Thursday, September 08, 2005

Luck, Pluck, or Just Plain F**cked?

Henry Swift at Armchair Capitalists (a highly underrated blog) comments on an observation about liberalism by Angry Bear: specifically, the role that plain old bad luck has in creating society's winners and losers.
So if I had to encapsulate in a few words why I describe myself as a liberal, I would simply say this: I believe in bad luck. I think that a huge number of the forces that affect most people's lives are outside of their control - the parents that they were born to, the quality of their local educational opportunities, the management of the company that they happen to work for, the fortunes of the city or town in which they happen to live, or the industry in which they happen to find work - and that individuals who suffer from a bad family, poor education, being laid off, or a hurricane, should not be left to live with the consequences of their plain bad luck without help from society at large.

I think many liberals (including myself) would agree with that, and I also think that it accurately describes a major point of differentiation between liberal and conservative worldviews. Liberals are skeptical of the free market to naturally create "right" outcomes--believing their are many externalities that are simply unaccounted for. Conservatives, by contrast, think that results are determined primarily by "pluck," that is, the more talented, determined, or otherwise meritable persons will rise to the top. Presumably, both will concede that there are cases on the other side--liberals acknowledging people who succeeded on merit, conservatives admitting that some folks really did just get hit by a streak of bad luck. The point of contention is how much is on each side.

Henry believes that one can measure which side is right empirically. That is, we can design a test and go "aha! The poor really ARE poor because they are lazy bums," or vice versa. I'm not exactly sure how one would design such a test. For one, it seems there are way too many variables to isolate. I've seen a lot of studies which show how a parent's income correlates to their child's future income, which would indicate that being born poorer has some effect on one's future life chances. But one can easily imagine the conservative responses: that if it is bad habits which make someone poor, then it is likely that they will transmit these negative values to their children, thus insuring they'll be poor. Or perhaps they'll make a genetic argument--successful people tend to marry other successful people, and are more likely to conceive successful children. Both of these explanations would absolve society of its accountability and shift the blame back on to the poor and their families.

A second problem comes in the definition of "luck," and where the cross-over point is between a lack of luck and a lack of pluck. This is very important, because different life positions require different amounts of each to be successful. The son of a rich, upperclass businessman needs both less effort and fewer breaks to succeed than the kid trying to escape the ghetto. When does an amount of effort we'd say is "reasonable" become a super-human effort that, while laudable, can't be expected by the average man or woman. After all, one cannot assign moral duties beyond the capacity of the common man. As J.O. Urmson writes:
If we are to exact basic duties...and censure failures, such duties must be, in ordinary circumstances, within the capacity of the ordinary man. It would be silly for us to say to ourselves, our children and our fellow men, 'this and that you and everyone else must do,' if the acts in question are such that manifestly few could bring themselves to do them, though we may ourselves resolve to try to be of that few....So, if we were to represent the heroic act of sacrificing one's life for one's comrades as a basic duty, the effect would be to lower the degree of urgency and stringency that the notion of duty does in fact posses. The basic moral code must not be in part too far beyond the capacity of the ordinary men or ordinary occasions, or a general breakdown of compliance with the moral code would be an inevitable consequence; duty would seem to be something high and unattainable, and not for 'the likes of us.' [J.O. Urmson, "Saints and Heroes," in Essays in Moral Philosophy, edited by A.
Melden. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1958), 211-212.
]

This standard is context-critical. That is, while it's easy to say from here "just say no" to gangs, when "saying no" means your 13 year old sister gets raped and continuing to say no means she'll be killed, it becomes much more difficult to make "saying no to gangs" a moral imperative. We simply cannot evaluate the life choices of those trapped in disadvantaged environments without simultaneously analyzing the real material conditions that exist their lives.

This example, I'd hope, would unanimously be labeled as beyond what a 14 year old can be expected to do (I don't call it extreme because as far as I can tell, it accurately represents the type of choice faced by typical ghetto youth trying to avoid Gang life). However, in other cases, Liberals and conservatives would probably differ in where to draw the "luck/pluck" line. Ideology and observation reinforce each other--conservatives are probably more likely to view more things as reasonable "choices," which pushes them to a more conservative position that encourages to label yet more choices as reasonable. For liberals, it's the reverse. This type of split would probably doom any empirical barometer, since nobody would able to agree on the scale.

