Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck

Luck-egalitarianism and moral luck are egregious, moral-philosophical concepts. The purposes of this post are (a) to explain their relatedness and egregiousness and (b) to offer a valid moral precept in their stead.


This, according to the current entry in Wikipedia,

is a view about distributive justice espoused by a variety of egalitarian and other political philosophers. According to this view, justice demands that variations in how well off people are should be wholly attributable to the responsible choices people make and not to differences in their unchosen circumstances. This expresses the intuition that it is a bad thing for some people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own.

Luck egalitarians therefore distinguish between outcomes that are the result of brute luck (e.g. misfortunes in genetic makeup, or being struck by a bolt of lightning) and those that are the consequence of conscious options (such as career choice or fair gambles). Luck egalitarianism is intended as a fundamental normative idea that might guide our thinking about justice rather than as an immediate policy prescription. The idea has its origin in John Rawls‘s thought that distributive shares should not be influenced by arbitrary factors. Luck egalitarians disagree among themselves about the proper way to measure how well off people are (for instance, whether we should measure material wealth, psychological happiness or some other factor) and the related issue of how to assess the value of their resources.

Luck-egalitarians evidently hold a skewed view of luck. For if it is a bad thing for some persons to be worse off than others through no fault of their own, it should be good thing for some persons to be better off than others through no action of their own. In other words, if “bad luck” is bad, “good luck” should be good.

But that is not how a luck-egalitarian sees things. A luck-egalitarianian deplores all “luck” because he seeks to compensate those who have had “bad luck” by extracting “undeserved” gains from those who have had “good luck.” In practice, luck-egalitarians do not bother to investigate the degree to which “luck” leads to variations in life outcome. It is enough for them to note that some persons are well off relative to others (usually in health, wealth, and income), and that disparity — to a luck-egalitarian — is “bad” per se. In the vernacular: “It just shouldn’t be that way.”

Luck-egalitarianism is therefore of a piece with the moral accountancy that is practiced by “liberals” and “progressives.” As I say here, moral accountancy is

the three-fold habit of setting oneself up as an omniscient arbiter of economic and social outcomes, then castigating the motives and accomplishments of the financially successful and socially “well placed,” and finally penalizing financial and social success through taxation and other regulatory mechanisms (e.g., affirmative action, admission quotas, speech codes, “hate crime” legislation”).

The key to luck-egalitarianism is the idea “that it is a bad thing for some people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own,” which leads to the following (usually implicit and subconscious) set of specious assumptions and conclusions:

  • There is a “right” set of life outcomes (e.g., a certain standard of living, a certain degree of health), which luck-egalitarians are qualified to choose and evaluate because of their superior moral character.
  • Therefore, it is wrong if some persons are worse off than others in terms of the “right” set of outcomes. (Here, the luck-egalitarian usually abandons the qualification of faultlessness, for — in the luck-egalitarian’s view — a person who descends into, say, poverty has no one to blame but the “system” that allows him to do so.)
  • Those who are better off (by the selective standards of the luck-egalitarian) owe aid to those who are worse off, even if those who are better off did nothing that made others worse off. The better-off simply do not deserve all that they have because, surely, they must owe much of it to luck.
  • Taking from the better-off to help the worse-off is further justified (in the luck-egalitarian view) by (a mistaken reliance on) the theory of diminishing marginal utility. The implication of that theory (as applied by luck-egalitarians) is that there is a universal welfare function, and that making a worse-off person happier somehow cancels or justifies the disutility of the better-off person who is forced to part with something for the benefit of the worse-off.

Strong luck-egalitarianism would strive for equal happiness for everyone, for all time. The weaker — and more usual — luck-egalitarianism strives only to rectify the most glaring instances in which persons are worse off through no fault of their own. Of course, it is the prerogative of allied bands of luck-egalitarians (e.g., Democrats in Congress) to determine who is worse off, by what criteria they are worse off, who is undeservedly better off, and how much the better-off should be taxed (or otherwise burdened) to compensate the worse-off. The usual — and accurate — term for such doings is “cheap compassion”; “cheap” because it is “compassion” bought with other people’s money.

The  presumptuousness of the luck-egalitarian position can be appreciated by taking it to its logical extreme, which is that there is no such thing as an interpersonal difference based on choice because the ability to choose is ultimately based on luck, in the dominant secular view of existence. A high-IQ person, for example, is able to choose among ways of making a living that will yield more income and wealth than a low-IQ person can garner from the options that are realistically his. Isn’t IQ a matter of luck? Similarly, a person born to wealthy parents has a much higher chance of becoming wealthy, by some standard, than does the person born to poor parents, by the same standard. Isn’t being born to a certain set of parents a matter of luck? There are many other luck-dependent differences that strongly influence a person’s income and wealth: country and region of one’s birth, one’s congenital makeup (other than intelligence), and so on, almost endlessly. It follows that luck-egalitarianism, properly applied, would hold that no one deserves to have more than anyone else, and that everyone should therefore have the same things.

