Practical Philosophy

The Obligations of the Lucky

Every once and a while, something makes me realize just how lucky I’ve been. After I was born and before, a lot of fortunate things broke my way. A short list:

  • I was born as a naturalized citizen in the United States, at a time when the country was near its height in world prestige and importance.
  • I was born a white-skinned person in those United States.
  • I was born to comfortably middle class family, which fast-tracked me to a comfortably middle-class debt-free existence.
  • I was never abused as a child, nor made to quietly suffer any meaningful injustice.
  • I was never told by the dominant society that my sexuality was unacceptable or disallowed.

I could go on, but you probably get the point: I’ve had a privileged existence so far. And very little of it is a result of any specific actions I took, qualities I adapted, or hard work I put in. I’ve just been lucky.

I think one of the hardest things about being so lucky is that you become blind to how many good breaks you got. If you see people struggling where you’ve never struggled, and you miss your luck, you’re not very empathetic to their hardship. You’re likely to think that everyone else should just work as you did and would have success as simply and painlessly as you’ve had.

I think that way sometimes. I think “Wow, everyone should just do the things I do and see the things I see. Then they’ll be as well-off as me.”

But then, usually, I catch myself. I recognize how much random good-fortune and the privileges of traits about myself I never really picked factor into my success.

Any anger I publicly display is — as a white man in America — likely to be read as legitimate and worthy of consideration. It’s not really more likely to be well-founded than the anger of a black woman, but her anger is likely to be read as pedestrian and misguided by the world at large. She’s much more likely to be considered touchy, angry, or disagreeable than I am, because of her unchosen characteristics.

When I’m pulled over for speeding, there’s a high likelihood that I will safely and effortless make it through that traffic stop with nothing worse than a ticket. I’m not likely to suffer the indignity of being pulled from my car for an unnecessary road-side sobriety test. Or have my car searched for drugs or other contraband. I will not, as a browner skinned man might, see a police officer leer at me a little too hard and work unnecessarily to find something else to ticket me for.

The world I live in is a privileged one. And my first obligation is to never forget that. To remember that I didn’t earn all that I’ve got. I did work hard and I did earn some of it; it’s foolish to pretend that I’ve not had some impact on my own life. But I was also given opportunities, and the benefit the doubt, a lot more than others, and I can’t forget that.

Because I remember that, and because I know the subtle injustice of a society that makes it a little more likely that I succeed than most others, I owe it to them to keep the difference in mind. To do my best to listen and understand. To do my best to share to others like me, who fail to see their invisible good fortune, my understanding of the ways in which the system is failing those who haven’t quite had such luck. Privileged people seem to hear a little easier when their privilege is explained by similarly lucky people. Because I possess a straight, white, American, cis-gendered male form, my speech is more likely to be given a respectful hearing.

The world we have today is probably the fairest one to have ever existed. The rates of unstructured violence, of enslavement, of arbitrary decisions passed off as justice, are lower than they’ve probably ever been in history. But that’s a long distance from saying that our world is completely fair, just, and free of coercion. The obligation of those lucky enough to have it easy is to work extra hard — specifically because they don’t need to — to make the world fairer and more just still.

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Practical Philosophy

You Only Control What You Give

We idealize relationships as equal. We think that you should give others — your spouse, your child, your sister, your mother, your teacher, your boss, the world — a quantity of work and energy, and get back something of about the same value to you. That’s why we’re in these relationships.

We know that relationships aren’t really equal. Many of us recognize the outsize debt we owe to our parents, or mentors, or friends. And many of us also recognize the times that we’ve given more than we’ve got — the relationships we walked away from as “bad” or “toxic.”

But for most of us, most of the time, we don’t recognize the extent to which no relationship is equal.

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Dispatches, fiction

Dispatches: Free and Fair Elections

Back sooner than expected, our roving reporter, Steve Finch, has another story to be filed under “that’s something that would really benefit humanity.”

openDemocracy (ASA)Putin on Banner

SANTA MONICA, CA — The YZ Prize Foundation has announced a second interesting initiative to help the world to move toward stability. Unlike the YZ Prize for Peace, this one strikes straight at their vision of government: free and fair elections.

In light of the blatantly rigged elections in Russia last week, and the just-resolved election mess in Kenya, the Foundation has pledged that they will dedicate a significant amount of money for elections that are externally verified to have been completely free and fair.

“Obviously, we were spurred on by what had happened in Kenya,” said the chairman. The recently brokered peace deal between the opposition leader Raila Odinga and the sitting President Mwai Kibaki did satisfy the Foundation, but they were deeply saddened that the December election–which most outside observers agreed was rigged–touched off violence and chaos that left at least 1000 dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and tarnished the reputation of what had been one of the jewels of Africa.

And though the YZ Prize Foundation was glad to see little violence over Russia’s election, they were distressed by the implications. “It looked to us,” the chairman said, “as though the will of the people was clearly subverted. It looks to us like outright authoritarianism and we can’t stand by and let such shams continue.”

The plan is relatively simple, the Foundation has offered about $100 million that would be split between the sitting executive (either a president or prime minister) and his country if the elections are declared to be free and fair. Anticipating some vexing questions, the chairman offered this tidbit on eligibility: “Surely, we can’t afford to hand out $100 million for every clean election. Stable, open, accountable democracies are thankfully numerous, and so we were forced to make restrictions. To qualify for this prize, the country has to have a history of fixed elections, to be seen to be at great risk for such fixing, or to be a new democracy.”

The Foundation has formed a committee that will decide before every election whether or not the country qualifies. The chairman was forthright that forming and maintaining this committee would be difficult but said that there is “no other way.”

Contacted for comment, Steven Jones at the Center for Democracy said that he thought the prize was a good idea, though he has some concerns. “Though I don’t think this is likely to cause more rigging in the interest of winning the prize money in the future, as some have suggested, I do think there are risks. The most prominent of these is the possibility that once they know they don’t qualify, they’ll go ahead and rig it.”

The Foundations has, however, been prompt in responding to this issue. They’ve since decided that the eligibility decision will be made and announced after the elections have been held. Releasing the statement, “We’re hoping to address the very valid criticism of Mr. Jones and others. It’s in everyone’s interest that the prize remains a possibility for all countries until all elections everywhere are deemed free, open, and fair.”

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