We are not so powerful as we think in shaping our own or others’ lives. Brute luck is just as importantby Ryan Shorthouse / July 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
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.
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