Heads you're a hero, tails you're a villain.
Moral luck is a concept in philosophy in which a person is praised or blamed for an action they carried out, the consequences of which were primarily dependent on blind luck. The archetypal thought experiment is that of the painter Gauguin, who abandoned his family in order to pursue his artistic muse. Because he was successful, people praise him for his courage and determination. But supposing that, through no fault of his own, Gauguin never caught a lucky break or simply wasn't as talented as he thought he was. Would he then be any different from a Jerkass Disappeared Dad
In order to qualify for this trope, a character has to carry out an action whose consequences depend mostly on luck, and be praised (or blamed) by other characters (or by the work itself) for their morality/immorality. It doesn't count if a character carries out such an action and no one judges them for it, and the reader is left to draw their own conclusions. The action has to be specifically treated as ethical or unethical by the work itself or characters in it.
This trope can easily transform a hero into a Designated Hero
or even a villain once Fridge Logic
or Fridge Horror
set in (or, conversely, transform a villain into an Anti-Villain
). It is often closely related to Protagonist-Centered Morality
. Even among sympathetic characters in a work, a Double Standard
may form: the resident Butt Monkey
's actions will always result in failure and they will be blamed for it, while the Karma Houdini
protagonist's will always succeed and they will receive praise.
What the Hell, Hero?
can serve to avert this. Compare Moral Dissonance
, No Endor Holocaust
and the various Luck Tropes
. Related to Million-to-One Chance
and "How Did You Know?" "I Didn't."
. Laser-Guided Karma
is sometimes offered as an explanation for this. Luck-Based Mission
is the video game equivalent, while The Magic Poker Equation
is a rough equivalent for card playing. Compare Gambit Roulette
: when a character's plans hinge so much on random chance and happenstance that the viewer's credibility is strained.
Anime and Manga
- The Straw Hat Pirates in One Piece often step into the affairs of the islands they visit. While there are good hearted and heroic members of the crew, they usually interfere because the local Big Bad has hurt them or someone they care about. The primary reason they're often hailed as heroes by the locals is because the people they attack are making the peoples' lives miserable.
- In the 2008 film Yes-Man, the protagonist Carl takes it upon himself to answer "yes" to every request put to him. As a loans request manager in a bank, he hence has to grant every loan request put before him (most of which are for small, silly indulgences). He later receives praise and a promotion from his superiors. Of course, it was entirely down to chance that the loan applicants he happened to see during this period were people who wanted fairly small loans which they were able to pay back; if they had happened to be people demanding larger loans which they could not possibly repay, Carl would have granted them nevertheless, and received blame from his superiors (and perhaps even been fired).
- In the Antonioni film The Passenger, Jack Nicholson's character decides he wants to leave his old life behind, and takes on the identity of an acquaintance who has just died. As it turns out, the acquaintance was an arms dealer running guns to rebel forces in north Africa, so that's what Nicholson's character starts doing. The over-all point of the film seems to be a nihilistic one: that it doesn't really matter what one does in life, and one shouldn't be bound by social roles or expectations.
- However, it's clear that the audience is supposed to sympathise with the rebels whom Nicholson's character is supporting. So while he appears not to care about the social consequences of his actions, he is still doing something good - or at least something not evil. It would be harder to see this character as heroic if he were running guns to neo-Nazis or the Taliban - even though he could just as easily have found himself doing just that!
- Lampshaded in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone just after the troll incident. Prof. McGonagall awards Harry and Ron five House points each "for sheer, dumb luck". While there was some skill involved, both Ron and Harry were exceptionally lucky nevertheless.
- Played much straighter near the end of the book and film. Despite having lost Gryffindor massive points for sneaking out after bed earlier in the story, the Power Trio do so again when they believe (through incomplete snooping and eavesdropping) that Snape is going to steal the Philosopher's Stone that night. They turn out to be half-correct; someone does try to steal it, but it isn't Snape. But what if they had been 100% wrong and no one was trying to steal it, or at least not that very night? But because they turn out to be correct, they're hailed as heroes and awarded all the points they lost and then some at the End of Year Feast.
- In The Cincinnati Kid, as long as the title character is winning, he's a hero. When he finally loses, everyone is upset with him.
- The Lion King: Scar uses this trope to trick Simba into thinking he's responsible for his father's death. While the audience knows that Scar masterminds the whole thing, from Simba's perspective his uncle leaves him to wait in a gorge, then he practices his "little roar" until he makes one loud enough to echo off the canyon walls, which frightens a nearby heard of wildebeest (which he didn't even know were there) into stampeding through the gorge, which ultimately leads to his father getting trampled after saving him. Simba is devastated afterwards, and Scar uses it to make Simba think he's just as guilty as if he had intentionally committed murder.
Simba: It was an accident—I didn't mean for it to happen!
Scar: Of course, of course you didn't. No one ever means for these things to happen. But the king is dead. If it weren't for you, he'd still be alive.
- Full House: when the Tanners go to Disney World, Stephanie and Michelle line up for some kind of draw. Michelle pushes ahead of Stephanie in the line, draws the winning ticket, and spends the rest of the day being treated as a princess. Stephanie resents Michelle for this, and the script is clearly on her side. Now, you could certainly see how pushing ahead of her sister wasn't a very nice thing to do. But the fact that she drew the winning ticket really was just dumb luck. It could just as easily have gone the other way - with Michelle drawing a losing ticket followed by Stephanie drawing the winning one. Presumably Stephanie wouldn't be resenting her sister then.
