We can understand the effect of privilege better when we consider it in terms of moral luck

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Aaron Rabinowitzhttps://voidpod.com/
Aaron Rabinowitz is a lecturer in philosophy at Rutgers University, and host of the Embrace The Void and Philosophers in Space podcast.

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Amongst the central concepts of the culture war, few draw quite as visceral a negative reaction as ‘privilege’. Privilege refers to the range of advantages that many of us benefit from simply as result of the vagaries of birth. The concept isn’t new, its roots stretch back to Du Bois’ discussions of whiteness as a currency that white people accrue and spend. Discussions of privilege gained popularity in the late 80s due to the work of Peggy McIntosh. Articles like “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” provided the basis for privilege walks and other exercises that aim to make people more aware of all the ways that individuals experience a mix of privilege and marginalisation in their lives. The prevalence of privilege discourse in media today suggests McIntosh and others have successfully increased the profile of privilege as a topic of concern.

As with all social justice work, there has been significant backlash and skepticism towards discussion of privilege. For example, Pew research has found that Americans are strongly divided on the issue of racial privilege. While 58% of Americans surveyed in 2019 agree that white people benefit “a great deal” based on race, 71% of republicans and republican leaning independents claim that white people receive few or no advantages because of race, compared with 83% of Democrats who claim they receive either “a great deal or a fair amount” of advantage because of race. On the basic question of whether white privilege even exists, these groups are almost maximally divided.

Part of this divide comes down to a deep philosophical difference between progressives and conservatives on the issue of luck, which I’ll discuss below, but I also think at least some of the issue is one of language and messaging. The word ‘privilege’ is highly toxic at this point, it’s a culture war code word that can shut down any chance of engagement in a profound way. Part of that toxicity comes from the relentless and often disingenuous pushback, especially from the political right, against any suggestion that our society is significantly unjust or fails to more or less live up to our meritocratic ideals. However, some pushback arises because ‘privilege’ is just not the best word for the job, which is why I believe we’re better off replacing it with the concept of ‘moral luck’.

First, I see at least two reasons that ‘privilege’ is not the best word for the job. Privilege, I think by design, strikes the hearer as a smugly pejorative term. Being privileged is bad, it’s the mark of a spoiled brat, and the use of the term combined with the common claim that individuals are unaware of or refuse to acknowledge their privilege paints most people as immorally naive or complicit. That may be to some extent an accurate accounting of reality, but it should also be unsurprising that it produces significant blowback when the term is leveled at individuals.

More importantly though, discussions of privilege seem to imply to many people that there is no complexity to the sorts of advantages and disadvantages that we all experience in our lives. Some of that implication is again the result of well poisoning, by reactionaries who want to make any discussion of systemic injustice feel like a personal attack on frightened white folks. But I also honestly think social justice advocates sometimes talk like individuals are either privileged or marginalised, rather than some mix of both, which many experience as a flattening of their own journeys. This can lead some to skepticism of privilege discourse, even when they do believe that privilege and marginalisation exist.

Just my luck

So, instead of using the term ‘privilege’, especially when speaking to individuals who may be likely to react negatively to that terminology, I suggest we try talking about luck instead, and if you’re feeling bold try introducing them to the concept of moral luck. Moral luck is a concept developed by philosophers like Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, which refers to situations where individuals are held morally responsible for things that are out of their control. We all share a strong intuition, what Nagel calls the control condition, that individuals should only be held responsible for things that are under their control. The problem of moral luck is that, for a variety of reasons, we are inconsistent in what we call luck. If I’m struggling to hold down a job because of a global pandemic, almost no one would see that as a moral failing on my part, and our recently extended and expanded unemployment policies reflect that fact. The problem is, the same should be true for someone who struggles to hold down a job because of addiction, or PTSD from childhood trauma. Yet many will see the latter two as a personal failing rather than the result of luck. I believe one of the keys to social justice work is reconsidering where we draw the line of luck and adjusting our social policies accordingly.

A horse shoe in a field

Nagel argues that moral luck is ubiquitous, because ultimately everything about us and our lives is the product of luck. He identifies several different kinds of luck, the most problematic and unavoidable of which is our constitutive luck, the sort of luck that makes us who we are. Whether it’s nature or nurture, what we get for the first decade of our lives at least is unquestionably a matter of luck. Combine that with the circumstantial luck of the sorts of challenges we experience in our lives, as well as the consequential luck that even our best intended and executed actions can still produce terrible consequences, and it gets hard to deny that every single thing about each of us is the result of factors that are beyond our control.

Maybe you’re not in a place yet where you want to go that far, and you certainly don’t need to convince every person you talk to about this topic that the world really is luck, all the way down. I do think, though, that we all have an obligation to spread awareness of the pervasiveness of luck in our lives, and how it influences our judgments of other people. In our merit obsessed society, we consistently assign higher moral status to individuals because of their various kinds of luck. For many of those kinds of luck, like “work ethic”, we don’t even code it as a kind of luck, despite the fact that your ability to focus on work for extended periods of time is, in so many ways, the product of constitutive and circumstantial luck.

If we could just get people to recode more of the capacities and challenges in people’s lives as forms of luck, that alone I think would be a valuable change, but I think more can follow from this as well. This is not just a semantic move, though I do think the connotations matter significantly. Coming from the angle of moral luck, it’s clearer that individuals are not morally culpable for their luck, in the sense that they should not feel shame or superiority because of their allotment of luck. Instead, what I think we want people to feel is humility and gratitude, because that provides a healthy foundation for compassion towards those suffering from bad luck, as well as a strong desire to reform our systems in such a way that luck is more fairly distributed.

The other key shift here is that luck can be both positive and negative, whereas privilege doesn’t read that way to most people. Privilege lends itself to a binary with marginalization, whereas with luck we can talk about how everyone is some mix of good and bad luck, which seems more in keeping with the literature on concepts like intersectionality. Of course, we can still talk about which groups consistently tend to experience more of some kinds of luck, and that overall members of some groups are likely to be more marginalised than members of other groups – indeed, the hope is that the shift in language facilitates those discussions some.

Some may hear this suggestion and worry that this is ceding conceptual ground to regressives, or that it’s just taking another step on the euphemism treadmill and that a month after we adopt the new language it will be treated as equally toxic. I fully expect that many of the same people who have poisoned the concept of ‘privilege’ will attempt to do the same for ‘luck’. I also expect they will likely have some success, particularly with conservatives, because there is evidence that conservatives tend to downplay the role of luck in people’s lives and tend to see appeals to luck as excuses for poor behavior.

That said, I think ‘luck’ is a harder target to toxify than ‘privilege’, especially when we earnestly emphasise that everyone experiences a mix of good and bad luck, and that acknowledging luck is not tied to any moral judgment or even a claim that every person in one group has had it easier than a person in another group. Systemic injustice is more like roulette, a game of luck that also consistently favors one group, the house. So, sometimes in our lives we’re the player and sometimes we’re the house, and the fact that some players win big doesn’t change that larger truth that the game favors the house. I suspect most people, and even a fair number of conservatives, recognise that everyone can have a run of bad luck, and that such things are a cause for compassion and not derision. From there, it’s not hard to see that systems can be rigged so certain people keep having runs of bad luck, and that we need to fix those systems so everyone can flourish. 

I don’t think swapping out a few words is going to completely fix social problems that are centuries in the making, but I do think it can help. If you think language matters, please consider trying this new approach. If you don’t think it matters, why not try a new approach anyway? Maybe you’ll get lucky.

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