How does Catholicism approach the idea of "moral luck?"


Let us imagine a few similar but separate incidents.

In the first scenario, a young man walks along an overpass, alone and angry. On impulse, he picks up a stone and casts it over the side. It lands harmlessly on the road below. The young man goes home.

In the second scenario, a different young man walks along the same overpass and makes the same impulsive, angry decision. This time, however, the stone lands squarely on the windscreen of a van, leading to a crash which kills several people.

Lastly, suppose a third young man throws a rock which strikes the windscreen of a van, but through quick reactions, the driver brings the van safely to a stop without injury to anyone.

Is the guilt of all three men the same? Should all three make the same reparations? We seem quick to judge people in the position of young man #2, but how many of our own choices could have turned out to have much more disastrous consequences, if not for circumstances which are entirely outside of our control?

How should we judge our own actions? By their actual consequences, or by what could have happened, whether that would be a better or worse outcome?


Both I’d say. The law tries to recognize intent as this is always what matters, but the person must bear the responsibility of the result. This is why we have things like involuntary manslaughter, 2nd degree, and 1st degree murder. All the same result, but intent was considered.


I appreciate your response, but the purpose of the above example was to consider situations where the result is not the same.


I’ll assume the traffic was similar in all three scenarios, and that there was lots of it. I’ll assume the man was aware of the traffic and risk in all three instances.

All three men were equally, pointlessly reckless with human lives. All were equally guilty of the same bad decision. But the human mind likes to ignore what it can, so #1 will easily forget his actions while #2 will never forget. So the two may “pay” a different price from that.

I try to judge my actions by my intent and by what I anticipate might happen. What actually happens is not in my control. However, after the fact it may well change my subjective feelings of guilt, because I am human. It may also influence my future actions because I will anticipate results differently.


By what could have happened in my opinion. On a personal basis I would not throw a stone in the way you mention because of the unintended accidents it could cause.
I’m not sure at this moment where I read it but I remember a story about a woman who confessed to gossiping whose penance was to go to the church tower and cut open a feather filled pillow and then return to the priest. She did as she was asked and even quite enjoyed watching the feathers flying like snowflakes from the height and spreading out over the streets and rooftops around her.
She went back to the priest and told him she had done as she was asked, the priest then told her that her penance was to now go and collect all the feathers that she’d spilt. Horrified, she lamented “but father they have spread out over the town in all directions carried by the wind I could never find them all again!” The priest then pointed out that the feathers are like the words spoken in gossip, you know not what effects they will have and no control over the consequences.


Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. I believe we need to hold ourselves to the same account. If nothing happened in your example, it should be a wake up call to the potential consequences. If there was a consequence, it is our responsibility to clean it up. There are some acts for which society has a sanction for. If the sanction is properly applied (which unfortunately is not always the case) that in my view is part of the responsibility to resolve the impact.


Indeed, how would you judge your own actions?

In the case where the rock landed harmlessly on the pavement, you might say to yourself “Whew! That was a stupid thing to do,” resolve to never do it again, and walk away.

In the case where the rock caused a fatal motor-vehicle collision, let’s assume you do the same: You say “Whew! That was a stupid thing to do,” resolve to never do it again, and walk away.

What’s the difference? In the second case, what more is required of you?

I am not posing these questions rhetorically. Give us your answers.


In such an obvious example as our hypothetical, I believe that I would have the presence of mind, as you suggest, to realize my mistake and resolve not to do so again.

I will answer the second part of your question first. It would seem that in the second case, much more is required. Namely, to submit to the judgement of human law, accept whatever punishment is deemed appropriate, and to pray constantly for the repose of the souls of those slain. Would you agree?

There are two issues which confound me with regard the first part of your question, “what is the difference?” First, it seems to me that when the consequences of our actions are further removed or less visible, it is much more difficult for us to reflect on what might have been. The effects of our actions ripple out through time and relationships in many ways that we cannot foresee. So there may be many, many choices that I have made where I have done harm and have no idea of it. How many metaphorical rocks have I thrown which are still sailing through the air, which may cause a crash in an hour, or a year, or in ten years?

The second confounding factor is that of guilt. At his particular judgment, will the second man have to answer for several deaths, while the first does not? If the weight of our sins depends on factors outside of our control, then what many of us think of as our “worst” sins may actually not be that serious, and conversely, we may have a great weight of sin which we are not even aware of.

In short, “what is the difference?” is what I am trying to understand.


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