If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Ethics: The Problem of Moral Luck

Victor Kumar (Michigan) introduces the problem of moral luck and surveys potential solutions. We see how the problem arises out of a clash between intuitive reactions to cases and an abstract principle of moral responsibility. 

Speaker: Dr. Victor Kumar, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf green style avatar for user Tomasz Stachowiak
    There is one missing detail in the seatbelt story, which is the driver of the truck. Isn't he also to blame for the accident? And regarding the seat belt itself, we make it illegal/punishable precisely because of what it could do, not what it always does. So perhaps it is OK, to blame the negligent driver the same in both cases, but in the worse one there are also others responsible. The fact that the child is harmed seems to me to bring emotions into the experiment, which skew our logic. We can't both achieve rationality and agreement with emotional intuition.
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Aidan Mattingly
    If you apply Karma to this situation, even hypothetically, doesn't moral luck vanish because all seeming "coincidences" are results of past actions?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Sarah
      That's not how karma works. Karma from this life is carried into the next one. Your current karma levels have no effect on your current circumstance, and your karma from your last life is what landed you the cushy gig of being born a human being; ergo karma does not make you win the lottery etc.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Barbara Lis
    Why is control condition ever questioned? How do we draw a line between blaming a person for coincidence of negligence and a car incident and, for instance, blaming them for an unrelated incident?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

(intro music) Hi! My name is Victor Kumar, and I'm a post-doctoral fellow in the philosophy department at the University of Michigan. In this video, I'm going to talk to you about moral luck. Imagine that you've been entrusted with the care of a friend's child. You're preparing to drive the child back to her parents' house, but you're distracted for a moment, and you neglect to secure her safely in her car seat. Unfortunately, on the way home, you're hit by another driver and the child is gravely injured. How should you feel? Well, intense guilt and remorse would be natural. How should the child's parents, your friends, react towards you? Very likely, with anger and severe blame. Now imagine that I'm in almost exactly the same situation as you. I've also been entrusted with the care of a friend's child, and I too neglect to secure her safely in her car seat. Fortunately, however, I manage to drive home safely. It's only once I pull into the driveway that I realize my terrible mistake. How should I feel in this situation? Well, no doubt, I should feel some guilt and remorse. But it seems unreasonable to feel quite so much as you feel in your situation. If the child's parents were to find out about my mistake, they would be angry, and they would blame me for my negligence. But it wouldn't make sense for them to react as severely towards me as your friends react towards you. Cases like this illustrate the problem of moral luck. The problem is that it seems irrational to have different reactions to these two cases. Both you and I were negligent, and we were negligent in precisely the same way. The fact that your negligence led to tragedy, and mine didn't, was just a matter of luck. And luck, it seems, can't affect our levels of moral responsibility. The problem of moral luck arises out of a clash between intuitive reactions to cases and a general principle of moral responsibility, often called the "control condition." The control condition says that you are responsible only for what's under your control. For example, suppose I'm angry with you because I think you've treated me unfairly. But once I realize you had no choice, that someone else made the decision, it seems like I should excuse you. The control condition captures this. The control condition implies that two people can't differ in their level of moral responsibility only because of facts beyond their control. However, we frequently, consistently, and quite plausibly hold people responsible on the basis of factors beyond their control. If we accept the control condition, then it seems we're being inconsistent. So, the problem of moral luck reflects a deep tension among our moral commitments. One type of moral luck is called "resultant moral luck." Two people perform the same action, but seem to be responsible to different degrees solely because of subsequent events that are outside of their control. Resultant luck arises in cases of negligence, like the case of the car accident and the injured child. But it also arises in cases of intentional wrongdoing. Imagine that John and Harry both attack people. But just because of the different ways their victims happen to fall onto the ground, John is guilty of manslaughter and Harry is guilty only of assault. Another type of moral luck is called "circumstantial moral luck." Two identical people perform different actions and seem to be morally responsible to different degrees, even though the reason they acted differently was that they just so happened to find themselves in different circumstances. Marie, let's imagine, commits a crime of passion. Jane doesn't, but only because she luckily wasn't provoked. Marie is, therefore, blameworthy in a way that Jane isn't, but only due to luck. A third type of moral luck is called "constitutive moral luck." Our character traits and motivations are largely due to genetic and environmental conditions utterly beyond our control. Amy is kind, Brian is cruel, Naomi is courageous, Paul is cowardly. These traits lead each of them to act differently when faced with moral choices, and so we praise and blame them ultimately on the basis of things that are not up to them. Now that we've gotten clear about the problem of moral luck, it's time to ask whether there's any solution to the problem. On the one hand, we might be skeptics about moral luck. We might stick with our commitment to the control condition and insist that we should never praise or blame others purely on the basis of facts beyond their control. Skepticism is a difficult position to live up to. To see this, think back to the case of the careless drivers. It seems like an overreaction for me to blame myself as if tragedy occurred. Every caregiver acts in ways that might have had tragic results for children in their care but for luck. On the other hand, you shouldn't let yourself off. Imagine telling your friends that you're sorry that their child was hurt, but that they shouldn't feel more than a twinge of blame towards you. This seems monstrous. Some skeptics think that there isn't really a conflict between the control condition and our intuitions about cases. They adopt what's called the "epistemic view." According to the epistemic view, the outcomes of our actions are a key source of evidence about what goes on in our heads. So, the reason we blame a murderer more than someone who committed only attempted murder is that it is more likely that he had homicidal intentions. One problem for the epistemic view, however, is that it doesn't seem to square with our intuitions. Recall again our cases of negligence. You and I were both equally careless with the children we were supposed to look after, but you seem genuinely more blameworthy than me. Another main solution to the problem of moral luck is to reject the control condition, and accept responsibility for things outside of our control. But then, what general moral theory or moral principle, if not the control condition, explains why we should allow luck to influence ascriptions of responsibility? One possibility is that the point of praise and blame is not just to give people what they deserve, but also to influence their future behavior, and it may be more effective to blame and punish people based on the lucky or unlucky outcomes of their actions, rather than their intentions. However, can we live with such crude manipulation in our interpersonal lives? Or does this throw morality into doubt? We either have to make big changes to our moral lives, or we have to give up the control condition. But both possibilities raise very difficult philosophical questions. Anyone who is gripped by the problem of moral luck must wrestle with these questions. Subtitles by the Amara.org community