Unthinkable: Are the good things in our lives our own doing?

Do we acknowledge the role of luck sufficiently in political and personal affairs?

Are the good things in our lives down to our own efforts or just the bounce of the ball?

Are the good things in our lives down to our own efforts or just the bounce of the ball?

Fri, Feb 28, 2014, 09:55

Winning the Lotto is considered pure luck but what about winning the lottery of life? If you land a good job, enter a happy marriage, or find yourself in that elite bracket of the “1 per cent” of high-wealth individuals, is it primarily to your credit or to chance?

Psychologists have long detected a self-serving bias in humans whereby we overestimate our personal responsibility for the good things that happen to us, while tending to blame the bad on either misfortune or the failures of others.

In recent years, this bias has exercised economists, who trace the banking collapse at least in part to financiers’ belief in their own alchemical ability. It also concerns political philosophers, among them Vittorio Bufacchi, head of the department of philosophy at University College Cork.


Endorsing the views of US human rights theorist John Rawls, who argued that legislators should operate as though they were behind a “veil of ignorance”, unaware of whether or not they fell into a fortunate bracket in society, Bufacchi provides today’s idea: There is no such thing as deser t, only luck .

What’s wrong with our attitude to luck?
Vittorio Bufacchi: “We like to think that when we achieve a goal it is due exclusively to our effort. In other words, we tend to correlate rewards with desert. People believe this to be the case for one’s successes as well as for one’s failures.

“So if I have a job that pays well, with all the benefits that come with it, I must have done something to deserve it, while those who are struggling are equally responsible for their plight, probably because of lack of effort. This is a convenient set of beliefs to hold, but unfortunately it is also a lie, or a myth.

“There is a something much more powerful in life than our efforts: brute luck. To be in a position where our efforts can make a difference on the outcomes of our lives one must already enjoy a great deal of luck, which too often goes unnoticed. This is the luck handed to us by a natural lottery, such as our physical and mental abilities, or by a social lottery, for example our nationality, social class, gender, family context.”

Can we claim credit for good and bad things that happen to us?
“No we can’t. I could trace my life successes to the efforts I put in as a student for many years of my life, which enabled me to go to university, graduate with a PhD from the London School of Economics, and go on to teach in many prestigious universities in the UK, US and Ireland. But I would be deceiving myself. I would not have been in a position to make my efforts count had I not been born in a stable, loving, middle-class family in a European country.”

Does religion provide a healthier attitude to luck by suggesting our fate is in the lap of the gods?
“Sadly religion offers another myth, or as some would say an ideology, which is used to justify the status quo. It tells us to accept the injustice that befalls us on Earth, and wait for our just deserts in our afterlife. I don’t know what will happen to me after I pass away, and I don’t think anyone has this knowledge (although many speculate with false authority), so I’m not interested in justice after life. I want justice on Earth.”

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