- A blatantly idiotic example occurs in the otherwise excellent Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Brothers". A boy pranks his younger brother which scares the brother enough for him to run and hide. While hiding the younger brother eats a fruit that leaves him so ill he nearly dies. The older brother is severely scolded by numerous cast members for 'nearly killing' his brother. However, while a little cruel for a prank there was no reason for the older brother to expect anything worse then his younger brother being frighted for a little while out of his prank. This feels particularly horrible since a child that young would likely already be horrible guilt ridden to the point of tears and any competent parent would go out of their way to tell the child that this wasn't his fault not further scolding or blaming him.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow's Roaring Rampage of Revenge is forgiven fairly easily, even though (in-universe) it was really just luck and timing which prevented her from bringing about the apocalypse.
- The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia describes how a Good Ol' Boy from the Deep South gets hung for a crime he didn't commit. He stumbles upon his best friend shot and killed in his own home, and the shot he fires to "flag down" the police is assumed to be the shot that killed him, and the Hanging Judge and Dirty Cop execute him before dinner so they won't miss their meal... all before his little sister can step forward and confess to the crime. The song then condemns them for having "hung an innocent man." Problem is, the whole reason Andy went to his friend's house with his gun was to shoot him for sleeping with his new bride, only to find the job done for him. Yes, it's hideous that the town's law enforcement just assumed he did it and executed him that same day on a "make-believe trial" (he could just as easily have been 100% innocent in intent as well as deed), but Andy had fully intended to commit the crime they hung him for—it was only by sheer "luck" that his little sister happened to beat him to it.
- Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest embodies this along with Lack of Empathy. She admonishes Jack for being an orphan because it shows "contempt for the decencies of family life"; disapproves of sympathising will ill people because "illness is hardly a thing to be encouraged"; and even congratulates an offstage character for finally "making up his mind" to die.
To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.
- The Pandaren starter quests in World of Warcraft feature reckless Ji Firepaw performing an action to save their moving island, the giant turtle Shen-zin Shu. This act would have killed the creature but for the presence of Horde and Alliance healers. Counterpart Aysa Cloudsinger's reaction is a What the Hell, Hero? to Ji.
- Discussed in Movie Bob's The Big Picture, when he compares the success of Guardians of the Galaxy with the failure of the much-maligned Howard the Duck movie. He notes that the unconventional concepts for both films were a gamble going in, but the same risks praised for Guardians are condemned for Howard just based on audience reception, which filmmakers can't fully predict (however hard they try).
When you pull something like that
off and it works, you're a genius—a visionary who saw through the fog and went their own way. But if Guardians
had been exactly the same movie but hadn't
connected with audiences to the same level, the universal
smug response from the peanut gallery would have been: "Well, what'd you expect to happen?! You made a $#@%! space raccoon movie!"
- The Nostalgia Chick also discusses this when reviewing Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies; particularly the risk (at the time) of making three high-budget, three-hour-long movies instead of two like most studios wanted, and the way they chose to portray Gollum. While beloved now, she makes it clear that mainstream audiences at the time could have very easily not been interested in a big-budget High Fantasy Trilogy and/or detested Gollum, so the same filming and characterization choices praised now would have been reviled.
Chick (regarding Gollum)
: A hair in either direction and we'd have another Jar-Jar Binks
on our hands.
- The Powerpuff Girls: After Rainbow the Clown is turned into an evil mime in an accident he goes on a crime spree, draining all the color from Townsville and its citizens, but after he's turned back to normal the girls don't realise he's not really evil and had no control over his actions and beat him up anyway.
- This was a case of Executive Meddling. Creator Craig McCracken didn't intend for this climax of the story; Cartoon Network insisted on it.
- The fundamental attribution error is closely related to this concept. Essentially, it notes that when an individual perceives a person as a member of an out-group, and they misbehave in some way, the individual tends to assume the misbehaviour is due to a personality flaw (they're a naturally nasty person) rather than their surrounding circumstances (they're just having a bad day). The corollary is that when the individual perceives a person as a member of the in-group, the inverse is true: the individual assumes that any good they do is because of their personality (they're just a naturally nice person) rather than their circumstances (they just got lucky).
- In most legal systems attempted murder is a much less serious crime than murder, even though the only difference is whether the attack succeeded in killing the victim (which in many cases can be entirely attributable to blind luck).
- This is exemplified in the movie Fury, whose protagonist tries to get his attempted lynchers executed by hiding his survival.
- At a lesser level, certain parenting methods can take this form, with children receiving more severe punishment from their parents when their reckless actions inadvertently result in unpleasant consequences.
- The idea that "the winners write the history books" would involve this trope to some extent, depending on how much luck was involved in the victory, and how much the future historians couch or embellish what happened in moral terms.
- This is especially true with most "Cinderella stories" in sports. When a team beats seemingly insurmountable odds to win a championship, you will no doubt hear stories of how they always believed they could do it, they stuck together as a team, and they never stopped fighting. These three ideals are probably carried out by most sports teams, but they really only gain significance if the team wins it all in the end, or at least gets a lot further than was expected.