Theses Doctoral

The Moral of Luck

Blancha, David

The concept of luck is important to a wide range of philosophical areas including ethics (moral luck), epistemology (epistemic luck), political philosophy (issues of distributive justice and just deserts), and metaphysics (causation and the notion of coincidence). However, until recently, many of these discussions appealed to the concept of luck (and intuitions surrounding the role of luck) only as an undefined primitive. This dissertation is directed at providing a theory of luck from a different vantage than contemporary philosophical accounts (such as those developed by Duncan Pritchard, Wayne Riggs, and Nicholas Rescher).

My first two chapters explore the existing treatments of luck in contemporary philosophy and a selection of psychological research is order to distinguish the philosophically relevant notion of luck from the popular superstitious ideas of luck. I propose that luck can be roughly described as involving a sense of significance (instances of luck matter to the affected parties) and a sense of unreliability (we cannot count on luck). I also identify two important trends in contemporary treatments of luck; 1) contemporary accounts have a much more detailed focus on the unreliability criterion than on the significance criterion, and 2) many discussions of luck treat luck as an intrinsic feature of the world such that instances of luck can be identified as matters of luck apart from any consideration of their significance.

In my third chapter, I argue that significance deserves as careful and detailed a treatment as unreliability, and I argue against the idea that the relevant notion of significance can be understood merely in terms of an affected subject's actual or potential beliefs about what is significant to her. In giving a more nuanced account of significance, I propose a distinction between impersonal luck (luck that involves an advantage for any subject in the same situation) and personal luck (luck that involves an advantage for the subject only because of that subject's particular characteristics).

In my fourth chapter, I criticize accounts that treat luck as an intrinsic property that can be identified apart from a consideration of the significance for an affected subject (what I have called matter of luck accounts). I propose that luck is a property dependent on a practice of adopting modified attitudes (what I call luck attitudes) and that we can understand the unreliability of luck in terms of this practice; an advantage is ordinarily acquired if it is appropriate to adopt normal attitudes towards someone's possession of it, and an advantage is extraordinarily acquired, and therefore lucky, if it is appropriate to adopt the modified luck attitudes towards it.

My final chapter contains my theory of luck. Following the discussions in my third and fourth chapters, I propose an account where significance plays a central role in distinguishing instances of luck. I propose a framework on which advantages are ordinarily or extraordinarily obtained according to their significance to the possessor, and I propose that a lucky state of affairs be understood as a state of affairs that involves an advantage for a subject who has obtained that advantage in an extraordinary way. The conditions under which an advantage is ordinarily obtained are sensitive to the nature and degree of the advantage. In line with the discussion in my fourth chapter, I conclude by proposing some conditions which lead us to adopt normal attitudes (that is, conditions under which having an advantage would be considered ordinary) but leave it open to modification in light of changing social practices of, and standards for, adopting luck attitudes.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Varzi, Achille C.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 15, 2015