And yet, most of the luck-egalitarians whom I know personally, or by following politics, will not insist on trying to make every person in the world identical with respect to life outcomes. To put it baldly, the prevalence of weak luck-egalitarianism reflects a limit on how much a luck-egalitarian is prepared to sacrifice of his own health and wealth for the sake of improving the lot of others less fortunate than he. I have not noticed, for example, that affluent luck-egalitarians share their homes with the homeless, but they would do that (and more) if they really thought about the true extent of luck in shaping life outcomes — and acted according to their purported principles. Why do they not? Because luck-egalitarianism — at bottom — is usually a prettied-up way of assuaging one’s guilt about having more wealth and health than most other persons. Affluent luck-egalitarians are willing to pay a price for assuaging that guilt, but not too high a price. Thus they usually call on “the rich” (i.e., those richer than they) to bear most of the burden. There are, of course, some among the super-rich who do the same thing, but having become super-rich, they can afford to make such gestures and they do not care about and/or fail to understand the disincentivizing effects of their spurious generosity. (Luck-egalitarianism on the part of the diseased and impoverished and among “idealistic” youth  is a kind of special pleading that should be disregarded.)

At this point, I should offer an alternative way of viewing differences in life outcomes. But first, I want to drive home the point that luck-egalitarianism is nothing but an arrogant pretension to omniscience, usually disguised as compassion.

I begin with this (not far-fetched) hypothetical:

A tornado rips through a trailer park in a particular region of a particular State. At the time, 100 persons were in the trailer park. Every trailer is either demolished or damaged beyond repair. One result of the destruction and damage is that 10 persons are killed and 40 persons are seriously injured.

The following questions and observations are in order:

1. Do the uninjured denizens of the trailer park, who (in one respect, at least) had better luck than the injured and dead, owe something to the injured and the estates of the dead? Why should any of the uninjured owe anything to anyone; the uninjured also suffered losses that cannot be fully compensated by insurance (if they were insured)? I doubt that a luck-egalitarian would insist on taking from the uninjured to give to the injured and the survivors of the dead; the uninjured also suffered bad luck, just not as bad as it might have been. This suggests that someone’s (relative) good luck does not automatically oblige him to compensate someone else’s (relative) bad luck.

2. If the uninjured denizens owe nothing, perhaps others owe something to the injured and estates of the dead. But why? Persons not living in the trailer park had no more to do with the tornado than the lucky, uninjured residents of the trailer park. The lucky ones — both inside and outside the trailer park — had nothing to do with the injuries and deaths suffered by some residents of the trailer park. In other words, to repeat myself, someone’s (relative) good luck does not automatically oblige him to compensate someone else’s relative bad luck.

3. Further, persons living outside the trailer park — in the same region or State, elsewhere in the United States, or elsewhere in the world — have their own kinds of bad luck to contend with. It just happens to be bad luck that is not well known, if at all, to others. We know about the bad luck that befell the denizens of the trailer park, but the notoriety of their bad luck does not mean that they are the only persons in the world who have suffered or will suffer bad luck. By what calculus, then, is one supposed to weigh all the bad luck and good luck enjoyed by everyone in the world, through the eons, and arrive at a “just” and workable scheme of balancing things so that everyone is (in some immeasurable way) made equally happy?

4. Persons uninjured by the tornado — wherever they reside — did not cause the tornado and, therefore, did not cause the deaths and injuries in the trailer park. Deaths and injuries, though not the fault of the dead and injured, were not the fault of anyone else, either. But luck-egalitarians who wield power (e.g., members of Congress) insist on burdening the blameless for the bad luck (and bad choices) of others. That these burdens are imposed on the excuse that the city, State, or nation must “pull together” as a “family” to help those in need does not lessen them. “Pulling together” and “family” betoken voluntarism, not compulsion by the state; such words and phrases are entirely inapposite when they are used in an effort to justify compulsion.

5. It is not the business of politicians to assign blame where there is no blame to be assigned. Yet that is what politicians do, in effect, when they penalize certain classes of persons (e.g., “the rich”) for being blameless. Where there is blame to be assigned — when a person’s is deprived of health, income, or wealth by actions of another person or persons — remedies are available in civil and criminal law. Fault-finding should be left to the courts of the land, and if the courts do not do justice, they should be reformed by open political processes.

On the last point, I must note that failures of justice are not one-sided affairs in which “the rich and famous” invariably get away with things, while persons who are poor, ill-educated, or members of minority groups bear an undue burden of punishment. Decades of blaming “society” for the willing acts of criminals have made justice something less than the swift and certain process that it should be if harm is to be rectified and deterred. It is no coincidence that the usual suspects — “liberals” and “progressives” who are quick to penalize blameless persons for the bad luck of others are also loathe to punish the blameworthy if they are perceived as having suffered the bad luck of being poor or of the “wrong color.” That their victims had bad luck — the bad luck of being victims — is of no account to luck-egalitarians, who possess the uncanny ability to measure and calibrate the universal social-welfare function.

In sum, luck-egalitarianism is arrogant presumptuousness harnessed to a perverse social agenda.


