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Moral Luck

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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 short, here, what's important is not about what they do, it's about how it turns out.


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. Of course this may have been the creator's intention all along to show how wrong the other characters criteria are.

When the writer does 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 when the protagonist is forcefully presented as being in the right. 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 or other character's will always succeed and they will receive praise. The Extremist Was Right is when Well-Intentioned Extremist has his/her Moral Luck high and working; they did extreme things, but they end up helping/successful, and they receive praise for it.


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 Omniscient Morality License: when a character's plans doing good hinges so much on random chance and happenstance that it's questionable how it can be called good. If used without irony, it can easily devolve into straight-up Victim Blaming if the writer isn't careful.

Supertrope to Cartesian Karma, where characters are held responsible (by the narrative and/or other characters) for things they were controlled into doing.



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    Anime and Manga 
  • Berserk: Played with. 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!
  • One Piece: The Straw Hat Pirates 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 other peoples' lives miserable. This makes the Impel Down arc especially notable: here, Luffy isn't merely doing his usual thing on a simple city — it's a world-famous prison with some of the most dangerous prisoners in the world held within; he's there to rescue his brother Ace, while causing a riot that releases some of the prisoners. The chief and vice wardens of the prison, Magellan and Hannyabal, ruthless and scary persons though they may be, also sincerely believe in keeping these prisoners behind bars for the good of the people, and they outright tell Luffy this. It's one of the few times where Luffy invades a facility of law-keepers, and unlike the last time (Enies Lobby), the main keepers of the place do have a point; they're basically Hero Antagonists to Luffy's Villain Protagonist (in this arc). Luffy, at least, admits that he isn't much of a "hero", nor does he want to be one.

    Comic Books 
  • Johnny Turbo: Johnny's preemptive attack on the Feka goons for allegedly ripping off customers could have sent his reputation into a nosedive. Thankfully, they turned out to be robots.

    Films — Animated 
  • The Lion King: Invoked and exploited. 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.
  • Summer Wars: Kenji solves an incredibly complicated math problem given to him in a mysterious e-mail. Love Machine, the malicious A.I. that sent the mail, hacks his account, uses the solution to blow through Oz's security, and causes all sorts of chaos. The police are ready to arrest Kenji, figuring he was either to blame for Love Machine's actions or an accessory thereof. Then it turns out Love Machine hacked numerous accounts that tried to solve the same problem and Kenji's answer had a typo. Since it didn't technically use his answer, the charges are dropped.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • In Fury (1936), the protagonist tries to get his attempted lynchers executed by hiding his survival. This is because 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, and especially his, can be entirely attributable to blind luck — rather than a change of heart on the murderer(s)'s part).
  • In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, it's lampshaded 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.
  • 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 he starts doing. The overall point of the film seems to be a nihilistic one: 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!
  • Yes-Man: 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). He does, however, catch the notice of Homeland Security, as one of the loans he approves is for a fertilizer manufacturer, plus Carl's erratic flying all over the country leads them to assume he's a homegrown terrorist.

  • The Chrysalids: At the end, 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.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: The ethical/religious basis for Trial by Combat in Westeros is that the winner was favored by the gods, and thus must be innocent or otherwise deserving of exoneration. Of course, in practice this often means an innocent person is convicted (or inversely, a guilty person is acquitted) simply because one of the champions was luckier or more skilled. Two of the three major trials by combat hand down false verdicts due to this, and the one that ends up being true is won because Bronn is a consummate Combat Pragmatist.
  • Super Gene: Justified. Han Sen Got Volunteered as part of an escort team for a group of rookie hunters, along with his Arch-Enemy "Son of Heaven" and his gang. Son of Heaven and gang get complacent since the rookies are doing well and fail to notice a beast sneak up on one of said rookies until the beast jumps up at the rookie's throat. Han Sen, who was not negligent, fires at the beast with his arrow with a very dangerous trick-shot, killing the beast. While Son of Heaven and his gang chew out Han Sen for risking the client's life, the very influential man who "hired" Han Sen turns around and chews out Son of Heaven and the gang for neglecting their duties, and blaming Han Sen to deflect their guilt, and rightly points out that had Han Sen not taken the shot, the poor rookie hunter would have died.
  • Thirteen Never Changes: Defied. 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."
  • The Warrior's Apprentice: Referenced in-universe. 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.