The preceding analysis assumes that there is a dualism between "luck" and "pluck." It's either one or the other. However, as my title suggests, I believe there is a third explanation for negative outcomes in modern society--those who are victims of structural hostility (racism, sexism, anti-Semetism, heterosexism, etc.) which makes it impossible (or significantly more difficult) for them to succeed.

There are two reasons why I think that this differs from "luck." The first is that bad luck is inherently related to something bad. If my basketball shot just barely rims out, that's unlucky, but it doesn't suggest that we should "change the rules" per se. The solution to rimmed-out shots is to take better shots. So if being born poor is "bad luck," then the solution is to have less poor people, because we all agree that being poor is a bad thing that we wish didn't exist. But it would be weird to respond to racism by saying it's "bad luck" to be born black, and try have fewer black people. Blackness isn't inherently something bad, it's been made bad by social constructs that should be eliminated.

The second is that luck implies randomness. That is, bad luck can't be traced to any cause, and where it clusters is a complete mystery, it's--well, unlucky. Structural factors, by contrast, are not random but guided--they always hit people of subordinated races, or sex, or sexual orientation, or religion. It doesn't count as "luck" if it's predictable. This is important, because it implies a greater degree of social responsibility than simple "bad luck" does. We may not be able to predict that New Orleans will be entirely wiped out in a Hurricane--or Sri Lanka in a Tsunami, or that Happy Toy Factory will close down, or whatever. But we can predict that a racist society will disadvantage people on account of race. Knowing that this outcome is likely raises the moral cost of not doing anything to stop it--especially when (again, unlike issues of "luck"), the privilege reap benefits from the unjust system. This also has the benefit of taking out the arguments of the extreme right wing (Objectivists and hardcore libertarians) who would respond to the "luck" case by saying "so what? It's not my fault they got unlucky. It sucks to be them, but that's no reason to take my property to help." The F**cked position creates the moral imperative to assist the disadvantaged by creating a degree of causality that doesn't exist with luck. It notes that their disadvantage is, at least in part, what creates our advantage (indeed, disadvantage is a comparative term. It is impossible for someone to be disadvantaged without someone else being advantaged. Consequently, it's impossible for someone to be unjustly disadvantaged without a corresponding class of people who are unjustly advantaged.) "Pluck" says it's their fault, "luck" says it's nobody's fault, "f**cked" says it's everybody's fault (even if blame can't be traced to any one individual). Though luck still has a role for many, explicitly denoting and exploring "f**cked" creates a deeper and more vigorous justification for social intervention. Ultimately, this is a much stronger philosophical position than luck alone.

3 comments:

Greg Ihrie said...

It is remiss to talk about liberalism and the role of luck without citing John Rawls. To paraphrase, a person does not make any choices regarding their own birth, so they have no claim to the unique situation that they are born into. A person does not deserve to be born to a rich family, to a white family, or to be born with a genetic predisposition to be intelligent (if such a thing exists). To that extent, policies which equalize inequalities are probably just, since they make society more equal without "stealing" or anything of the sort.

Isaac said...

You write:
I've seen a lot of studies which show how a parent's income correlates to their child's future income, which would indicate that being born poorer has some effect on one's future life chances. But one can easily imagine the conservative responses: that if it is bad habits which make someone poor, then it is likely that they will transmit these negative values to their children, thus insuring they'll be poor. Or perhaps they'll make a genetic argument--successful people tend to marry other successful people, and are more likely to conceive successful children. Both of these explanations would absolve society of its accountability and shift the blame back on to the poor and their families.

You are right that it may not convince conservatives that society is to blame. But it doesn't really matter who we blame. What matters is that we recognize that a person's position and skills at a crucial life moment were determined largely externally to them. Luck played a role. Which the conservative position recognizes. Liberals and conservatives are in agreement that luck matters in childhood.

More on the general theme here (though I think Greg may have said what I said in about a quarter of the space, so...).

Jim Satterfield said...

In addition conservatives must not only believe that luck is the minor factor in determining how someone's life will turn out but they must also believe that a capitalist system will inherently provide enough jobs for all of its citizens (Or at least those able to work.) to make a living. Otherwise luck and/or birth can't be the lesser determining factor. While they might recognize that the structure of business is essentially a pyramid they must also believe that those at the bottom of the structure can through their own efforts rise in the structure. But that can't happen. The structure of the business means that only so many people can rise in the economic heirarchy. If you believe that those at the bottom can live on what they're paid it doesn't bother you. As long as they're not starving and you subscribe to the belief system that says staying at the bottom is from lack of effort, not an inherent problem in the system it's an acceptable belief system.