How Can You Blame Me? Thomas Nagel’s Moral Luck

by Brandon Edwards-Schuth

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Hello readers! This week’s post will be a little taste of something new while I finish working on both projects and homework, and “Out of the Cave and Into the Frying Pan: Part II.” For all of you Aztecs (and all other students!) I hope the end of the semester isn’t too stressful. Keep up the hard work, the finish line is just ahead! This week we will examine Moral Luck as presented by the philosopher Thomas Nagel in his book “Mortal Questions.”*

In his Mortal Questions, Philosopher Thomas Nagel examines the common intuition of excusing, to whatever degree, someone from right or wrong doings due to them being unable to help what is not under their control. Nagel defines the problem as, “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 […] such luck can be good or bad,” because:

 It seems irrational to take or dispense credit or blame for matters over which a person has no control, or for their influence on results over which he has partial control. Such things may create the conditions for action, but action can be judged only to the extent that it goes beyond these conditions and does not just result from them.

Therefore, both blame and praise, is not justified in contexts where agents could have done otherwise. But Nagel categorizes the many variable in which luck plays a role and therefore drastically alters our lives, and therefore our outcomes that we cannot help.

Nagel claims that there are four ways that natural objects can be affected by moral luck. They are:

  • Constitutive Luck: The kind of person you are regarding your inclinations, capacities and temperaments.
  • One’s Circumstances: Problems and situations that one faces.
  • Antecedent Circumstances: How one is affected by prior events.
  • Actions and Conclusions: The way one’s actions turn out.

These four categories, “Are all opposed by the idea that one cannot be more culpable or estimable for anything than one is for that fraction of it which is under one’s control.” With the commonly held position that one should not be blamed or praised (at least not as much) for things that they could not help, Nagel’s four instances of moral luck illustrates the immense contingency of life, as well as how moral judgment is thereby affected.

But these four ways of luck lead to a very chilling conclusion, as “The effect of concentrating on the influence of what is not under his control is to make this responsible self seem to disappear, swallowed up by the order of mere events.” Our lives, our very selves, eventually just become events and responsibility is determined by the uncertainty of luck, which is already in motion and is far beyond our control. If we happen to accidentally swerve on to the sidewalk and hit either hit or not hit someone, it is only due to luck that the pedestrian was in the right place at the wrong time — an example that Nagel does cleverly use. Are we to blame the driver if there was no negligence involved and with Nagel’s moral luck in mind? The pedestrian just happened to be there when it occurred. And what if perhaps the car’s axle broke even after good mechanical upkeep was done — the problem not being detectable, nor deliberate. It appears we may be at the whim of luck.

How then does Nagel respond to luck being the, pretty much, ultimate decider of our lives? Nagel states that:

We are parts of the world, but the paradoxical character of moral luck, which emerges from this acknowledgment shows that we are unable to operate with such a view, for it leaves us with no one to be.

What is thus required to overcome this view is a more precise theory of both the self and its relation to morality. Otherwise, we become actions and events, which strip us of ourselves.



Moral luck is a very interesting phenomenon. We can’t doubt that there exists an uncertain randomness about most of the things that influence us. However, the conclusion that Nagel arrives as seems depressing. Where does free will stand in this? Even further, what of the luck of being able to know or come to know something? What if you lived in a cave all your life and by (bad) luck you could never know there’s something else beyond (oh boy it’s The Matrix!)? That is Epistemic Luck, something that Nagel implied, but didn’t address completely. But that’s a post for another day! There may also be some big news within the next few coming weeks to announce…

Words of wisdom until next time: Have you done your ten things? Plan to do them over break and support this artist!


*This post is pieces of a paper that I’m working on regarding moral luck within the context of war. All citations in this post were derived from Thomas Nagel’s book “Mortal Questions,” chapter 3.


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