    Live Action TV 
  • 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.
  • Charmed (1998) has an episode where the sisters deal with a warlock making an unusual master plan. Phoebe has a premonition of the warlock attacking a male witch and they ignore the advice of their new whitelighter to go to the scene of the crime - where it turns out the victim in the premonition was an evil darklighter and the warlock just killed him to get his crossbow. Prue defends going anyway by saying that the sisters weren't in any danger - and is told "that makes you lucky, not smart!"
  • 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. (Mind you Michelle winning was only part of the issue as this was the last in a line of incidents where Stephanie was forced to stand down so Michelle could get her way, not to mention that Michelle definitely got an ego over the princess treatment and started acting worse which definitely set Stephanie off)
  • Merlin (2008): Kilgarrah's warnings that Morgana is not to be trusted and will do bad things with her magic read very hollow when Merlin withholding his own magic from her is what leads to her Face–Heel Turn - because Morgause soon shows up and whisks Morgana away to her side. That the dragon was right at all is luck or a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (which Merlin wouldn't have fulfilled if the dragon hadn't given him warnings about Morgana in the first place).
  • 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.
  • Scrubs:
    • One episode revolves around the main characters being investigated for the death of a patient who died while under their care. They spent the entire time ignoring him completely in favor of flirting with other patients, buying lottery tickets, and fighting emus. In the end, they are cleared of all charges because the radiologist screwed up the initial report; even if they had done everything perfectly, they just didn't have the right information to keep the patient alive. In a subversion, Dr. Cox tears into them anyway, pointing out that the only reason they didn't kill a man is because someone else killed him first. They take the lesson to heart, and accept that they need to take their jobs more seriously.
    • JD was given a patient to monitor who was having unusual problems and no one else could figure out why. JD spent some time trying to figure it out, but got distracted dealing with some major interpersonal problems between the main characters. He realized that he ignored his patient for a really long time and ended up running into Dr. Kelso upon returning. He admitted he did nothing to help the patient, and Kelso surprised him with praise, as the patient was having problems because of excessive treatments and constantly changing medications—doing nothing let the patient burn it out and recover naturally. It was mostly An Aesop about sometimes letting problems run their course, but JD knew solving the medical mystery was dumb luck and he should have gotten in trouble.
  • Star Trek:
    • In the 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 frightened for a while because of it. This feels particularly horrible since a child that young would likely already be very 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. Especially as humans in the future are supposedly kinder.
    • Subverted in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes "Rules of Engagement." Worf is on trial for destroying a Klingon civilian transport ship that accidentally decloaked in the middle of a battle. It eventually comes out that Worf was set up; the Klingons remotely decloaked an empty civilian ship for Worf to destroy so that they could embarrass the Federation. Worf is exonerated and everyone gets ready for a celebration, when Captain Sisko pulls Worf aside to berate him for opening fire on a vessel before determining whether or not it was a threat and tell him just how incredibly lucky he was that it was a setup and not actually a ship full of innocent civilians.

  • "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" describes how a Good Ol' Boy named Andy 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 horrible that local law enforcement just assumed he did it and executed him that same day with 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.

  • The Importance of Being Earnest: Lady Bracknell embodies this along with Lack of Empathy considering that it is more extreme than usual since in that case there were no choices to be taken at all. She admonishes Jack for being an orphan because it shows "contempt for the decencies of family life", disapproves of sympathizing with 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. She is very much the poster child and the ultimate parody at the same time of this trope.
    To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.

    Video Games 
  • Assassin's Creed: Rogue: The protagonist is an Assassin who defects from the order because they are dabbling with dangerous Precursor technology that has already caused two earthquakes and he joins with the Templars to stop them. The problem is that not only were the Templars also seeking the technology and were just as likely to set off the earthquakes, throughout the series both sides have wielded similar technologies with nowhere near those sorts of effects.
  • BlazBlue:
    • Litchi's quest to her friend Arakune from his condition involved risky gambles and doing questionable things: She tried to corrupt herself with the thing Arakune got corrupted with in order to understand his condition. Then (when her former colleague refused to help her), she accepted "help" from a main villain and went to his side, and tried to help the main villain's colleague with his plan to reset the universe, just so there might be a chance of helping her friend. She's repeatedly called out by Rachel and Kokonoe, who are part of the good guys, for this. How does it end up? It's revealed to her that her friend had chosen to stay like that and asked not to be saved, and instead tells Litchi to go and help other people she cared about and live normal. It's All for Nothing. In the end, she stops and chooses to live happily in a normal world with other characters, but — being a sympathetic character she's meant to be — her foolish decisions never came back to haunt her beyond her goal's failure (it helps that the world "resets" for the last time before the end, thanks to the hero's actions), though in the eyes of the fandom, it's another story. In short, she's outta luck, but she's still lucky to be happy in the end.
    • In the middle of the fourth game, Ragna steals the "desires" of the other characters (mostly good guys, plus Nu-13, who's a villain) for his plan of making those desires a real possibility; he also takes the memories of him in the process. Were he not successful in the end (thankfully he is), he'd pretty much doom other people, and potentially himself, because they're lacking their desires and all forget about him. He does, at least, acknowledge it; he's prepared to be the "enemy of the world" should he do so, though he's nice enough to explain his motives to people before he steals their desires.
  • Halo 4 begins with Dr. Catherine Halsey being interrogated by ONI over her role in the Spartan program. She claims that kidnapping children and turning them into the ultimate warriors helped save humanity when the Covenant attacked. The ONI interrogator calls her out on this self-serving narrative, noting that the Spartans were originally trained to quell human rebellions well before they even knew about the Covenant.
  • Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep: All three members of the Power Trio have a tendency to trust the first person they meet in a given world, no questions asked. So when Aqua and Ven meet Peter Pan and Terra meets Captain Hook, the latter is viewed as a Horrible Judge of Character for doing exactly what his friends did.
  • In Max Payne 2, at the end of Part II, Max shoots his partner Winterson dead when she draws a gun on known criminal Mona. At the end of Part III Chapter 3, he learns she was a mole for the Big Bad and was planning to murder both him and Mona. To his credit, Max does not use this revelation to vindicate his own actions.
  • In World of Warcraft: The Pandaren starter quests feature reckless Ji Firepaw performing an action to save their moving island, the giant turtle Shen-zin Su. 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. Aysa herself also falls into this trope, as she was doing nothing to resolve the problem in the hopes that a perfect solution would present itself while Shen-zin Su only grew weaker with each passing moment. Had Ji not forced the issue, it could easily have become too late to do anything at all.

