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: