Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for January 20th, 2014

Just deserts

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“Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” — Barry Switzer, quoted in The Chicago Tribune, 1986.

One of the observations I remember from the only sociology course I ever took (some forty-five years ago) was that people who are wealthy tend to believe that they earned their wealth and therefore deserve it, while people who are poor tend to believe that wealth is mostly a matter of luck and has little to do with just deserts. Whether a person justly deserves what he or she gets is probably one of those questions that cannot be answered, because there is no clear criterion for what makes one’s fortune just or unjust. Insofar as there is any truth to the matter, it is probably simply that what happens happens, and what one gets is what one gets. Justice does not enter into the picture most of the time, but that hardly prevents human beings from reading justice or injustice into almost everything that occurs in life.

I have no intention of trying to convince others that what has happened to them is just or unjust. What I intend to do instead is to reflect on my own life in a way that extends an invitation to others to reflect on their own lives. Whether they will reach the same conclusions I have reached, I neither know nor care.

There is almost nothing concerning the basic circumstances of my life for which I can take any credit at all. With very few minor exceptions, I have enjoyed good health. When I look at the illnesses and injuries and infirmities that many of my friends and acquaintances have had, I realize that I have had remarkably good fortune, none of which I can claim to deserve. A good deal of health is a consequence of genetic inheritance, a matter of which no one has any control. Other factors in health have to do with the circumstances of one’s life and the conditions of one’s environment. As a child I was fortunate to live in mostly healthy environments, a fact that was made possible by the fact that the family I was born into could afford to choose where we lived. From the choices my parents made I derived a good deal of benefit, but I played no significant role in making the decisions from which I derived benefit.

One of my earliest memories is being taken along with my parents to an office in which they conducted what seemed to me an interminable and crushingly boring business transaction of some sort. What they were doing, I later learned, was buying a life insurance policy in my name into which they paid a modest amount every month until I was eighteen years old. When that policy was cashed out, it provided enough money to pay for my college tuition and room and board. Through no effort of my own, I was in a position to get a good education. I did not get as good an education as my opportunity allowed for, because for the first two years I made hardly any effort to learn anything except what I found interesting and stimulating. As luck would have it, I had acquired a good curiosity from the adults in my life, so I was interested in just enough to keep going from one year to the next, but it could hardly be said that I was disciplined. I was far more hedonistic than disciplined, and whatever work I did was a result of happening to enjoy work rather than a result of doing what anyone else expected me to do.

My parents, as I mentioned above, had the means to make good decisions that were conducive to my wellbeing. To some extent that was because my father had a job that he loved to do and that paid him reasonably well. I benefited from all that, but I contributed nothing of my own to either my good fortune or my parents’. The comfortable circumstances my family was in was due only in part to my father’s earning a steady living wage in his profession. Not an insignificant part of our good fortune came from the fact that some of our ancestors had become wealthy in industry and had passed their wealth down through several generations of people who had done nothing at all to contribute to the business that generated the wealth they had inherited. No one who inherits prosperity can be said to be deserving of that prosperity. Having it is blind luck.

It could perhaps be said that I have played some minor role in having had a good life. But even my ability to play those minor roles was inherited, either genetically or culturally. Without making any real effort of my own to do so, I managed to acquire productive attitudes from my parents and their friends. The adults in my life were, with very few exceptions, good role models, and I imitated their examples, because imitation is what children do best. That I was surrounded by good examples to imitate was entirely a matter of luck, not something I deserved to have through my own hard work or good sense.

Perhaps because I am so aware of how much good luck I have had, it has always been difficult for me to understand how easily people come to believe that they deserve what has come their way, that what they have received has been earned rather than given to them by others, often quite gratuitously. That individuals can believe that they have somehow earned their fortunes, whether good or bad, is not entirely a matter within their individual control. We are all influenced by the society in which we live, and it turns out that most societies have devised a mythology according to which there is some justice to what happens to people.

Some societies, for example, have a mythology of karma, a belief that happiness is a natural consequence of doing what is right and good and that misery is a natural consequence of doing what is wrong and evil. The notion of karma often accompanies a belief in rebirth or reincarnation, so that what happiness one has in this life can be seen as a natural consequence of altruistic deeds done in a previous life, and what ills one experiences in this life is but the ripening of selfishness in a previous life. The greatest virtue of this belief is that it is completely impossible to test. It cannot be verified, nor can it be refuted, and there is therefore no great risk involved in holding the belief. There may even be some benefit, both to the fortunate and to the miserable, in believing that there is some sort of cosmic justice behind how fortune is dispensed. The fortunate can enjoy their good fortune without having their enjoyment spoiled by awareness of the less fortunate. And the miserable can console themselves in the belief that they are learning a lesson of some kind and that by making a few good decisions in this life they may have better fortune in the next life.

Other societies have other mythologies that smooth the rough edges of misfortune. The philosopher Leibniz summed up the convictions of his Christian worldview by articulating the doctrine that God cannot possibly be anything but good, and that God is omnipotent and omniscient. What follows from this, according to Leibniz, is that God can only have created the best of all possible worlds and that whatever happens in this world is therefore good. That a set of circumstances seems not to be good is only because it is being viewed from a limited perspective that blinds one to the larger picture. The mouse that is being gobbled up by the cat, for example, sees this event as a misfortune only because it cannot see that it is participating in the goodness of the cat’s being provided its nutrition. The person dying of cancer sees the condition as a disease because she cannot see that she is participating in the goodness of making room for others to have their turn in leading a good life. Like the doctrine of karma, this conviction has the virtue of being beyond the reach of tests that could either confirm it or refute it. Those who accept the doctrine as true have only to have faith that God would never do anything truly harmful to them and that everything that happens to them, no matter how it may seem when viewed superficially, is in fact to their overall benefit.

A substantial part of American society subscribes to some version of the myth that those who have good fortune have it because a benevolent God is rewarding them for their virtue and that the unfortunate are miserable because they are being punished for their vices. This way of thinking made it possible for European Americans to feel justified in owning slaves and conducting genocidal campaigns against the occupants of lands that they wanted for their own purposes. Throughout much of American history, preachers have been available to support the essentially plutocratic and anti-democratic dogma that the wealthy and powerful deserve all their comforts while the poor are simply reaping the consequences of their lack of ambition, their laziness and their poor attitudes. A good deal of the resistance to social welfare programs can be traced to the effectiveness of preaching such doctrines, and to preaching the doctrine that everything good is a gift from God rather than a gift from good human beings striving to make good fortune more a matter of good planning than of blind luck.

If the truth is that we all get what we get, not because we deserve it, but because of an essentially amoral universe dispensing blind luck willy nilly, it is not a particularly pleasant truth. Finding anything satisfactory in it is probably at best an acquired taste. The unpleasantness of the view, however, hardly disqualifies it from being true. There is no reason to claim that truth must be palatable. If one observes life with a degree of impartiality, it does seem that this view of amoral blind luck is a candidate for being considered true. There are, after all, plenty of scoundrels who seem to get away with their selfish domineering actions with impunity, and there is no short supply of people who are hard-working and generous and loving and cooperative but who just barely make it through life. There are plenty of people who never receive the appreciation and recognition and credit for their virtues, and plenty who take credit and get recognition for what others have done.

What happens is what happens. Seeing any rhyme or reason to it, seeing justice or injustice in it, is subscribing to a story that adds a gratuitous layer of comforting fiction to the small gritty core of fact. Do people who do not separate fiction from fact get what they deserve? Who can ever know?

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, January 20, 2014 at 17:15

Posted in Social analysis