Many of our ordinary moral judgments and practices presuppose that there can be moral luck—cases in which two agents differ in blameworthiness despite the differences between them being just a matter of luck. Cases of moral luck can be sorted into categories based on what was outside of the agent’s control, such as what results from their actions (resultant luck), what circumstances they’re embedded in (circumstantial luck), and even how they’re constituted (constitutive luck), among others.
A common example of moral luck is that of two assassins, both of which shoot at their targets in exactly the same way but only one of which is successful (perhaps a bird intercepted the bullet of one of the assassins). It seems that a person who actually committed murder is more blameworthy than a person who merely attempted (and failed) to commit murder. And we treat the cases differently in practical ways, applying harsher sanctions to those who bring about worse results, even if those results are partly a matter of luck.
Some philosophers think moral luck is impossible and claim that in cases of apparent moral luck the blameworthiness of the two agents is in fact the same. (Another response is to become a skeptic about blameworthiness, but I will set aside that position here.) One might think that the successful and unsuccessful assassins are equally blameworthy but that they are responsible for a different number of things (only one of them is responsible for the death of a person, while both are responsible for the attempt).
In other words, and to use terminology from Michael Zimmerman (2002), who defends the view, one might claim that an agent’s degree of blameworthiness can remain constant while the scope of her blameworthiness varies. Combined with the idea that if the result of someone’s action is a matter of luck then one would be just as blameworthy whether or not the result occurred, this view promises to do away with resultant luck, and the same approach can be applied to circumstantial luck as well.
But consider the following response to constitutive luck. Sometimes we make choices or take up courses of action that affect how we are constituted later on. When we’re very young, we have no say over what we are like, but typical adults have contributed to the formation of their characters. To borrow an example from Alfred Mele (2006: 171): Chuck might cultivate his amorality by torturing animals until he no longer is squeamish about inflicting pain on others, with the result that he later acts from his bad character by killing his neighbor. And when someone acts from a character over which they had some control, that person isn’t total constitutively lucky in performing that action. If this is correct, it seems that we are able to mitigate our constitutive luck over time.
It turns out that this very natural response to constitutive luck is inconsistent with the response to resultant (and circumstantial) luck sketched above, for the way in which agents shape their characters is itself subject to other kinds of moral luck. Suppose that Chuck’s way of making himself morally worse is by shooting animals and then watching them suffer. The connection between Chuck’s actions (his shooting at animals) and the affect they have on his character depends on whether certain results obtain (that the animals are shot), so whether Chuck succeeds in worsening his character is a matter of resultant luck. (Similarly, whether he is able to worsen his character will depend on being in circumstances that permit his character formation, and so whether Chuck mitigates his constitutive luck is also a matter of circumstantial luck.)
If this is right, then we face a dilemma: we must either deny that constitutive luck may be mitigated in the plausible wat that I sketched above, or we must accept that there is resultant (and circumstantial) luck. Either way, we’re stuck with moral luck. On one horn of the dilemma, we allow constitutive luck (and more of it than is intuitive, since this horn rejects the mitigation proposal); on the other horn, we must accept resultant and circumstantial luck. I find it rather implausible to reject the common-sense picture of the mitigation of constitutive luck in order to maintain that there is no resultant or circumstantial luck, so my own inclination is to accept the dilemma’s second horn.
One might try to escape the dilemma by applying the response to resultant (and circumstantial) luck sketched above to constitutive luck as well. Applied to Chuck, this would be to say that if Chuck performed an action because of his constitution (over which he had no control) he would be just as blameworthy as if he had some other constitution and had not performed the action.
A problem for this approach, however, is that it fails to take into account our moral judgments about cases of manipulation. Suppose that, without your knowledge, a team of neuroscientists tinker with your brain while you’re asleep, somehow manipulating you into having a bad character just like Chuck’s. Suppose further that, just like Chuck, you act from this bad character and kill your neighbor. According to the above approach, you and Chuck must be equally blameworthy for killing your neighbors, but surely you are surely less blameworthy (if blameworthy at all) for killing your neighbor than Chuck is for killing his neighbor, despite the difference being a matter of constitutive luck. Additionally, according to this approach, even though you haven’t been manipulated, because you would have acted differently had your constitution been different (and since you had no control over this), you are just as blameworthy as Chuck (and the manipulated-you) despite never doing any killing, and that would be a strange result.
Given the incredibly counterintuitive implications of applying this approach to constitutive luck, it would be better, I conclude, to admit that we face the dilemma introduced above and thus that moral luck is inescapable.
Mele, Alfred. 2006. Free Will and Luck. New York: Oxford University Press.
Zimmerman, Michael. 2002. “Taking Luck Seriously,” The Journal of Philosophy 99: 553-576.