I was reading the paper "Moral luck" by Thomas Nagel which left me rather confused. In the paper, he describes four different kinds of moral luck:: constitutive luck, resultant luck, circumstantial luck, and causal luck. My question is, how is the concept of moral luck a possible objection to Kant ethical theory.

My thought on the matter: To Kant, a goodwill alone is what makes an action morally worthy and its value transcends any comparison with another quality that may seem valuable (such as intelligence, for instance). From this view, it seems that morality is immune to the contingencies of the world as it only exists in one’s goodwill. An agent has the power to make any action he performs worthy of moral esteem: he should act from duty, driven by a will governed by the moral law.

That's where the objection would intervene to show that morality is not immune to things that are beyond our control

  • @virmaior. I want to first apologize for what I am about to do. My comment has nothing to do with the question. Sorry! I actually have a question for virmaior. I happened to stumble upon an answer you made in 2014 regarding Kant's notion of imperfect duties. In the comment, you recommended reading Nancy Sherman's Creating a Necessity out of Virtue. I was wondering if you might recommend to me additional readings that attempt to address how Kant may have wanted imperfect duties to be carried out. virmaior, could you recommend me books or journal articles that explore this issue? Again - sorry.
    – Justin
    Dec 15, 2018 at 22:40

1 Answer 1


I think what you're proposing for the objection is subtly inaccurate.

Early Critical Kant

First off let's call the position "early critical Kant" (Groundwork , Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of pure Practical Reason) to describe the view where actions are moral when they result for a will acting from reason and no other motive (for more on this, a very good source is Marcia Baron's Kantian Ethics Almost without Apology). Worded negatively, no action is a moral action if it arises from any cause other than a pure maxim of action (that can be universalized, based on reason, etc). One thing to note here is that every action seems to be a de novo free choice for morality. A strong basis for this is the "Third Antinomy" of Critique of Pure Reason that contrasts the apparent determinism of the world with the freedom of the will.

Another point to remember in Kant's account is that "the right action" is only the right action when done for the right reason. In other words, the question isn't simply: Did I murder that guy or not? but did I murder that guy for reasons of the categorical imperative? If I didn't murder him but this was for any other reason, then it doesn't count as a moral action. (This doesn't make it immoral to not kill for other reasons; just that those actions don't rise to the level of morality).

Moral Luck

Second, let's think about the contours of moral luck: It's the idea that whether or not we act morally is influenced by our background and resources. For instance, I'm posting on SE rather than slashing people's throats in part because of the upbringing I had.

Interface between Early Critical Kant and Moral Luck

Thus, just on this level, Kant's definition of morality and moral luck are at odds with each other. Is being at odds an objection? One type of objection is internal -- on a view's own criteria it fails due to incoherence, etc. Another type of objection is that a view doesn't match with reality.

I'm not sure this is either of those, because this seems to be a disagreement about what morality is. Kant's claim is not that people's circumstances seem to matter to their actions -- Kant's claim is that actions are moral only when they arise from a pure will acting in accordance with reason, i.e. circumstances don't matter. Moral Luck, in general, operates from a more popular definition where moral refers to the actions themselves and not the internal thought process behind that -- and it is precisely the claim that circumstances do matter, because morality is about right/wrong actions built on motives and circumstances.

Moral Luck can be understood as an intuitional challenge to the Kantian claim. This is part of Hegel's claim against Kant -- that many people live moral lives because they never win the lottery or live immoral ones because they were raised in terrible ways.

Late Critical Kant

To make things a bit more complicated, Kant's own view may have resources to accommodate this. In what we can call "late critical Kant," in the Metaphysics of Morals (not the Groundwork) and Religion within the bounds of Reason Alone, Kant presents several things that complicate the early critical account. In MM, Kant gives virtue an important role in developing character -- it's not clear there (at least from memory) how much he manages the problem of virtue vs. every action being a pure chance to do virtue.

In Religion, Kant sets up an interesting idea -- an initial choice between good and evil that then informs the latter choices of the individual. Failing to make the good choice, makes it hard (or impossible?) to do moral actions; the good choice makes good easier.

This seems to admit at least one influence of moral luck.

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