I came across an argument against moral responsibility that follows like this:

P1 A person P is morally responsible for the occurring of an event only if the event was not a matter of luck.

P2 No event is such that its occurring is not a matter of luck.

C No event is such that P is morally responsible for its occurring.

If this argument is sound, then it seems like unless all factors contingent to the event are under our control, we are not morally responsible for our actions, and since we have no complete control, moral responsibility seems to be impossible. For example, a murderer who commits murder may have done so because of her childhood experience of being constantly bullied, and if she were luckily raised in a more inclusive and caring environment, she wouldn’t have become the murderer that she is today. Since she doesn't have complete control in the event with respects to all the other contingent events, according to the argument, she wouldn't be morally responsible for her committing murder. And this reason seems to be applicable to all morally significant actions.

Is there any way to prove this argument wrong?

  • 2
    Most factors contingent to the event are not indispensable to it occurring. Even if some factor is, unless it was foreseen and relevant to the actor's intention, it is moot for the purposes of responsibility. Past history of a murderer is taken into account as a mitigating (or exacerbating) circumstance, but again, it has to be effectual and relevant, not a maybe. Identifying "luck" with contingency distorts the meaning of luck beyond recognition, so P1 and P2 equivocate on "luck". Under the usual definition of luck, P2 is patently false. Under the redefined "luck" P1 is.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 4:57
  • The logic is correct, but I don't see how P1 is a reasonable assumption. If I close my eyes and fire a gun out the window into the street below, it is purely luck that determines whether the bullet safely embeds itself into the lawn or into someone's brain. That the bullet might have done no damage hardly frees me from moral responsibility when it does. Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 13:52

2 Answers 2


Welcome, Moxuan !

Neither in philosophy nor in ordinary moral experience is the concept of luck unequivocal. So the first thing we have to do is to fix the concept, to decide what construction - definition or analysis - to apply to it.

Three approaches to the definition or analysis of luck are relevant. They centre on control, probability, and modality.


Two quotations will help to set out this approach:

An event is lucky for a given agent, S, if and only [if] the occurrence of such an event is beyond—or at least significantly beyond—S's control. (Lackey, J. (2008). 'What luck is not', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 86(2), 255-67: 256.)

An event or state of affairs occurring in the actual world... is non-chancy lucky for an agent if (i) that event or state of affairs is significant for the agent; (ii) the agent lacks direct control over that event or state of affairs; (iii) events or states of affairs of that kind vary across the relevant reference group, and (iv) in a large enough proportion of cases that event or state of affairs fails to occur or be instantiated in the reference group in the way in which it occurred or was instantiated in the actual case. (Levy, N. (2011). Hard luck: How luck undermines free will and moral responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 36.)

This could be clearer - and that's putting it mildly - but the vital dimension is the extent to which the event - usually the cconsequences of an action - is beyond the agent's control.


The main philosophical defender of the probability theory of luck is Nicholas Rescher. In Rescher (1995) he argues that only improbable events can be lucky or unlucky, and that their degree of luck is a function of the event's improbability and its importance ... Thus the occurrence of a mildly improbable event that is very important might be just as lucky as a very improbable event that is only somewhat important. Very important, very unlikely events are the luckiest of all. No luck whatsoever attaches to events that are wholly unimportant or are certain to occur. (Steven D. Hales, 'A problem for moral luck', Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 172, No. 9 (September 2015), pp. 2385-2403: 2387; Rescher. N. (1995). Luck: The brilliant randomness of everyday life, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux: 211.)


