Guest Post: No fortune of birth

Nick Shackel
Cardiff University

Suppose you are born with valuable talents or to wealthy parents. What is added if we say that your talents or wealth are a fortune of birth? I say, nothing! This is merely a misleading way of repeating that you were born with good possessions. It is misleading because it seeks to insinuate what requires proof and in fact, as I shall now show, cannot be proved.

What this statement seeks to insinuate is used as a premise in an argument that you do not deserve the advantages you accrue because of the good possessions you were born with. To deserve the advantages you would have to deserve the good possessions and you do not deserve the good possessions because it is mere luck that you possess them, because those possessions are a fortune of birth.

Now there are later steps in this argument that can be resisted. It need not be true that advantages that flow from possessions acquired by luck are undeserved, although at this point one might want to distinguish desert and entitlement. That, however, is not what I wish to consider here. I am concerned with the first step.

First of all, the phrase ‘fortune of birth’ is ambiguous between the meaning needed by the proponent of this argument, a meaning that entails what is had by fortune of birth is had by mere luck, and a meaning that simply refers generally to good possessions had at birth. This ambiguity makes the argument a fallacy by equivocation without some proof that good possessions had at birth are possessed through mere luck. I shall argue that the latter is false, from whence it follows that no proof is available.

Clearly this ambiguity is rooted in the ambiguity in the word ‘fortune’ itself, which may refer to luck and may refer to goods possessed. We need some neutral term and from hereon I am going to use the term ‘birth goods’. So we don’t end up arguing about a word I’m going to give the word ‘fortune’ to my opponent. If birth goods are a fortune of birth then they are had by luck. I am denying the premiss that birth goods are a fortune of birth, in this sense of fortune.

The advantages acquired because of birth goods depend greatly on their development by education and by whatever advantages your parents are able to provide you. I do not want to get confused by arguments purportedly about the fortune of birth which are in fact about illegitimate acquisitions posterior to birth. So we don’t end up in the wrong argument, from here on I am going to make the simplifying assumption that your parent’s wealth is legitimately owned and your social context is one in which whatever you acquire from it because of your birth goods is acquired justly.
Let me start with a case in which a birth good would be a fortune of birth. Suppose you somehow existed before your birth and then by a real random process your parents were picked and your talents were chosen. In this case you birth goods would be had by luck alone.

If we take this case without the supposition of a god, we have a mere speculation about the nature of our existence, a speculation I think we can set aside. To make it something more we have to draw on a religious view of our existence, a view in which we are embodied souls participating in god’s creation.

On such a view, we are born with our birth goods either at god’s direction or randomly. If randomly, then a birth good is a fortune of birth. But such randomness cannot occur on the standard understanding of god as omniscient. He cannot embody a soul randomly because he cannot not know what birth goods he is endowing nor can there be any random processes to do the endowing whose outcome he does not know. Consequently, we are born with our birth goods at god’s direction. But in that case our birth goods are not had by luck at all: they are the endowment given by the creator and hence are possessed by his authority. Given his omnibenevolence, our possession of them must be rightful and therefore not lucky in a sense that could undermine what flows from them by just activity.

So now we must consider the remaining alternative, that we are not pre-existing souls that are embodied but that come into existence through conception and birth. Now the claim would have to be that coming into existence in this way makes our birth goods a matter of luck.
The first thing to say is that there is no accident in many of us being born. Our parents wanted children and conceived us. So it is no accident that we have the parents that we have and therefore the birth goods with which they endowed us is no accident either.

Of course, it may be an accident that we were conceived. We will set aside that the possibility of abortion means an accidental conception is not accidentally brought to term, since that returns us to the last case. Now we meet a subtle point: who we are and who our parents are is still no accident. We are the result of a unique conception by those parents, a conception they may not have intended but which resulted in a unique genetic identity which is not simply ours but is constitutive of our being the individual we are. That is to say, it would be impossible for us to be who we are without it. And we have this identity because, and only because, we have the specific parents we have. Consequently, we could not have been born to other parents with other birth goods (although somebody else could have). Therefore neither this genetic identity nor our parents are something we have by luck and the birth goods we have as a result are not had by luck either.

