Moral Luck

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.
  • 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.

  • This is lampshaded in the book Thirteen Never Changes by Budge Wilson. Thirteen year old Laura is furious when her nine year old brother borrows her new bike without asking and breaks it. Her older brother tells her that when she was nine, she borrowed his bike without asking.
    "Did I break it?"
    "Well what?"
    "Well, that's a big difference"
    "Not really. He didn't mean to hurt your bike. He's just not very well co-ordinated. He was born that way. You and I are athletic. Not him."
  • Referenced in universe in The Warrior's Apprentice. Miles successfully predicts his enemy will attempt a flank attack and insists that all weapons be placed on the flank of the base to drive off the attack. When a (dubious) ally excitedly states he is a genius for predicting the maneuver Miles soberly reflects on what they would say if he had been wrong about the angle of the attack. Though this isn't a perfect example of this trope, as Miles was relying on more than dumb luck when he selected where to place the weapons.
  • At the end of The Chrysalids, the main character is trapped in a cave when The Cavalry show up, killing everyone in the area. Most of these people are bad guys, so we don't care, but one of them is the protagonist's childhood friend Sophie, who throughout the book is portrayed as sympathetic. Fortunately The Cavalry don't kill her - because she is shot just moments before they arrive! Since they are not technically responsible for her fate, no one seems upset that their indiscriminate killing could easily have caused the death of an innocent girl.

Live-Action TV
  • 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.

  • 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.

Video Games
  • 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.

Western Animation
  • 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.

Real Life
  • 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.