The modal theory of luck is common among epistemologists. According to this view, an event is lucky only if it could very easily have not occurred. The most prominent defender of the modality theory is Duncan Pritchard, who writes, "if an event is lucky, then it is an event that occurs in the actual world but which does not occur in a wide class of the nearest possible worlds where the relevant initial conditions for that event are the same as in the actual world" (Pritchard 2005 p. 128, see also Pritchard 2014). Epistemologists like the modality approach because then epistemic luck involves "a true belief that could very easily have been false" (Pritchard 2012 p. 272) and due to epistemic luck, "the fact that you could very easily have been deceived is a ground to deny you knowledge, even if in fact you were not deceived" (Pritchard 2012, p. 275). These ideas pave the way for requiring a popular safety condition on knowledge, which states that S knows that p only if S's true belief that p could not have easily been false (although see Goldberg 2015 for a recent criticism). Modally robust events, on the other hand, are not due to luck. A true belief that is false only in distant possible worlds is (or is at least a worthy candidate for) knowledge. It cannot be a matter of luck that a necessary truth is true, or that an inevitable event occurs. A proposition that remains stably true as one moves further and further away from the actual world is less and less attributable to luck. (Hales: 2387-8; Pritchard, D. (2005), Epistemic luck. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Pritchard, D. (2012), 'Anti-luck virtue epistemology', The Journal of Philosophy, 709(3), 247-279; Pritchard, D. (2014), 'The modal account of luck', Metaphilosophy, 45(4-5) : 594-619.)

Down to earth with examples

Consider how the three different theories on offer explain winning the lottery, a paradigm case of (good) luck. Under the control theory you are lucky to win because winning was beyond or significantly beyond your control. Winning was significant for you, you lacked direct control over that event, and there is tremendous variance across lottery players (most lose, despite doing what's in their power to win). You're lucky to win the lottery on the probability view because it was of great importance to you that you win and it was so vastly unlikely that you would do so. For the modal view you are lucky to win because winning mattered to you but your win failed to occur in close possible worlds; had you picked one different number, or had a single ball in the lottery hopper rotated an extra 20°, or a myriad of other small changes in the world occurred, then you would have lost. While the different theories offer distinct explanations of why winning the lottery is lucky, they are all in agreement that it is in fact lucky. One might suspect that they are notational variants on each other, or at least extensionally equivalent. However, they are not. (Hales: 2388.)

Moral luck and moral responsibility

The control theory seems to come closest to how luck connects with moral responsibility. Indeed, I can't see how the probability and modality approaches affect the agent's moral responsibility, however significant (or otherwise) they might be in other ways.

But we immediately encounter the problem posed by the question. If (say) the consequences of my action are beyond my control, how can I be morally answerable for them ? How can moral responsibility properly be attributed to me?

There isn't just one road out of this problem but we can appeal to what I'll call the Kantian insight. Namely that the very fact that we do not have control over the consequences of our actions is a good, in fact decisive, reason to remove consequences from the conditions for moral responsibility.

One of Kant's key ideas is that whatever the limitations of our control over what our action effects or accomplishes - i.e., its consequences - we have a capacity to act with a certain intentionality that Kant calls 'the good will' (I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785, section 1.) Very briefly and crudely this may be expressed as an intention always to act on a principle on which it is logically possible for all other agents to act conjointly. A non-Kantian example might be: I will always act so as to put myself in the first place in any queue I join. It is logically impossible for everyone to act on this principle. How could everyone be in first place in a queue?

Kantian scholars on PSE can finesse my account but I have cited Kant only to show how we can be morally responsible even in the absence of control. We can be and at least to an extent are responsible for our intentions whatever contingencies of luck our actions and their consequences encounter.


Morality adheres to acts, not to events. If someone (say) gets hit by a car, that is an event that has no intrinsic moral valence. It's a tragic event, certainly, but not evaluable on moral grounds. To evaluate the event on moral grounds we need to know what acts occurred. Did the victim jump in front of the car? Did the car's driver swerve to run the victim down? Did an earthquake knock the car off the top of a parking garage onto the victim?

The things that we normally label 'luck' or 'fortune' are events — or if you prefer, acts of God, fortune, or nature, not acts of humans — and thus lack moral standing.

There are different ways of evaluating acts, captured usually by the categories 'consequentialism,' 'deontology,' 'virtue ethics,' and 'ethical pragmatism.' The open question there is whether we should judge acts by the outcome of the act, the rule that was applied in performing the act, the character of the actor, or by currently accepted (and always developing) norms. but in all cases it is the act that is evaluated, not merely the event.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .