Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sauron Himself Is But An Emissary - Part V

A Thought Experiment

How do the good things of life come to us, both the necessities and the luxuries? Hard work, dumb luck, Providence, exploitation? What about other kinds of wealth, such as beauty and intelligence? Most Americans are not purists for any of these categories. Even the most iron-willed self-made man will willingly grant that he, and certainly others, have benefited from good fortune or Providence along the way, and even the most fatalistic of us go about our day performing actions designed to achieve a certain end.

Because of this, tight categories are not going to be possible, and there will be overlap. Nonetheless, people assign very different percentages to how much each of these affect one’s lot. I will drift over the overlapping choices a bit.

Luck, or Providence if you are more religious, always provokes conversation. In entertainment, who makes it and who doesn’t has a legendary randomness, yet even there, talent and hard work seem to increase one’s luck. A contractor’s success would seem to be heavily weighted toward hard work and good judgment, yet even he benefits from living in an area that is prospering and needs buildings.

We say we are lucky to have been born in America and not in Haiti, and that is certainly a good fortune we did not earn. On the other hand, it is not merely accidental that America is more prosperous than Haiti, but the result of past decisions of our direct ancestors and our fellow citizens of previous decades.

The Rules of the Game. In this formulation, success comes to us by understanding the principles of what makes the overall system work and applying them. There is a great deal of variety in this category, because some folks think that effort is the number-one principle, while others would think that attaching oneself to the prospering tribe is key. This obtains even in those other wealths: even fanatic studiers might choose a college for its reputation and associations, and the elusive attractiveness of being in The In Crowd can be a more valuable beauty than good features. We send out signals of wealth, attitudes, intelligence, and culture, and these factor in to whether we are considered lovely.

A “rules” formulation can have heavy negatives. Exploitation and chicanery are in a sense rules for gaming the system, and the difference between finding a loophole and finding a legitimate advantage is not always clear. But the idea that there is some impersonal system which responds to whoever pulls the levers, is common.

Supernatural. This is a bit different than providence, which may operate unasked for. Supernatural intervention is sought and asked for, at least vaguely, or the result of previous actions. For Christians and Jews, this would be focused on petitionary prayer. Other spiritual practices would fall more under the supernatural side of the rules of the game. When God reminds or improves us through scripture or the events around us, that is less “miraculous,” and more an application of spiritual principles. (There are Christians who teach that certain techniques of prayer make the spiritual systems work. I’m ignoring them here. In fact, I usually ignore them anyway.)

Here’s the thought experiment part. Even though these categories are not mutually exclusive, take each one in turn and ponder what social, personality, and political effect each theory would have on its believers. By examining each in pure form, we can later see how the threads interweave.

Pretend that luck, or good fortune, provided all the explanation why the people you see or read about have what they have. Do they work hard? Well, they were lucky to have good parents then, who taught them that, or gave them DNA that includes a perseverance gene. Does she sell more product? Well, she’s got that natural charm, y’know? And it doesn’t hurt that she’s young and pretty. Issues of prejudice come up in this a lot. Would he have been appointed if he were black? Would she be on the board if her mother hadn’t founded the company?

Imagine a few generic "people" working at your job, or living in your neighborhood, or going to your church, who believed this way. What would it all look like to them? Imagine how people from other countries might look at us if this was their prevailing belief.

Don’t cheat. For the sake of completeness I should set out the thought experiment for the other categories, but if I do that, you’ll just keep reading and skip the exercise.

See you tomorrow.


karrde said...

At my workplace, we are heavy with the hard-work angle.

Is is a surprise that I work as an engineer? (Despite my attempt to get into academia as a mathematics student...)

I work for a company which manufactures parts to be used by other engineering enterprises. The company is foreign-owned, and the entire firm is enfused with the work-ethic that belongs on an island nation in the Orient.

It is easy to pay attention to people and companies that were successful due to their hard work.

This breeds an assumption that nations, companies, ethnic groups, and people tend to get what they work for.

As an aside--in California, during the 1920's, there was an ethnic minority which was subject to heavy discrimination, both legal and cultural. That minority is now one of the richest minorities (in California, and in the nation as a whole). The discriminatory laws and customs are dead. The minority was not black-skinned; they were Chinese.

Did the Chinese become prosperous and accepted through special-interest groups, political maneuvering, and visible protests? Or was it by hard work, a level of social acculturation, and patience?

To return to my point--there are examples to support the assumption. There are also counter-examples.

Logically speaking, the assumption can't really be proved.

I do let it color my thinking process,
mainly because I find myself assuming that one of the set {Hard work, luck, Providence, exploitation} is primary. The rest can all be a part of the explanation, but I'll put one on top.

It is easy to point this assumption out in others when I disagree with it. It is harder to accept that I may be doing it myself.

Perhaps, if I ruminate on it, I will be able to generate a list of international winners and losers according to this set of assumptions.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

No, no, you're supposed to be doing the luck part now. We'll get to you guys later. It's like one of those physics problems where you imagine "okay, what if we had zero ping-pong balls in the box? What if we had thousands of balls in the box? What if we had one ball in the box?" Answering those questions allows you to see what problems you are going to face loading five balls in the box.

karrde said...

So, if it's the lucky guys who win...

That almost naturally leads to the assumption that most of the challengers aren't any more skilled than any other challenger.

And that few/none of the winners are highly deserving of winning.

This assumption implies that predicting winners and losers is as hard as predicting the next number rolled on a die.

A person who believes that the winner is lucky (and knows that they are not the winner) can become embittered that their luck hasn't come through yet. Almost as if they believe that everyone gets a victory, once in their life.

(Strictly speaking, probability and luck don't work that way. In short, the past record of wins and losses in a game of dice cannot be used to predict the next winner...unless the dice are loaded.)

It is easy to see this belief mutating into a belief that all the non-winners in the game of life deserve some help. They aren't to blame for their bad luck, so those who are lucky ought to to help them.

Mind you, this is not the only possible result of a belief in luck. A careful thinker could come to the conclusion that luck was an irresistable force, and that it is foolish for the lucky to try to change the status of the unlucky.

That depends on the larger cultural/ethical milieu.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Hey, that pretty much writes the post that will be Part VII!

Ben said...

Last winter I occasionally worked the night shift at the local homeless shelter. Some of the guys there were obviously going through a patch of bad luck. With a few months of steady employment, a few breaks, they'd be back on their feet, no problem.

Others were unlucky in a more radical way. Many of their problems were inside themselves -- self-destructive attitudes and beliefs, profound lack of self-knowledge, etc. Some of this was doubtless the result of unfortunate circumstances in their own lives. But whatever the cause, the present reality was that these men were simply unlucky to be who they were. So long as their internal makeup remained the same, no external change could ever bring "good luck" for them. It would be a gift they were simply incapable of receiving.

No doubt the potential for inner transformation in a human being is greater than it might appear. With God, I'm told, all things are possible. But the shelter guys occasioned some disturbing meditations on my part.

We all subconsciously want to draw a line between "what we are" and "what happens to us" -- between "me" and "my luck". My luck is something outside of me, like the weather. That may be an essential part of the whole concept of "luck". But what if it isn't true?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Stay tuned, Ben.

OBloodyHell said...

> these men were simply unlucky to be who they were

Sorry, ben. Luck is something you have no personal control over, really. These people are "unfortunate", but not "unlucky".

Karrde -- re: The "orientals" (whatever the codeword is "today" for them... I refuse to use "asians", because, last I checked, there were a few *billion* people living in Asia who weren't from "The Orient".)

I'd long-since noticed that of which you speak, and would add a couple more points:
1) They were, in fact, treated little, if any, different from blacks as far as social perception goes.
2) I believe the one key difference which blacks have against them in the case of all others, is that the ancestors of every other group in America, essentially, have been pre-selected for an aggressive attitude. If your umpty-ump-parents weren't the "aggressive, go-getter type", they stayed in the home country... So this is true across the board for all American groups, with one exception -- black people, who not only were largely brought here (many exceptions exist, of course) but also, to the shame of the existing white culture, were "bred" for submissiveness. I'd claim this, and this alone, puts blacks at a severe disadvantage in relation to all other ethnic and cultural groups in the USA, and must be factored into the social systems which are designed to resolve problems.