So the error made by those who think birth goods are a fortune of birth is essentially this: it may be a matter of luck who is born, but it is not a matter of luck that the people born have the birth goods they do. Therefore there is no fortune of birth.

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5 Responses to Guest Post: No fortune of birth

  • Cody Fenwick says:

    Some facts about myself are obviously necessary, if my having an identity means anything at all. For example, when people wonder who they would have been if their parents had married different people, they are most likely making a conceptual mistake. They wouldn’t have existed had the gametes of their actual parents united to form a zygote.

    But I’d argue many, if not most, birth goods are not of this sort. Many birth goods are contingent facts of my life. For instance, though I couldn’t have had different parents and still have been myself, my parents could have been very different than they were. Even if we discount the (admittedly remote) possibility that the same gametes might have formed me if my parents’ life prior to my conception hadn’t been identical to their actual lives in the real world, what happened post conception certainly could have been very different, and left me the same person.

    My parents might have moved to a richer or poorer region prior to my birth. My mother could have given birth to me earlier than she in fact did. She could have had any number of illness during pregnancy, or malnourished, or exposed to extreme levels of toxic chemicals, which could have made me far worse off in any number of ways. Perhaps extreme levels of prenatal damage could plausibly be said to affect my identity.

    But any number of circumstances could have caused me to be born worse off or better off than I actually am, while retaining my identity. Flukes of the gestation environment could have given me serious disabilities that might be difficult to cope with. Perhaps a different mix of prenatal hormones could have prevented my receding hairline. Or caused me to grow taller.

    While it’s not sensical to wonder who I would have been had I had entirely different features, it’s perfectly natural to wonder what I would have been like if I had not been as tall as I am, able to walk, or born in the US. Some of these contingent features of my life are benefits, some might be burdens. And they are certainly determined by the whims of fortune of my birth.

  • Nicholas Shackel, Cardiff University says:

    There are a number of different issues that need to be distinguished here. First of all, just because something is contingent doesn’t make it luck. So it is irrelevant that your parents might have been different: yes, had they been, your birth goods would have been different, but that doesn’t mean what they were was a matter of luck. Let’s call this part of your birth goods your parental endowment. Your parents are responsible for your parental endowment and it is their gift to you. Remembering that since we are assuming the general context is just (because we don’t want to mix this question up with justice in general), what your receive from them is justly owned by them and therefore justly owned by you. You were not fortunate: they deserve credit for what they gave you. On the other hand, if your parents behave irresponsibly and thereby diminish or damage your parental endowment, that is not luck either, even though we may call it a misfortune. But this is the sense of misfortune that merely means something bad happening. Worse, here it is a euphemism that hides the responsibility for the wrong. It is not a misfortune in the unlucky sense: it was their fault.

    There is perhaps a tricky issue I’ve sidestepped so far, which is this. The sense of luck we are concerned with here is that an endowment got through a mere lottery is insufficient to make that endowment a desert (or entitlement), and therefore, it is argued, what you get because of that endowment is not deserved (or entitled) either (the terms in parentheses indicate the need for a place holder for whatever normative relation this argument should be given in, but we shall continue to use desert). For this argument that advantages from our birth goods are undeserved to get any grip at all we must assume that we are living in a chancy universe. Not just any chancy events, however, suffice to make a birth good a fortune of birth in the relevant sense. After all, in a chancy universe your birth goods also depend on your parents not being struck by lightening before you were conceived, on your mother not being run down by a lorry shortly before delivery, etc. But if that kind of chanciness suffices for the argument it succeeds too far, because that kind of chanciness infects absolutely everything so all goods are had only by luck and so nothing at all can be deserved.

    At this point I would concede that you might say the terms of this debate should be not in terms of luck (because of the difficulty just analysed) but should rather be explicitly in terms of just ownership. That might be right, but since the argument I am rebutting takes as a premiss birth goods being fortunes of birth in a sense of fortune that impugns just ownership of those goods I have to address it in those terms. We have now seen that not just any kind of chanciness will do for that impugning, and that is why I started from an example of chanciness that looks like it would do the work required, namely, the actual allocation of birth goods by a real random lottery. I think your use of the phrase ‘whims of fortune’, with its suggestion of a random or arbitrary willing doing the allocating, is intended to refer to this kind of chanciness.

