First case. You drive home from your work. Suddenly a pedestrian crosses the road without looking to see if it was safe to do so. You cannot stop and you hit him. He is seriously injured. You feel guilty, but you couldn’t help. Actually it was simply bad luck that you were there just when the pedestrian crossed the road.
Second case. You drive home from your work. You take your mobile and call your wife that you are on your way home. Suddenly a pedestrian crosses the road without looking to see if it was safe to do so. You cannot stop and you hit him. He is seriously injured. You feel guilty, for it’s not allowed to use a mobile when driving. However, even if you had had both hands on the wheel, it would have been absolutely impossible to stop in time and not hit the pedestrian. So, actually it was simply bad luck that you were there just when the pedestrian crossed the road.
On the face of it, both cases are the same: You couldn’t have stopped, anyway, and it was simply bad luck that you were there and hit the pedestrian. As Thomas Nagel writes (p. 25): “Whether we succeed or fail in what we try to do nearly always depends to some extent on factors beyond our control.” Here the factors were that the pedestrian suddenly crossed the road and that just then you were passing by. However, in the second case, you were calling with your mobile, which was not allowed. Just this gives a moral aspect to the second case: Maybe you could have stopped in time, if you hadn’t been calling, even if it is dubious. Therefore philosophers talk of “bad luck” in the first case and of “moral bad luck” in the second case: that you were using your mobile makes that the accident has a moral aspect.
Moral bad luck, or generally “moral luck”, is an important though not much discussed problem in philosophy. The term has been introduced by Bernard Williams, and the idea has been further developed by authors like Thomas Nagel and Alfred R. Mele. For reasons of space I’ll limit my remarks to discussing Nagel’s article “Moral Luck”.
In the course of time, we do many things that can be judged morally – positively or negatively –, but whether it’s done so often depends on chance occurrences, as my cases illustrate. “What has been done, and what is morally judged, is partly determined by external factors”, so Nagel (p. 25). To take an example by Nagel: “Someone who was an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had never come to power in Germany. And someone who led a quiet and harmless life in Argentina might have become an officer in a concentration camp if he had not left Germany for business reasons in 1930.” (p. 26) This, so Nagel, illustrates a general point: “Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck. Such luck can be good or bad.” (ibid.) However, what is under your control and what is beyond your control? If we would consider all factors that determine what you do, we might come to the conclusion that “ultimately nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.” (ibid.)
Nagel doesn’t go that far. He sees a connection between the problems about responsibility and control and the problem of the free will. It’s true that “everything seems to result from the combined influence of factors, antecedent and posterior to action, that are not within the agent’s control. Since he cannot be responsible for them, he cannot be responsible for their results.” (p. 35) And “admittedly, if certain surrounding circumstances had been different, then no unfortunate consequences would have followed from a wicked intention, and no seriously culpable act would have been performed; but since the circumstances were not different, and the agent in fact succeeded in perpetrating a particular cruel murder, that is what he did, and what he is responsible for. Similarly, ... if certain circumstances had been different, the agent would never have been developed into the sort of person who would do such a thing.” But since the circumstances weren’t different and “he did develop ... into the sort of swine he is, and into the person who committed such a murder, that is what he is blameable for.” (ibid.)
In other words: An agent makes choices and that’s what he is responsible for. “Moral judgment of a person is judgment not of what happens to him, but of him.” We don’t judge his circumstances or his fate. “We are judging him, rather than his existence or characteristics.” (p. 36). It is the agent who acts, not his or her circumstances or fate that do. It’s so that “something in the idea of agency is incompatible with actions being events, or people being things. ... [T]hose actions remain ours and we remain ourselves, despite the persuasiveness of reasons that seem to argue us out of existence.” (p.37).
In discussing Nagel’s view on moral luck I had to leave out much what would make Nagel’s view clearer and what gives a better foundation of his conclusion. Anyway, it’s a conclusion that I endorse. Even if the circumstances happen to us, it’s me who bends them to my will by my actions. In this way, moral luck is also moral chances.