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. If used without irony, it can easily devolve into straight-up Victim Blaming if the writer isn't careful.


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     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.
  • Played with in Berserk: The protagonist, Guts, often goes into battle despite serious injuries or overwhelming odds, coming out on top through sheer determination. Griffith and his fellow raiders pat him on the back for this, which drives Casca crazy. In volume 5 she calls him out, saying that his Leeroy Jenkins behavior in battle would have put everyone in danger if he hadn't been so lucky, and that if it were up to her instead of Griffith she'd punish him. Conversely, when Casca goes into battle feverish from a severe period, she faints after fighting Adon Coborlwitz, falls off a cliff (together with Guts who tried to catch her), and gets told off by Guts for putting herself and her comrades in danger by going into battle at less than full strength. Ironically, by the time they get back to camp after the ordeal of the hundred man fight, Casca is the one who asks Griffith to punish her however he sees appropriate, while Guts backs her up and Griffith welcomes her back since she and Guts did well against Adon's mercenaries. Imagine if they both hadn't been so lucky!


  • 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.
  • The Lion King: Scar uses this trope to trick Simba into thinking he's guilty of killing his father. When Simba believes that the roar he made in the canyon was what started the stampede that killed his father (even though he didn't know the herd was even there, which the audience knows is moot anyway since Scar orchestrated the stampede), 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.
    • Scar does so again near the end of the movie, when he turns the lionesses against Simba for being "responsible for Mufasa's death." Even when Simba makes it clear that it was an accident, the lionesses allow Scar to play judge, jury and executioner as though Simba's accidental killing were intentional murder... until Scar confesses to killing Mufasa instead.
      Scar: Murderer!
      Simba: No, it was an accident!
      Scar: If it weren't for you, Mufasa would be alive. It's your fault he's dead. Do you deny it?
      Simba: No.
      Scar: Then you're guilty.


  • 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.
  • Orange Is the New Black: Cesar tries to comfort Daya after Bennett abandons her by saying that he always found the man untrustworthy because he was missing a leg... which he lost due to an infection he got in a dirty spa.
    Cesar: I mean, going around losing limbs... that's irresponsible.


  • 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 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.

     Video Games  

     Web Original  

  • 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).
    Bob: 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.

     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.
  • Successful businesspeople will often emphasize to aspiring entrepreneurs the importance of taking risks in pursuit of one's goals. Naturally, they only emphasize this because in their case, the risks paid off. One rarely hears from entrepreneurs who took big risks and failed, although there is no shortage of them.