Luck and Social Justice

by Babak Moussavi

The single most powerful variable in determining people’s outcomes in today’s world is not talent. It is not skill. It is not hard work. It is, indeed, not something that is in our control.

The variable that matters most is luck.

Luck has such a pervasive influence that there is nothing that we do, or have ever done, that is not affected by it. Regardless of whether you hold nature or nurture to be the bigger determinant – and developments in psychology and neuroscience suggest, intuitively, that it is a combination of the two – luck’s role is inescapable. You have your physiology and your comfortable home, but you didn’t choose your parents. You have your education and your intellect, but you didn’t choose the opportunity to go to a good school. You have your ethnic background or your culture, but you didn’t choose whether you would be born into a persecuted minority. Taken further, even – or especially – your own existence is an extraordinarily lucky outcome.

Given this fact about our nature and society, what can we say about the ‘fairness’ of luck? Fairness, in this context at least, relates – very loosely – to receiving proportional desert for one’s intended actions. It is fair that an average murderer receives a longer sentence than an average shoplifter, just as it is fair for a woman to receive the same pay as a man if she does the same job, and does it just as well.

What is self-evidently not fair, is that the average person born on an estate in parts of Britain – let alone in a village in Afghanistan – is less likely to live as long, be as educated, earn as much money, or live as comfortable and serene a life as a person born to affluent, well-educated parents. The unfairness stems from the lack of choice in the matter, and is an unfortunate result of what egalitarian philosophers would call ‘brute bad luck’.

Many conservatives would dispute this. If we assume free will (1), it is the fault of the individual for not lifting themselves out of their deprived state. In Britain there is a – perhaps receding – welfare state that in theory offers people the basic opportunities to improve their lot. If poor people remain poor, it is alleged, then that is their fault.

This point of view totally, and perhaps wilfully, ignores the evidence. If you are black in Britain you are disproportionately more likely to be randomly stopped by police, or be inprison. It is a similar story if you are poor. If you are a woman in the UK, you are, on average, likely to receive 15.5% less pay than a male counterpart. Will Hutton points out in Them and Us, that a child born into an affluent, well-educated family will hear, on average, 2153 words per hour, but a child in a welfare family will hear just 616 words per hour. The former will also hear words of encouragement 10 times more often than words of discouragement, but the latter will hear twice as many discouraging words as encouraging ones. The effect on cognitive development is astounding, affecting people for the rest of their lives.

At the extreme, The Duke of Westminster was born a rich man, thanks to his ancestors, who can be traced back to William the Conqueror; meanwhile some compatriots are born into poverty and will never escape it. (2)

The conservative (3) asserts that there is equality of opportunity. On paper, perhaps. In practice, patently not. We have a long way to go before reaching that ideal.

To achieve genuine equal opportunity, where regardless of what your situation is at birth, you can ‘succeed’ according to various indicators (wealth, general health or self-assessed happiness are reasonable proxies), we need a fairer society where people have a greater role in determining their fate, and deserve, through the outcome of their non-pre-determined actions, what they get. It is not possible to eliminate luck, for we can never control all the variables, but we can mitigate its effects. Effort should be a – if not the – key variable, with everyone commencing life from the same starting line, and lent a helping hand by society when stumbling upon hard times through simple misfortune.

It is limiting the impact of this phenomenon of bad luck that is central to the notion of social justice. For a fairer, better society, this is a goal we should strive for.



(1)          Philosophically a big assumption, but uncontroversial within the social sciences.

(2)       At this point a discussion of inheritance tax would be merited, but I shall leave this for a later post.

(3)         And – to be written about later – the libertarian

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