After the battle of Arginusae in 406BC, six Athenian generals were executed for failing to rescue some shipwrecked sailors, even though they could not have done so because a violent storm (pdf) prevented them.
Many of you might think this unjust. The Kantian control principle says we shouldn't blame people for bad luck. We moderns, then, surely wouldn't make the same error as the Athenians.
Oh yes, we would, according to some recent experiments by Joshua Miller and colleagues. They split subjects into a principal and agent. The agent chose between a safe option and a lottery, and the principal then split a sum of money between himself and the agent after seeing the outcome of the lottery. They found that principals' payments depended upon the outcome of the lottery, even though this was obviously out of the agents' control. For example, agents who chose the safe option were paid less if the lottery won than if it didn't:
Principals in our experiment clearly exhibit unjustified blame: they adjust the payment to the agent according to the difference between the realized outcome and the outcome of the alternative the agent had not chosen, even though it is clear that he was not responsible for the outcome.
This isn't a lone finding. It's consistent with research by Jordi Brandts and by Nattavudh Powdthavee and Yohanes Riyanto which has also found that people just can't distinguish between luck and skill even in the elementary conditions.
I fear that this might have important social consequences. If we muddle up luck and agency, we'll be apt to blame the poor too much for their misfortune, with the result that redistribution towards them will be less than it otherwise would be. What's more, we'll also be too indulgent towards the rich. We'll think that success is due to ability when it might be due to luck, and so tolerate mega-buck salaries. We'll also misallocate resources by creating a demand for forecasters, share tippers and active fund managers, most of whom owe what little success they get to luck rather than skill.
To the extent that this is the case, our tolerance of inequality is founded upon a simple error (and not just this one - but that's another tale). Perhaps we haven't made as much progress since ancient times as the self-regard of our age would make us believe.