Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Luck: Ancients vs Moderns

In the last week of class, we will be talking about the difference in attitudes about luck between ancient Greek culture and modern Western society.

Most ancient Greeks accepted that much of what happens to us in our lives is up to luck, fate or fortune.  Life is risky, unpredictable and full of luck.  Plato and Aristotle embraced, this view.  Both thought that virtue and happiness are subject to luck.  While they both thought that we can protect ourselves against luck, both acknowledge that we will never be completely free from the influences of luck.  Epictetus, however, thought that happiness and virtue are entirely our control.  Even if luck makes you poor, dirty and sick, you can still control your mental and emotional life; this is why Epictetus thought that luck plays no role in happiness and virtue.  Kant agrees with Epictetus that virtue is not subject to luck.  For him, being virtuous means having a good will.  Because we control our will, we are in control of our own virtue.  Kant thinks that happiness is subjective and so it may be vulnerable to luck.  

In the 17th century, advancements in mathematics and social sciences brought us modern understanding of probability and statistics.  This understanding increased the ability of groups of people to control their fates.  When you can have stable expectation about how the future will be, you can better plan.  For example, if you know that children whose parents smoke are more likely to develop asthma, we can collectively change our parenting methods in order to avoid asthma in future generations.  We cannot prevent accidents  from happening, but we can see causal patterns and attempt to avoid the causes of accidents.  We can now use social programs and institutions to regulate large-scale social outcomes.  This means that we have a wider view of what we are individually and collectively responsible.

Even now, people have very different ideas about luck.  Many people who identify as politically conservative (right-leaning) think that individuals can and should be held responsible whereas it is difficult to attribute responsibility to social groups.  Others who identify as politically liberal (left-leaning) are more likely to emphasize individual luck and social responsibility.  For example, imagine a bum on the street.  A bleeding-heart liberal may be more likely to point to social causes (poverty, lack of education) for this person's life in order to excuse the individual from some responsibility.  A cold-hearted conservative may say that the individual himself is solely responsible for being poor and on the streets.

Williams asks what differences between the ancient and modern world can explain why slavery was once accepted and how we think slavery is unjust.  He thinks that there are certain concepts are available to us now that the ancients did not have.  His paper considers whether this is the reason why ancients accepted slavery while we condemn slavery.

In ancient Greece, it was largely a matter of luck who ended up slaves.  All races of people could become slaves if their country was invaded.  This is contrasted with slavery in the American south, which was entirely determined by race.  In ancient Greece, every citizen knew that he or she could potentially become a slave if their country was invaded by another country.  It was widely accepted that a bout of bad luck could make a person a slave.  Also, a slave could be freed by lucky circumstances.  The ancient Greeks did not think of slavery as a matter of justice.  They thought it was just a matter of luck.

Greeks thought that slavery may have been unjust, but it was necessary for their way of life.  They saw no alternative.  Because the ancient Greeks thought that slaves were necessary, this prevented them from asking whether or not slavery was just.

Aristotle was an exception.  Not only did he think that slavery was necessary; he thought slavery was just.  Some people are born to be slaves.  It is in their nature to be slaves.  Because some people are born to be slaves, we owe it to ourselves and to those people to make sure that they are slaves.  Aristotle thought that just like our minds control our bodies, masters control slaves.  He acknowledged that there is a problem with this analogy because slaves themselves have their own souls, or minds.  By contrast, my arm does not have its own soul or mind.  Aristotle points out that the nature of a thing is revealed by its natural tendencies.  For example, most birds tend to fly and most fish tend to swim.  It is in a bird's nature to fly and in a fish's nature to swim.  Similarly, some people are naturally disposed to be subjugated and subordination.  People with submissive natures are naturally suited to be paired with people who have dominant natures.
Like slaves, women lack authority.  Unlike slaves, women have the ability to reason and make choices.

Aristotle thought that our natures are not only determined by factors such as gender.  He thought that everyone has a necessary identity.  Your necessary identity is just who you are essentially or necessarily.  For example, if something is a lion, it is necessarily a lion.  Or if something is a square, it is necessarily a quadrangle with all sides of the same length.  Aristotle thought that if you are male, you are by nature male.  If you are female, it is by nature.  If one is a slave, it is necessarily so.  Slavery is hence a social role that is a necessary part of who a person is.

Seneca was a philosopher in ancient Rome who also thought that slavery was just.  He thought that everyone is born free.  True freedom is mental freedom.  Because slavery only enslaves the body, the mind is left free.  Therefore, slavery does not conflict with freedom.  Slavery does not take anything away from slaves.  Hence slavery is justified.

A modern liberal conception of social justice is that there is no such thing as necessary identity.  Who a person is is not determined by nature.  But this is not the main difference.  The main difference between modern societies and ancient Greece is that we now demand that neither individual luck nor social luck should take the place of considerations of justice.  Even if luck can make a person poor, dirty and sick, this does not address concerns about social justice.  Social justice requires that we control the impact of luck.  While ancient Greeks thought that it is ok if luck makes a  person a slave, we now think that luck cannot justify things like slavery.  We think that we can control our collective fates and so we cannot just let luck make a person a slave.

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