As an extension of my interest in Van Gogh’s severed ear from Jeffrey Archer’s “False Impression” that depicted mysterious odyssey of Van Gogh’s self-portrait with bandage on his left ear, I was attracted to read Adam Gopnik’s article titled, Van Gogh’s ear – The Christmas Eve that changed modern art, that appeared in New Yorker magazine (Jan. 4 issue).

In his article, Gopnik introduces Moral Luck (1976), the essay of Bernard Williams on the relationship of Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin and their influence on modern art. Not only the title of William’s book, the words Moral luck are repeated four times in the following sentence:

What Williams didn’t entirely register, though, was that Gauguin isn’t just one artist plucked at random out of time, a desperado in a line stretching back to Pygmalion. He’s not just an instance of moral luck; he is an inventor of moral luck. He is a model modern artist, and modern art is in many ways about moral luck, about the search for it, about raising the stakes to see if it can happen. Modern art makes its own moral luck.

I don’t understand the meaning of Moral luck. I checked the definition of luck with Cambridge Online Dictionary, which defines luck simply as:

  1. The force that causes things, especially good things, to happen to you by chance and not as a result of your own efforts or abilities. 2. Success.

Oxford Dictionary at hand defines it in the same way as 1. “Good things that happen to you by chance. 2. Chance. Period.”

I cannot even guess the meaning of Moral luck from any of the above definitions. To me, Moral doesn’t seem to sit well with Luck. Can you decode what Moral luck really means?

  • I have to admit I'm not really grasping what the author's getting at right away either. I think it's necessary to understand Bernard Williams' original essay; it seems he discussed Gauguin as part of defining his concept of moral luck (see this reference or this).
    – aedia λ
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 6:14
  • @aediaλ. Thanks a lot. Your input on the source of Moral luck is really helpful. Though I haven't read through the datum yet, I'm sure it would shed the light on my question. Thank you. Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 6:48

3 Answers 3


According to Wikipedia,

Moral luck describes circumstances whereby a moral agent is assigned moral blame or praise for an action or its consequences even though it is clear that said agent did not have full control over either the action or its consequences.

More simply, it is the idea that people are to be held responsible for an action even when they aren't the only force that caused it - even if it occurred accidentally.

This stands a bit in contrast to the typical sentiment that responsibility correlates with voluntary action. (Meaning, if you choose to do something and do it, you are responsible for it.)

There are some interesting problematic examples in the Wikipedia article you might want to check out.

I don't know enough about Gauguin to speculate as to why he's such a good example of moral luck, but hopefully knowledge of the term will make the book's argument clearer in context.

  • It's clear that this is a lousy construction. Presumably phrased to be a peer of moral hazard. However, there, the meaning is clear, there is a hazard to morality. Here, the luck is not actually applied to the morality.
    – Euan M
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 1:31

Scenario A. If I make or accept a call on my mobile phone whilst I am driving (without a proper hands-free kit installed in my car) I am breaking the law. However the chances are that if I do that nothing will happen, there will be no accident and the police will not find out about it.

Scenario B If however there should be an accident when I do this and somebody gets killed, and it emerges in evidence that I was using my mobile phone at the time of the accident, which was clearly my fault, I could be found guilty of dangerous driving and could be sent to prison.

The difference between Scenario A and Scenario B is determined by two things, a) my skill as a driver and b) pure chance, or luck.

All of us, to a greater or lesser degree rely on this 'moral luck' on a daily basis.

I heard of someone writing a PhD Philosophy thesis on this very subject.

That is my understanding of 'moral luck'.

  • Your explanation of 'moral luck' makes a hell of a lot more sense than Bernard Williams's use of the term in the context of Gaugin's supposed search for it, or its existence as a general phenomenon in 'modern art' (however one might choose to define that term)..
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 4:16

In one word, I'd describe it as "karma"

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