The Anatomy of Luck

Chance rules us all. — Sherwood Anderson

The philosophers Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel are known for insightful thought experiments in relation to the role of personal accountability, morality, and the caprice of circumstance. Williams brought us the term moral luck that was later augmented and popularized by Nagel. Moral luck is, according to Nagel, where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment.” In other words, doing something that could be positively or negatively consequential may simply result from being an unintentional agent in a lucky or unlucky situation, and being held accountable depends a great deal on your luck or unluckiness. From a pragmatic perspective, despite a lack of control over specific variables, one can be considered an object of moral judgment based purely on the consequences of the event—regardless of intention.

The Control Principle is a concept derived from Kantian philosophy that assumes people are held morally accountable to the extent that they are in control of their actions and decisions (an intuitively popular position). This premise seems reasonable until one looks more closely at the fabric of causality that impacts all situational outcomes. Factors outside of our control begin to surface when the contributing details of any circumstance are thoroughly examined. Using a common automotive analogy, equally irresponsible driving habits may be shared by countless individuals, but only some drivers are unfortunate enough to provoke vehicular manslaughter. Likewise, not all equally talented or competent individuals will achieve success no matter how well motivated their efforts or intentions are. Furthermore, sometimes “evil” people can inadvertently bring about positive results based on unintended chain reactions.

According to Nagel, actions and intentions are affected by four variations of luck.*

Resultant luck. Resultant luck describes the way things turn out. I briefly explored this phenomenon in an earlier post entitled The Physics of Unfounded Confidence. Sometimes the laws of physics interfere with our best or worst intentions.

Circumstantial luck. Circumstantial luck depends on the circumstances of any given time period. Sociopolitical and contextual factors that directly influence one’s life are included in this category. The current political climate or legislative factors often determine a person’s decisions or “range of motion” when it comes to manifesting agency.

Constitutive luck. Constitutive luck is based on who one is, or in the genetic traits and dispositions that one has. No one chooses to be born healthy, wealthy, or poor. Similarly, the leverage of opportunity makes it easier to act in ways that are perceived as socially acceptable or morally appropriate.

Causal luck. Finally, there is causal luck, or luck in “how one is determined by antecedent circumstances.” Prior events invariably set the stage for future happenstance.

When luck is a conspicuous factor in outcomes, we tend to ignore moral accountability. However, when the role of luck is more difficult to determine, we are quick to assign causality. Of course, the primary lesson should be that all-encompassing “control” is an illusion when random variables are assessed. Subsequently, our capacity for moral judgment is compromised. To blame someone directly for abhorrent outcomes or to praise someone unconditionally for eliciting preferable outcomes only exacerbates the fundamental attribution error. Ironically, even bad intentions can sometimes render morally copacetic results given the unknown variables that could have happened otherwise.

Some may ask, “Why bother exercising moral intentions given the random nature of predicaments?” It should be obvious, nevertheless, that operating without intention only compounds the nature of chaos and the probability of negative outcomes. Mark Twain may have best resolved this philosophical dilemma when he casually suggested, “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

It was the chance ingestion of a toothpick-impaled olive lurking at the bottom of a martini glass that determined the unlucky demise of author Sherwood Anderson. If we’re honest, there are many unforeseeable toothpicks within the olives of our destiny.

* Additional info:

Lady Luck

If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all. William Bell (popularized by Albert King)

When discussing the role of chance with my clients, I always emphasize the importance of recognizing and accepting uncontrollable variables. Of course, the former task can turn out to be as difficult as the latter if one is pathologically dedicated to denying the phenomenon of capriciousness in our daily lives. Even more troubling is the fact that this conceptual proposition is easier to promote than it is to digest. Most individuals hope their lives will have the same characteristics that are desirable when purchasing a new car (reliability, operational consistency, and safety). We want our lives to possess a minimum standard of predictability so that we can function without succumbing to neurosis or tentative ruminations. The importance of feeling a strong, internal locus of control is also culturally reinforced with ideas of perseverance, dedication, and hard work. Popular tropes like “everything happens for a reason” are meant to act as a buffer for enduring unfortunate circumstances so that we can “get on” with our lives in a productive manner. However, if one lives long enough without lying to themselves, the realization that outcomes are sometimes not at all what we envisioned is an inevitable conclusion. What does it mean to be mentally stable in an unstable world?

