To accept the phenomena uncritically is to allow that one can be praised or blamed for what one cannot help. This goes against a very deep commitment most of us have to the idea that you should be morally judged only for what falls within the sphere of your will. Yet to reject the judgments and practices that seem unavoidably to lead to these phenomena would require a radical, and perhaps practically impossible, revision of ordinary moral evaluation.
In this essay, I am concerned primarily with one type of moral luck, luck in “how things turn out.” A paradigmatic case is that of the truck driver (or, in Williams’s essay, “a lorry driver”) who accidentally runs over a child. Let us as- sume that the driver is guilty of a minor degree of negligence—he has not had his brakes inspected as recently as he ought—and that this negligence contributes to the accident. What makes this a case of moral luck, if it is a case, is that this truck driver has much more about which to feel guilty—he has much more moral weight on his shoulders, so to speak—than other drivers who, though equally negligent, had no children run across their paths.
I discuss this example and variations of it at great length in this essay, and I occasionally refer to one or two other instances of moral luck. It should be noted at the outset, however, that the phenomenon in question is ubiquitous. Every day, people in laboratories, government offices, corporations, and universities sign off
114 what we ought to do for each other on things to which they ought to put a stop, or they bend the rules for the sake of convenience or laziness or misplaced generosity. Rarely, but occasionally, such acts of flawed reasoning, weakness, or negligence blow up in someone’s face. What is philosophically in question is how we should judge the perpetrators of these acts and how the perpetrators should judge themselves. Specifically, the question is whether those whose acts actually lead to serious harm deserve the same treatment and the same judgments as those who, but for fortune, would have caused as much damage.
The Problem of Moral Luck
In the discussions of this issue that I have heard, only a few people (including perhaps Williams himself) seem to accept the idea of moral luck more or less wholesale. That is, only a few seem to hold in a perfectly unqualified way that a person whose actions have morally worse effects is herself worse or more blame- worthy than one whose equally faulty behavior has less harmful consequences. The majority tends to reject the idea that there really is such a thing as moral luck, drawing instead the conclusion that many of the judgments we make in day- to-day life are simply inconsistent. According to the majority’s position, although we may in fact…