Philosophy in Practice | Cape Town


QA 18. (Oct 09) Feeling lucky? Or getting what’s yours

QA 18. (Oct 09) Feeling lucky? Or getting what’s yours

  • Posted by Helen Douglas
  • On October 22, 2009
  • chance, deserve, entitlement, karma, luck, moral order

Scene 1. Walking along Vancouver’s False Creek, two joggers stride past me just as one remarks to the other: Entitlement is a terrible thing. Well. I couldn’t agree more.

Scene 2. A friend sends pictures of her island cottage. Lucky you! I reply warmly.
What the #$% is luck?! she flames back. I mean, I get it, but ‘lucky’ can be used to express envy [hatred] at someone else’s good fortune… I’ve always railed at it because I have always worked my ass off and pushed all the edges and risked losing everything.

What entitlement and luck have in common is the role they play when we try to understand circumstances as consequences.

Philosophy began with the problem of explaining change, its hows and wherefores. In the physical world, these have been scientific questions of means and mechanics, conditions, causes and effects. Think of Newton’s laws of motion.

In the subjective world, we like to think that stuff happens in a similar, predictable one-thing-leads-to-another way. This is not unreasonable. We are, after all, able to learn from past experience, and we can see things coming. We get the sense of a universal moral order. Maybe we believe that virtue will be rewarded. Or that dogs will eat dogs. Whatever the content, the world now makes some sense. (I say “the world” makes sense, but it’s actually us doing the work while the world worlds merrily on.)

The bad news is that this feeling of comprehension – in its root sense of grasping or laying hold of – leads to problems. The first is the contradictory evidence that must be ignored, denied, twisted, or dismissed as luck. Another is that we start to take the universe personally, interpreting everything in terms of what we think is meant to happen, what we deserve or are entitled to. Prize or punishment. And we start making hateful comparisons, looking around to see if we’re getting a fair deal, and setting ourselves up for envy, resentment or complacency. Even nastier, we begin to read other people’s situations as signs of their “true” character or history. Is somebody suffering? Must be their fault, their karma. Or, in cases of the clearly undeserving wretched (including ourselves), we put it down to bad luck or hard times.

Is any of this folderol necessary? I don’t think so. Return to the original observation: events arise from causes and conditions in a manner which appears orderly. That still seems true. We can – and should – learn to work more skilfully with this. But outside of controlled experiments (which life isn’t), it’s hard to be definite about causal chains. We also can’t be so sure about the goodness or badness of our present situation. And we’re not so sharp about predicting the future either.

So I think a little humbleness is in order. By all means, develop a worldview, but try not to let it block out the world. Build with flexibility and grace. Inhabit it lightly. Less scorekeeping. More play.



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