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Friday, May 02, 2008

Stuntz on Illness, Luck, and Moral Desert

Prof. Bill Stuntz, who has written so meaningfully and openly about his experiences with chronic pain and worse, informs us that, alas, he continues to struggle with his cancer.  I won't call it heartbreaking, because he clearly refuses to be heartbroken.  But it is sad news, not to be sugar-coated, and I (and all of us, I'm sure) wish him strength and success in his fight, and love and warm wishes to his family.

Prof. Stuntz has this to say about the question, "why is this happening to me?"

I have no greater moral claim to be free from unwanted pain and loss than anyone else. Plenty of people more virtuous than I am suffer worse than I have, and some who don’t seem virtuous at all skate through life with surprising ease. Welcome to the world. [I]t seems to me that this claim [that such ill-fortune is tragic and unexpected] arises from the incredibly unusual experience of a small class of wealthy professionals in the wealthiest parts of the world today. We think we live in a world governed by merit and moral desert. It isn’t so. Luck, fortune, fate, providence—call it what you will, but whatever your preferred label, it has far more to do with the successes of the successful than what any of us deserves. Aristocracies of the past awarded wealth and position based on the accident of birth. Today’s meritocracies award wealth and position based on the accident of being in the right place at the right time. The difference is smaller than we tend to think. Once you understand that, it’s hard to maintain a sense of grievance in the face of even the ugliest medical news. I’ve won more than my share of life’s lotteries. It would seem churlish to rail at the unfairness of losing this one—if indeed I do lose it: which I may not.

It takes a clearheaded, un-self-sparing view of the world to see this and to say it; it is a shame that his wisdom is hard won from experience, although he would doubtless say that winning some lotteries, too, has been part of his experience. 

It also makes me think of some of the things I have written here.  I have written about coping with chronic pain.  I also wrote a post quite some time ago (I can't find it online anymore) about Justice Thomas's accusation that affirmative action at elite law schools serves "aesthetic" purposes, in which I suggested that members of the current meritocratic "elite," ie. Ivy Leaguish offspring of other Ivy League types, are strongly invested in the view that they deserve their own success, no matter how many invisible and chance factors contributed to it, and that they especially want to believe that their children deserve any success they enjoy in life -- that their children's success is a matter of moral desert and not just a result of having been handed a stacked deck. 

To find my thoughts echoed so clearly in Stuntz's own views makes me wonder how much both our thoughts are the product of long experience with chronic pain and other illness.  Those experiences make starkly clear some of the more brutal physical facts of life.  They also underscore just how much dumb luck is involved in what we sometimes kid ourselves into thinking is "deserved" success: that you were born at the right time to the right parents in the right country, that you did not succumb to childhood illness or accident, that you have the physical health, the energy and stamina, to do your job well every day.  With rare exceptions, how many great politicians, artists, scholars, and so on have gotten as far as they have without good health, stamina, and energy?  How many of them are willing to credit their success to such chance attributes? 

Of course there may also be some desert involved in these cases. Stuntz, after all, modest as he may be, is a success not just because he was well-positioned, but also because he took advantage of his opportunities.  And, of course, some people face worse odds and still beat them by dint of talent and hard work.  But if you have lived on the wrong end of enough of those statistics, you cannot help but be aware that no meritocracy yet invented, no "deserving" or "self-made" success, does not also owe something to a simple roll of the dice.  It makes, I think, for a fatalistic and stoic worldview -- though Stuntz is also clearly bolstered by his faith, which may moderate that worldview.

I should make clear that Stuntz has suffered more than I have, and I don't mean to make self-serving comparisons; I write only to suggest that the equanimity with which he faces his current suffering, and his skepticism that anyone "deserves" their good or bad fate, are surely influenced by the experiences he had with chronic pain long before his latest bad news.  Again, I join all my readers in wishing him and his family well.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM in Culture | Permalink


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