Sunday, 18 December 2016

No fortune of birth.

Suppose you are born with valuable talents or to wealthy parents. What is added if we say that your talents or wealth are a fortune of birth? I say, nothing! This is merely a misleading way of repeating that you were born with good possessions. It is misleading because it seeks to insinuate what requires proof and in fact, as I shall now show, cannot be proved.

What this statement seeks to insinuate is used as a premiss in an argument that you do not deserve the advantages you accrue because of the good possessions you were born with. To deserve the advantages you would have to deserve the good possessions and you do not deserve the good possessions because it is mere luck that you possess them, because those possessions are a fortune of birth.

Now there are later steps in this argument that can be resisted. It need not be true that advantages that flow from possessions acquired by luck are undeserved, although at this point one might want to distinguish desert and entitlement. That, however, is not what I wish to consider here. I am concerned with the first step.

First of all, the phrase ‘fortune of birth’ is ambiguous between the meaning needed by the proponent of this argument, a meaning that entails what is had by fortune of birth is had by mere luck, and a meaning that simply refers generally to good possessions had at birth. This ambiguity makes the argument a fallacy by equivocation without some proof that good possessions had at birth are possessed through mere luck. I shall argue that the latter is false, from whence it follows that no proof is available.

Clearly this ambiguity is rooted in the ambiguity in the word ‘fortune’ itself, which may refer to luck and may refer to goods possessed. We need some neutral term and from hereon I am going to use the term ‘birth goods’. So we don’t end up arguing about a word I’m going to give the word ‘fortune’ to my opponent. If birth goods are a fortune of birth then they are had by luck. I am denying the premiss that birth goods are a fortune of birth, in this sense of fortune.

The advantages acquired because of birth goods depend greatly on their development by education and by whatever advantages your parents are able to provide you. I do not want to get confused by arguments purportedly about the fortune of birth which are in fact about illegitimate acquisitions posterior to birth. So we don’t end up in the wrong argument, from here on I am going to make the simplifying assumption that your parent’s wealth is legitimately owned and your social context is one in which whatever you acquire from it because of your birth goods is acquired justly.

Let me start with a case in which a birth good would be a fortune of birth. Suppose you somehow existed before your birth and then by a real random process your parents were picked and your talents were chosen. In this case you birth goods would be had by luck alone.

If we take this case without the supposition of a god, we have a mere speculation about the nature of our existence, a speculation I think we can set aside. To make it something more we have to draw on a religious view of our existence, a view in which we are embodied souls participating in god’s creation.

On such a view, we are born with our birth goods either at god’s direction or randomly. If randomly, then a birth good is a fortune of birth. But such randomness cannot occur on the standard understanding of god as omniscient. He cannot embody a soul randomly because he cannot not know what birth goods he is endowing nor can there be any random processes to do the endowing whose outcome he does not know. Consequently, we are born with our birth goods at god’s direction. But in that case our birth goods are not had by luck at all: they are the endowment given by the creator and hence are possessed by his authority. Given his omnibenevolence, our possession of them must be rightful and therefore not lucky in a sense that could undermine what flows from them by just activity.

So now we must consider the remaining alternative, that we are not pre-existing souls that are embodied but that come into existence through conception and birth. Now the claim would  have to be that coming into existence in this way makes our birth goods a matter of luck.

The first thing to say is that there is no accident in many of us being born. Our parents wanted children and conceived us. So it is no accident that we have the parents that we have and therefore the birth goods with which they endowed us is no accident either.

Of course, it may be an accident that we were conceived. We will set aside that the possibility of abortion means an accidental conception is not accidentally brought to term, since that returns us to the last case.  Now we meet a subtle point: who we are and who our parents are is still no accident. We are the result of a unique conception by those parents, a conception they may not have intended but which resulted in a unique genetic identity which is not simply ours but is constitutive of our being the individual we are. That is to say, it would be impossible for us to be who we are without it. And we have this identity because, and only because, we have the specific parents we have. Consequently, we could not have been born to other parents with other birth goods (although somebody else could have). Therefore neither this genetic identity nor our parents are something we have by luck and the birth goods we have as a result are not had by luck either.
So the error made by those who think birth goods are a fortune of birth is essentially this: it may be a matter of luck who is born, but it is not a matter of luck that the people born have the birth goods they do. Therefore there is no fortune of birth.

Originally at http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk

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