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March 29, 2016


Handy Mike

The role and significance of luck in ethics is a matter of lively and deep argument - argument not settled or even marginally simplified by hyperlinking to Wikipedia or SEP on Luck Egalitarianism. An assumption of one particular construal of the role of luck in ethics seems to bear an awful lot of weight in your posts on these themes.

To see how much more complex this role might be, have a stab a spotting some conceptual tensions between these two sentences from the post and then wonder whether you might be as grossly mishandling the matter of moral philosophy as some of your usual targets do that of finance and economics.

"Once we recognise the importance of luck... we should no more defer to the rich than we should to lottery winners."

" As the world’s greatest singer put it:" [emphasis added].

From Arse To Elbow

Respect is a form of cultural capital, which therefore implies scarcity. There isn't enough repect to go round. If there were, it would lose value as a means of discrimination (when a football manager says his team "failed to respect the opposition", he is identifying an error of judgement not a lack of empathy).

What would be genuinely egalitarian is an increase in tolerance, for which there is no limit. I would like my choices to be tolerated by others (that's actually what we mean when we say they should be "respected"), but I don't necessarily want to be respectable.


@ Handy Mike - yes, of course there's a debate. My emphasis upon the role of luck rests upon two things:
1. Looking back on my life, I genuinely think that the reasons why I'm richer tham most people is that I was lucky in important respects. Is my intuition really wrong, or to be discounted?
2. We know from other contexts - eg the experiments in that post I linked to - that people under-rate the role of luck. I was emphasising the importance of luck to lean against this bias.


Respect is being used in an odd way here. The implication one should strive to enjoy others approval is wrong. One should live and let live. It is not your place to judge others unless you are without sin. It is reasonable to expect to be respected as a person who ever you are.

The implication that material wealth has any connection to the above is a vulgar error. Regardless of theories of political economy.


«spotting some conceptual tensions between these two sentences»
"Once we recognise the importance of luck... we should no more defer to the rich than we should to lottery winners." " As the world’s greatest singer put it:" [emphasis added].»

Here "greatest singer" may be inadvertently ironic.

But, anyhow, yet, regardless, I don't see any conceptual tension between the two statements under the premise "recognise the importance of luck".

That does not mean that luck is the sole determinant of success (because that is implicitly the metric of A Smith's quote...). But it can be fairly regarded as having major if not overwhelming importance.

Had the "world's greatest singer" been borne in another era or another country, an argument often used by ChrisD, perhaps as she wrote she "could be bound" instead of having a fan praising her. And there have been many "world's greatest singers" that are barely remembered if at all. Success is at best the result of a match between a person and their audience or market, which match is usually contingent (that is, mostly lucky).

Anyhow the topic is "respect", and perhaps as a human being ChrisD is making the very Marxian point that "respect" of a basic nature is not solely a function of success, because it is not "admiration", but is a property of a human being, and if he were a christian humanist, it would be a property of being a creation of God, and even more so made in that likeness.

Put another way, and extremizing a bit the argument, "respect" is not the prize of a winner-take-all contest, where the second most successful person is merely the first loser, and the least successful persons are "residuum".


Have you heard Iris DeMent's recording of "Big City," from a Merle Haggard tribute record, "Tulare Dust?" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1EZ_NdyAZA

Handy Mike

Chris, I've no idea whether your intuition is wrong, though this blog's frequent reference to the many and various fallacies besetting self-evaluation might give us reason to think it could be.

But it can certainly be discounted. Not dismissed, but discounted against how much evidential weight it would need to warrant claims such as that 'differences in wealth are due *very largely* to luck' and that "we should *no more* defer to the rich than we should to lottery winners".

These are bold and fascinating propositions, not adequately supported by any one persons autobiography or evidence to the effect that people merely under-rate luck.

Claims of this sort need to be accompanied by reasons for thinking that luck is the main causal ingredient in the immense majority of cases.

Perhaps it is.
But if so, then a determinist catastrophe threatens.
Such arguments about the role of luck, deployed against recognition of virtue in economic achievement and in support of redistribution or revolution, simultaneously undermine the regard in which we are usually expected to hold Mandela, Beethoven and the salts of the Earth who rise at the crack of dawn to clean our offices. Or they do if applied consistently.

This is the conceptual tension I thought I saw in the post.


Those pieces by Bryan Caplan are quite something. Nice to know that the problem of First World poverty is all down to individual fecklessness - a secure and healthy life was there for the taking, if only all those people had bothered to work for it! Sometimes it takes a Libertarian.

Regarding the line about the "world's greatest singer", I guess that neither Mike nor Blissex is an amateur musician. If they were they would surely have experienced the depressing revelation that there are people out there who can play/sing/compose/etc far better than you or I can, and *without even trying*. Recognition and cultural fashion certainly are lotteries - but so is natural endowment.


If you are willing to stipulate that natural ability is down to luck (as is surely the case), then clearly *everything* can be attributed to luck. If you're smart and succeed, you were lucky to be smart. If you're not very bright but still succeeded by working harder than everybody else, well, then you were lucky to have that natural affinity for hard work (which many less "lucky" people clearly lack).
People ought to be respected (or not) because of their deeds. Being rich is as invalid a reason to be respected as being poor.

Deviation From The Mean

"If they were they would surely have experienced the depressing revelation that there are people out there who can play/sing/compose/etc far better than you or I can"

Yes but they are probably shit at other things. The luck is that they live in a system where the market rules. Were they singers in a past epoch they would be slaves, albeit not the ones out toiling in the fields.

Also, many of the best musicians are not top of the charts. Often some talentless but attractive personality can win out over sublime attributes.

We are often told that geniuses can only be geniuses if they are incentivised. So some people say that socialism will dampen genius. If this is true then the geniuses must be as feckless as the rest in the final analysis, they are just lucky to find a system that indulges them. In another system maybe other talents would come to the fore. So being rich can be a sign that you have shat on people in one way or another or show you have little care for anyone else. If you were poor these traits would be called anti social, when you are rich you are called a genius!

Socialists, at least, should be clear, under socialism no one should expect to be better off than anyone else.

From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

At the end of the day if the majority come to believe this it doesn't matter what the so called geniuses think.

Finally, there is a question. Would concentrating on developing the geniuses/elite bring better results than developing everyone's talents?

If the answer to that is yes, I would ask how come a genius needs to be developed?


«If you are willing to stipulate that natural ability is down to luck (as is surely the case),»

As any libertarian like G Mankiw could tell you, it is not luck: it is God's favour, and who are we to argue with that? As the hymn used to be:

"The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate."

Because in effect common-grade Libertarianism resolves as G Mankiw shows into Social Darwinism, and Social Darwinism is just an alias for a certain well sponsored type of theology.

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