Issue #13: luck

Dumb luck and entitlement

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by Patrick Stokes on August 22, 2016

There’s a certain disappointment – maybe there’s a word for it in German – that comes from realising a quote you like is actually made up. All those coffee mug aphorisms turn out to be either distorted, misattributed, or just plain invented. Gandhi never said “First they ignore you…”, Voltaire never offered to defend your right to free speech to the death (that was Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in case you’re wondering), and poor old Einstein never uttered half the bon mots attributed to him.

And John Steinbeck never said that in America “the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Not exactly, anyway: he said the communists he’d known saw themselves as “temporarily embarrassed capitalists”.

But why embarrassed? Surely, as Tevye the Dairyman declares in Fiddler on the Roof, “It’s no shame to be poor,” even if “it’s no great honour either”.

Financial embarrassment, even if a somewhat more abstract term than regular embarrassment, clearly retains the sense of feeling shamed by one’s material condition. But few choose to be poor, and most are poor through no fault of their own – so why be embarrassed about it?

Indeed, some have felt it shameful to be rich. The well-to-do of Renaissance Italy flaunted their wealth by endowing great art and architecture, but they still had to abide by sumptuary laws when choosing what to wear to the unveiling. Andrew Carnegie, the American industrialist and philanthropist, declared that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” (Carnegie died with $30 million to his name – about $413 million in 2016 money – though this was less than a tenth of what he’d given away). And yet to be ‘financially embarrassed’ doesn’t mean to be overburdened with cash, but the precise opposite.

Perhaps that’s why so many of us dream of winning the lottery, even though “the lottery is a tax on stupidity” as Voltaire, once again, never actually said. The odds of winning are so astronomical that the act of buying a lottery ticket and the fact of winning it seem almost unconnected. A pretty paradox: people do win lotteries, yet no individual rational agent could justify buying a lottery ticket in any given instance. And yet, we never hear of lottery winners saying, “Well I don’t deserve this, so I’ll give it all away.” Most of us in that situation would probably be OK with dying just a little bit disgraced.

All of these examples gesture towards a significant aspect of how we think about luck – or, more accurately, how we don’t think about luck.

To the extent that we think about luck at all, we tend to treat it as morally neutral. Someone who goes through life with ‘all the luck’ may be a figure of interest and perhaps envy, but not a target of approbation or blame. We heap neither praise nor scorn on someone who by freakish random chance just missed the doomed flight they were booked to fly on; at most we just share in their relief. Luck is a fine thing, but it’s no moral virtue.

The ‘self-made’ person, by contrast, is universally admired, at least on that account. The rags-to-riches stories we find so captivating aren’t primarily tales of luck, but of hard work, pluck, and grit – rugged, no-nonsense Germanic words for a rugged, no-nonsense ideal. We lionise those who start at the bottom of the heap and claw their way up to the top. That’s entirely understandable: what we achieve through effort is more suffused with agency, and so more connected to our ideas of justice and desert, than what happens to us by fortune or circumstance.

Yet ultimately, nobody is self-made. Certainly not literally, given how human biology works. But even in a wider, non-literal sense, we’re largely made by other people, and continue to depend on others to lesser or greater extents all our lives.

We don’t stop to think about that very often. Even philosophers, as Alasdair MacIntyre noted in Dependent Rational Animals, tend to ignore or simply don’t notice the role dependence on others plays in human lives. We come into the world utterly reliant on others to feed and protect us, and a great many of us go out the same way. In between, we rely on a vast swathe of people we’ll never even meet: farmers, truck drivers, sanitation engineers, electricity providers, and more.

Beyond that basic dependence on others, even the most self-made among us are still the outcome of a huge number of things having gone right. Imagine someone who was born into poverty and a dysfunctional family, with no end of obstacles in their way, but who still managed to rise to the top of their field through hard graft and smarts. It’s certainly true that such a person deserves a bigger share of the credit for their success than many – or perhaps most – of us. Yet even in that case, the very fact of being capable of and inclined to hard work is itself largely a matter of luck, of having the good fortune to find yourself with an industrious character and an able body.

Just being born into a particular time and place, one that suits your aptitudes or supports the sort of thing you’re capable of doing well, even the fact of surviving itself, are ultimately dizzyingly contingent. How many a potential Socrates, da Vinci, Jobs, or Gates was lost to history by dint of being born into the wrong place or wrong time? What if your parents had never met, or hadn’t been the sort of people they are?

Ah, you might reply, then I wouldn’t be me in that case – but that’s just the point. Your very existence, let alone the genetic and social advantages you might hold, are sheer accident. Whatever you’ve built with your own hands, you’ve built it on top of a pile you were gifted.

And that, I’d suggest, is why we don’t talk about luck very often. We’re uneasy admitting just how huge a role luck plays in our lives, because luck confers no entitlement. To admit how much we owe to sheer random chance would throw our grasp on what we have – the things we think we’ve earned – into question. At the very least, it makes our claims to have what we have by merit alone shallower and more relative than we might like to believe.

More comfortable by far, then, to insist that luck plays only a minor role, that a benign meritocracy governs all things. That idea is so powerful that, in the guise of karma, it’s underpinned a sense of cosmic justice for billions of people for millennia. The modern Western version is far less grandiose, but no less stark: you get what you deserve.

Such a belief comes at a cost. Effacing the role of luck in our lives means regarding those who are unsuccessful as simply undeserving. At best, cases of innocent failure or suffering become curious exceptions, momentarily disturbing us but leaving the rule untouched. At worst, a kind of social Darwinism comes into play. But timid creatures that we are, we’ll pay that cost rather than admit our claims on the world might be shakier than we want to admit.

From the ‘luck’ edition of New Philosopher magazine – click here to buy a copy, or click here to subscribe. Artwork by Michael Leunig.

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