Being human is a perpetual dance of establishing physical and emotional well-being punctuated by efforts to sustain positive momentum through new experiences. For the sake of survival, our brains convince us that we can draw upon copious reservoirs of applied decision making to engineer our lives with advantageous results. Likewise, the greater the social or economic privilege that a person is randomly born into will influence feelings of unlimited agency (e.g., agentic sensibilities). However, for those who are born in less than optimum environments, the impetus for survival is just as strong (or stronger), but the efforts taken to obtain an internal sense of equilibrium may manifest themselves in decidedly different ways and the locus of control is often more externally imperative. Aside from vogue philosophical discussions about free-will, an intuitive sense of our ability to affect potential outcomes based on deliberate versus involuntary behavior seems as obvious as predicting the results of taking a shower (unless you’re Janet Leigh). Yet, if we look more closely at the panorama of life events, we will eventually see that efforts to control one’s environment are subject to an inevitable deluge of unpredictability. From random errors in somatic cell division that lead to cancer to the vagaries of gambling, randomness imbues every aspect of existence in the same way that random mutations affect changes in gene frequency over time. Nothing is ever as consistent as it seems, and extraneous variables often influence even the most premeditated actions.

The English chemist Peter Atkins referred to human agency as “controlled collapse” when discussing the conflict between volition and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The physics of transitioning from a state of low entropy to high entropy are as determined as the aging process. Simply put, things fall apart and our experience as humans is to arrange things in ways that please usalbeit for the moment. Nonetheless, many people are unable to concede the role of chance in their lives and instead fall prey to the fundamental attribution error of assuming full responsibility for all “successes” or blaming others for all “failures” during their lifetime.

Some people are fond of saying they have “bad luck.” Although I don’t believe in superstitious notions of luck, or luck as a fundamental property in the universe like hydrogen, I know what they mean in a colloquial sense (having experienced my own share of non-fortuitous events). However, an investigation of mathematical probability and a discussion of game theory would be preferential to talking about luck in terms of astrology or the common parlance of “born to lose.” To be honest, we often describe events in our lives as being either lucky or unlucky depending on their emotional impact. One aspect of anomaly hunting is when we count the misses and forget the hits. We remember events that significantly destabilize our well-being and often ignore the events that sustain our equilibriumlet alone the events that made it possible to have these experiences to begin with. In a way, this is good news. The universe does not show partiality toward anyone and random “luck” can be just a likely as “no luck at all.” The universe is indifferent. Similarly, there is no way to successfully calibrate the outcomes of many events since the emergence of stochasticism (randomness) is unavoidable. After all, life is always moving toward an undesirable but inevitable state (death) and most people cannot predict how or when they will meet their eventual demise. Avoiding one negative outcome only serves to introduce new possibilities for something else to go wrong in a different context (aka Murphy’s Law). As a result, an agoraphobic backlash caused by the anxiety of this realization is why some individuals remain ideologically entrenched in the mindset of having unmitigated control (e.g., if I just take the right supplements and avoid rush-hour traffic, I’ll avoid disease and stress).

As Woody Allen reminded us in the film Annie Hall, “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art, because it’s real difficult in life.” People rightly enjoy the satisfaction derived from their efforts and the subsequent materialization of ideas, and in most cases this equation provides reliable results. After all, the entire progress of tool-making primates has resulted in the delectation of modern civilization (enter the harbinger of doom from stage left). But how much of this progress was accompanied by an arduous process of trial and error with many ruined lives and casualties in it’s wakenot to mention the current ramifications of anthropogenic imprints on the environment? An excerpt from Eros and Civilization by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse seems apropos, “However, intensified progress seems to be bound with intensified unfreedom.”

In conclusion, the realization of randomness should not create infinite fodder for demotivational posters or act as emotional jet fuel for espousing nihilism. Rather, it presents a realistic understanding of how chaotic life can be in the same way that local weather predictions are less than precise. The acknowledgment of chance in our lives can alleviate the tyranny of self-blame when persistence toward perfectionism is destroying our perspective and it can help us forgive others whenever we access a larger purview of unruly causality. Along the same lines, being the recipient of good fortune should not permit our egos to surpass the mesosphere. Admitting that some of us have experienced more undesirable circumstances than should be permissible during a lifetime, while others seem to enjoy a life drenched in peaches and herbs, is not a plea for defeat or a reason to be an apologist for indolence. Part of what’s required to live fully is the capacity to embrace uncertainty and undesirable outcomes while cultivating our ingenuity for creative adaptation. The author Ogden Nash provides us with a bittersweet epilogue, “What is life? Life is stepping down a step or sitting in a chair. And it’s not there.” If you’re alive and well enough to be reading this, consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

(This article is scheduled to appear in the NPI newsletter, Spring 2015).