    Western Animation 
  • DuckTales (2017):
    • Deconstructed regarding Gladstone Gander: he's so impossibly lucky that even his entirely selfish actions end up helping other people — including saving his family from a demon (when his actual intent was to leave them behind while saving himself) and stopping a bank robbery. Gladstone is still quick to take the credit for the results, and thinks that they make him a great person. The fact that he treats his actions as such is one of the reasons he's so insufferable.
    • A later episode has an attempted invocation by Louie. Louie's latest Get Rich Quick Scheme is to use Gyro's Time Tub to travel through history and retrieve lost treasures, which results in a storm that starts moving things through time at random. The storm gets so bad that the entire family is thrown throughout history before Louie can undo the damage and set things right, but he winds up grounded for how badly his actions backfired. He tries to argue that he hadn't meant to cause to time storm (and it's shown that he was taking steps to avoid problems with the time travel) so he should be let off the hook, but there's no avoiding consequences this time regardless of intentions.
  • Gravity Falls: Stan uses some extremely dangerous—potentially universe destroying—technology he does not understand to save his brother. Mabel goes along with it, in spite of evidence that Stan was trying to destroy the universe, simply because she trusts her great uncle's intentions and abilities. Since Stan succeeds without any major damage, the morality of taking such risks is largely ignored. Then it turns out they really did tear a small rift through dimensions, which Bill Cipher uses to invade Earth. But since the protagonists stopped that as well, they're still hailed as heroes, despite Stan and Mabel's role in enabling him.
  • In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, this is a big part of why Princess Celestia's Aesop about the importance of trusting one's instincts in "A Canterlot Wedding" is such a broken lesson. Twilight's instincts were to make outrageous accusations with no evidence, which ruined her credibility and were made clear to be wrong by both the narrative and Celestia herself until it turned out she was Right for the Wrong Reasons, while everyone else's instincts were to trust the fake Cadance, which was made clear to be right by both the narrative and Celestia herself, until they turned out to be wrong for the right reasons. Further, Twilight's accusations were never actually correct or reflected what the fake Cadance actually was — the reveal that Cadance was actually the episode's villain in disguise was entirely unrelated to any of Twilight's claims. It's difficult to get a lesson about trusting one's instincts out of a chain of events that show it's only good to trust your instincts when you get lucky and they happen to be right, leading some viewers to interpret it as Princess Celestia just trying to save face.

    Real Life 
  • The existence of criminal charges like attempted murder and attempted rape zig-Zags this trope. On the one hand, they allow for punishing people who intended to carry out serious crimes but, due to a stroke of luck, didn't succeed. Someone who tries but fails to commit a crime like murder is every bit as dangerous and morally culpable as someone who succeeds at it; however, you can't charge them with murder since no one was actually killed, so the legal system needs a separate charge in order to avert this trope. On the other hand, attempted charges typically carry less severe charges than successful crimes, playing this trope straight. However, if the charges carried the same sentence, that might inspire perpetrators to go through with murdering the victim, so the logic is that a lesser punishment should be levied rather than this. A possible solution would be making a legal distinction between a murder attempt that failed because the shot missed, and one that failed because the would-be killer couldn't go through with it. While this isn't written into the law, that could be taken into account at sentencing.


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