    We now see we need a term for the other kind of chanciness, chance events that do not impugn the normative status of desert or deserved ownership, and I think we have one: we call them flukes. So my answer to you is that what you call the whims of fortune of my birth are in fact either things for which your parents are responsible or they are flukes, and neither of these impugn the deservedness of your parental endowment by it being had by luck.

    • Cody Fenwick says:

      I don’t share your understanding of the word fluke, but I’ll accept your definition. But accepting that, I can’t see how you reach the conclusion, “the whims of fortune of my birth are in fact either things for which your parents are responsible or they are flukes.” That just seems to me a stipulation you are making, which would beg the question.

      Perhaps this is your argument: “Not just any chancy events, however, suffice to make a birth good a fortune of birth in the relevant sense. After all, in a chancy universe your birth goods also depend on your parents not being struck by lightening before you were conceived, on your mother not being run down by a lorry shortly before delivery, etc. But if that kind of chanciness suffices for the argument it succeeds too far, because that kind of chanciness infects absolutely everything so all goods are had only by luck and so nothing at all can be deserved.”

      I disagree that the chanciness of a lightning strike succeeds too far or infects absolutely everything. We can distinguish these sorts of “chancy events” from “events that are the result of one’s personal choice.” One can, with at least some plausibility, claim that one is entitled to or deserves benefits that are the result of personal choices. By contrast, so the argument goes, you cannot claim to be entitled to benefits that are the result of chancy events.

      In this sense, chanciness or luck is a relative concept. Therefore, while it’s true that my parents are not lucky for having been responsible, I am lucky to have had responsible parents. This is because it is the result of causes that do not include my own choices. Even if you want deny this move, clearly lots of things that effect my parents’ ability to nurture me in the vital prenatal environment are due to chance, like lightning strikes or the stock market. Therefore, the goods that I am born with are the goods of chance.

      Let’s return again to your initial post. I took this to be the crux of your argument: “We are the result of a unique conception by those parents, a conception they may not have intended but which resulted in a unique genetic identity which is not simply ours but is constitutive of our being the individual we are. That is to say, it would be impossible for us to be who we are without it. And we have this identity because, and only because, we have the specific parents we have. Consequently, we could not have been born to other parents with other birth goods (although somebody else could have). Therefore neither this genetic identity nor our parents are something we have by luck and the birth goods we have as a result are not had by luck either.”

      I accept that we have our identity only because of who our genetic parents are. But how our parents have fared, and how our fetal development progressed, is in countless ways infected by lucky events. Even if our parents were extremely morally upright and responsible, nothing is completely in their control, and there will still be chance involved in their bequeathing birth goods upon us. And some things are completely beyond their control and entirely chancy.

      Thus while we couldn’t haven’t been born with a different identity (this is trivially true), we could have been born with different birth goods. This because, as I hope is obvious, many birth goods are not directly tied to our identity. We are lucky to have had the ones we did, such that they were.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    The political usage of terms like ‘fortune of birth’ differs from the version which is discussed here. What you often see in discussions about social mobility and privilege, is a denial that specific advantage is ‘undeserved’. So for instance, the right-wing son of a billionaire would not deny that his father was a billionaire, nor deny that he had a good education because his father paid for it, but rather say that only his hard work had enabled him to profit from these advantages. And it is true, elite universities won’t give you a degree solely because your parents are privileged, or solely because you have a high IQ. Privilege is a starting position, not a guarantee.

    Politically it makes more sense to focus on the related but not identical claim, that the disadvantaged-since-birth in some way deserve the situation they were born into. There might indeed be a deliberate choice by the parent: if a woman uses heroin, alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy, her child will probably be born with brain damage severe enough to impact on their future education, career, and earnings. It is not a question of bad luck. The political issue is whether that justifies arranging society in such a way, as to maximise that future disadvantage for the child, following its birth.

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    The normal use of “luck” in this context simply refers to the fact that your inherited fortune or inherent nature are not products of your own effort. Obviously they’re products of whatever chain of cause and effect brought them into being. “Luck” as a causal concept is not implied or required.

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