Moral luck is another empty philosophical contrivance for placing blame on the blameless. In this case, the blameless are persons whose actions might have caused harm to others but did not. Thus their moral luck.

Moral luck is illustrated by this example:

Suppose there are two truck drivers, Driver A, and Driver B. They are exactly alike in every single way, drive the same exact car, have the same driving schedule, have the same exact reaction time, and so forth. Let’s say that Driver A is driving down a road, following all legal driving requirements, when suddenly, a child runs out in the middle of the road to retrieve a lost ball. Driver A slams the brakes, swerves, in short, does everything to try to avoid hitting the child — alas, the inertia of the truck is too great, and the distance between the truck and the child is too short. Unfortunately, the child is killed as the result of the collision. Driver B, in the meantime, is following the exact same route, doing all the exact same things, and everything is quite exactly the same –– except for one important distinction. In his scenario, there is no child that appears on the road as if out of nowhere. He gets to his destination safely, and there no accident occurs.

If a bystander were asked to morally evaluate Drivers A and B, there is very good reason to expect him to say that Driver A is due more moral blame than Driver B. After all, his course of action resulted in the death of a child, whereas the course of action taken by Driver B was quite uneventful. However, there are absolutely no differences in the controllable actions performed by Drivers A and B. The only disparity is that in the case of Driver A, an external uncontrollable event occurred, whereas it did not in the case of Driver B. The external uncontrollable event, of course, is the child appearing on the road. In other words, there is no difference at all in what the two of them could have done –– however, one seems clearly more to blame than the other. How does this occur?

This is the problem of moral luck. If we agree that moral responsibility should only be relevant when the agent voluntarily performed or failed to perform some action, we should blame Drivers A and B equally, or praise them equally, as may be the case. At the same time, this seems to be at least intuitively problematic, as — whatever the external circumstances are –– one situation resulted in an unfortunate death, and the other did not. (From an article formerly at Wikipedia, now available here.)

My reaction: The example only shows that moral luck is an empty construct. Putting aside the fact that Driver A was blameless (given the “facts” of the example), Driver B’s experience is irrelevant. First, no two drivers and driving situations are identical. Second, even granting, for the sake of argument, that Drivers A and B are identical, Driver B does not face the same circumstances as Driver A. The example avoids the true moral issues, which are these:

  • Did Driver A in fact drive prudently? That is not the same thing as “following all legal driving requirements.” Driver A might have passed a breathalyzer test, but perhaps just barely. Or Driver A might have been talking on his cell phone in a jurisdiction that does not forbid doing so while driving. Or Driver A might not have been paying full attention to his surroundings (an undetectable lapse) because he was thinking about where to make his next turn.
  • More fundamentally, the example fails to mention the actions of the child and the child’s parents. Was the child of an age to have known better than to dart into the street without looking? Why was the child allowed to play with a ball near the street? Why did a parent (or someone) failed to watch the child closely enough to prevent it from darting into the street? Why had the child’s parents not fenced the front yard and seen to it that the child could not unlatch the gate?

If Driver A drove prudently — above and beyond “legal requirements” — no blame can attach to Driver A. The blame, if any, must attach to the child or the child’s parents, an option that the example omits.

The article continues:

Moral luck entails two extreme outcomes, both of which seem intuitively unacceptable.

If, [on the] one hand, we accept moral luck as a real phenomenon and accept it as a valid restriction on personal responsibility (and, consequently, the assign[ment] of moral blame or praise), it is difficult to identify a situation where moral luck does not affect an event or an individual. Many, if not all, of the moral judgments that we engage in daily seem to become problematic, since any single action can be defended as having been affected by moral luck. Constitutive moral luck [pertaining to the personal character of the moral agent] especially highlights this problem –– after all, it is perfectly valid to argue that every single thing that we do relates in some way to our personal character disposition, and is not one hundred percent voluntary. Thus, if we do stick by our requirement of moral responsibility as needing complete volition, we cannot validly morally assess any action performed by an individual. As Nagel himself points out, if moral luck is accepted as a valid premise, the area of individual moral responsibility seems to ““shrink . . . to an extensionless point.”

On the other hand, if we deny the influence of moral luck and refuse to accept that it has anything to do with moral evaluation (as Kant most certainly would, for example), we are left with a single unappealing option: we are responsible for everything that we do, whether voluntarily or not, and for all the consequences, no matter how unforeseen or unlikely, that our actions entail. By this logic, the unlucky Driver A from our earlier example can take no solace in the fact that there was nothing he could have done to prevent the death of the child as the result of the accident –– he deserves the full amount of moral blame that can be assigned for such an outcome.

That is, moral luck either (1) negates personal responsibility or (2) places all responsibility on the individual actor to whom things happen. I reject the first premise because we have free will or must act as if we have it. (See this post.) I reject the second premise because, as I argue above, it fails to account for the freely chosen actions of others.

The concept of moral luck strikes me as baseless philosophical casuistry — an occupation for misused minds. Like luck-egalitarianism, the concept of moral luck attempts to place blame where there is no need to place blame.


In the words of an unknown wise man: Stuff happens; get over it.

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