Department of Defense that sustains entire sectors of the economy and puts hundreds of thousands of people to work.  We can hardly fathom the depth of our dependence on government, and pretend we are bold individualists instead.

One reason we have trouble perceiving our interdependence, DeBrander claims, is because history has receded so far it isn’t even in our rear-view mirror:

We can’t really appreciate the horrors Upton Sinclair witnessed in the Chicago slaughterhouses before regulation, or the burden of living without Social Security and Medicare to look forward to.  Thus, we can entertain nostalgia for a time when everyone pulled his own weight, bore his own risk, and was the master of his destiny.  That time was a myth. But the notion of self-reliance is also a fallacy.

Categories: by Evan Selinger | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

About Evan Selinger

Evan Selinger is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction, and Creativity (MAGIC). He’s also a Fellow at The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology and serves on the Advisory Board of The Future of Privacy Forum. Evan’s research primarily addresses ethical issues concerning technology, science, the law, expertise, and sustainability. A prolific academic author, Evan also cares deeply about public engagement and regularly writes for popular magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including: Wired, The Atlantic, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Salon, CNN, Bloomberg Opinion, Forbes, and Huffington Post.

5 thoughts on “Sustainability & Moral Luck

  1. I found a word maybe typo or maybe I misunderstanding. When you discussed green gas scenarios, you said it is a case of circumstantial luck. Then followed by “A contingent outcome affects how judgments of past behavior and character get made. ” I think you mean resultant luck.

  2. Pingback: Sympathy for Sinners? | Sustainability Ethics

  3. Pingback: The Moral Saint Fallacy | Sustainability Ethics

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