What right and left alike fail to see: life is filled with randomness

We are not so powerful as we think in shaping our own or others’ lives. Brute luck is just as important

July 01, 2020
Image: Roderick Chen/Zuma Press/PA Images
Image: Roderick Chen/Zuma Press/PA Images

What explains our lot in life? Here is a great political dividing line, up there with capitalism vs socialism.

Those on the political left emphasise structural forces: the powerful exploit, exclude, discriminate, deprive, preventing those with modest means from flourishing. Those on the right, meanwhile, point to individual agency: our efforts and choices primarily determine our life trajectory, no matter the circumstances or characteristics we were born with.

Hence the furore over Munira Mirza’s involvement in yet another government-commissioned review into racial inequality, recently established in response to the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests.  Mirza is sceptical of widespread individual and institutional racism in modern Britain, which undermines the worldview of many on the left.

The truth is that the fate of individuals is, in part, a product of a bit of both, to different degrees. The pattern of poorer outcomes for certain social groups indicates systemic biases against them. But the social mobility we do see, much more than is commonly assumed, is a nod to the greater importance of human will. The improvements we have unquestionably seen in raising life outcomes for those from more disadvantaged social groups is testament somewhat to the politicians and protestors pushing to dismantle structural barriers, but the loudest applause should be for the ingenuity and industriousness of individuals themselves.

However, where we end up is not always a product of intention—of the admirable efforts of ourselves or the malign efforts of others. Rather, a lot of life is a result of randomness—of what the philosopher John Rawls described as “brute luck.”

It can be hard for us to grasp and accept, but what happens to us is to some extent not designed by ourselves or others. It is just aggravatingly and underwhelmingly arbitrary. Our genetic make-up. When and where we were born. The thinking we and others have about ourselves at particular times. The emergence of opportunities. The people we meet. And, of course, whether we suddenly get hit by—and live during—a pandemic.

This both challenges and complements the left-wing stress on structural discrimination and the right-wing focus on individual responsibility. It ought to invite a new “third way” to the way we think about cultural debate and public policy.

All of us, in varying amounts, experience offence and disappointment. Some of this is deliberately caused by others, but mainly it is not. Instead, it stems from their mistakes, oversight, thoughtlessness. Frankly, most simply do not have an interest in being so spiteful to strangers. It is a juvenile egotism to think your lack of success is a concerted effort by powerful people to keep you in your place. Most do not seek to hurt others—indeed, in Britain, at least, sorry seems to be the commonest word.

A lot of discrimination is unintended and accidental. It warrants discussion and reflection, usually an apology, to rectify, not shaming and denunciation. Approaching it in such a manner could be helpful for making progress—quietening of the judgmentalism which causes defensiveness and disengagement, and enabling more constructive conversation about unconscious and accidental biases that need addressing.

“We are all human” is a lovely and profound phrase because of its two meanings, both relevant for our approach to social relations. First, in its expression of equality and commonality across social divides, the universalist ideal we should be striving for. Second, because of its sentiment around the fallibility of humans—that all of us make mistakes. We ought to be more forgiving of people when they do so—pursuing a process of learning, rather than vilification.

No one is impeccably virtuous, always choosing and acting correctly. This also punctures the assumption of total individual responsibility—that the rewards we enjoy in life are completely commensurate with our actions.

Hard times can fall on nearly all of us. People fall out of love. Jobs are lost. Illness suddenly strikes. Shit happens, basically.

Likewise, the most successful always rely on the help of others—parents, teachers, colleagues, mentors. Success is also down to knowing the right people. Having the right support. Being in the right place at the right time. It is both ignorant and arrogant, frankly, to champion that fame and fortune flow from unique talent and drive alone.

This is not to forget to admire and appreciate effort in partly explaining exceptionalism. The thinker Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, says an average of 10,000 hours of practice will make you an expert in a particular activity. But that book had another crucial lesson: the ability to first come across and be able to participate in and excel in that activity has arbitrary origins, especially the location and timing of your birth.

We are not so powerful as we think—in shaping our own or others’ lives. Life is a lot more of a lottery. That ought to trigger more humility in our judgments of others, whether rich or poor. It ought to inspire all of us—politicians and the public—to find better ways to boost social security and social mobility, both of which remain insufficient in this country.

So, we need to build a more generous welfare system for those of us who suffer misfortune. And we need to participate in and design more inclusive institutions—schools, housing, universities, voluntary clubs, and workplaces—that enable people from less advantaged backgrounds in particular to diversify their relationships and activities. Then, like the affluent, they will be more likely to encounter better luck.