Fighting Chance

How can we come to terms with – and why aren’t we more worried about – the extent to which the fundamental events of our lives, and the happiness dependent thereupon, rely on pure chance?

I distinguish two separate problems. The first problem concerns philosophical reconciliation: we seek, philosophically exploring the role of this chance, to include it into a sound and coherent philosophical understanding of a just world. The second problem concerns pragmatic livelihood: we must find a set of practical prescriptions dictating how to act, and react, to chance, as we aim to maximize our lives’ sense of stability, agency, and control.

Here’s the issue. Each of us develops and pursues (some conception of) the good life; we undertake particular thoughts, actions, and lifestyles rationally directed towards this end. We both morally demand (first problem), and pragmatically wish (second problem), that our “feedback loops”, say – the worldly mechanisms which translate our thoughts, actions, and lifestyles into the rewards incumbent upon them – be as “watertight” as possible. We desire that our merits translate directly into rewards. We desire this, of course, so that we can effectively and meaningfully pursue our conception of the larger good. In some cases (e.g. academic performance), the feedback loop is quite watertight; in others (e.g. finding our future spouse, say), merits might well go long untranslated into rewards. It’s in these non-watertight cases that I suggest our issue lies.

How could chance be philosophically reconcilable? A standard argument would posit that chance is an inevitable part of God’s (correct) plan for the world, and thusly attains philosophical legitimacy. A similar, and more secular, argument could claim that the world operates according to a series of fixed universal laws, and that to challenge chance would be to challenge these laws themselves. Chance is a philosophical bad, but the universe is a philosophical good; further, the presence of the latter inescapably implies the presence of the former. If we want the universe to exist, then we must also want chance to exist.

A more subtle argument could claim that the disconnect between merit and reward is itself good, because it creates the possibility of merit predicated in goodness alone. The Book of Job is a classic case. God decimates Job’s life and livelihood, despite Job’s devoted worship. This apparent injustice is good, one might argue, because it allows subsequent worshipers (or, more generally, holders of merit) to ground their merit not in an expected reward, but in a pure desire to be good.*

A wildly different approach to the philosophical question of chance might be extracted from Nietzsche’s writings. Nietzsche’s prodigious, recklessly exuberant Zarathustra would fail even to perceive a philosophical problem in the first place. Zarathustra manically embraces chance, and vitality in the face thereof. “Was that life?” taunts Zarathustra, mockingly addressing Death. “Well then! Once more!” There is no place in Nietzsche’s towering grandiosity for whimpering philosophical musings.

We’re now in a position to answer the second question. If we embrace chance, then, well, there is no second problem. The presence of chance does not present a philosophical challenge. If we, alternatively, view chance as a philosophical bad, the prescription is fairly clear. We should seek – to whatever extent possible – to avoid chance; when avoidance is impossible or unfeasible, we should rationally choose not to dwell on it. This will both maximize our sense of agency and minimize our helplessness-related anxiety.

Dependence on chance might be an unfortunate part of our world. But it, like many things, can be fought and overcome.

* It seems that this argument is incorrect. Our propensity to do good for its own sake is not necessarily affected by the extent (or lack thereof) to which this goodness happens to bring rewards. The Job phenomenon does however, I argue, ultimately change the moral landscape in a profound way. The mechanism is quite complex.

What this decoupling – the “Job phenomenon,” if you will – would do is systematically discourage people from doing good for reward’s sake. These rewards, after all, are no longer promised. This argument can go further. Within the pool of people who do good for its own sake, the Job phenomenon could discourage these people from seeking the rewards incumbent upon others’ recognition of their intrinsically motivated good-doing. It would discourage good for its own sake for reward’s sake. The decision tree can continue indefinitely. Within the pool of people who do good for its own sake for its own sake… for its own sake (n times), say, how many of these people do good for its own sake for its own sake… for its own sake (n times) for reward’s sake? The Job phenomenon, whatever n happens to be, could diminish nth-degree reward seeking.

It’s possible, alternatively, that chance’s role is more complex. The Job phenomenon could additionally – and this is perhaps the source of our initial confusion – allow people who are good to more convincingly claim to others, whatever their real motives may be, that the motivation for their goodness is intrinsic. Why, after all, would we try to seek rewards in this crazy, chance-dependent world? This could lead to increased goodness for reward’s sake – among, say, those apt to do good for reward’s sake only if this good were liable to be (falsely) recognized as intrinsic – and this phenomenon works in the opposite direction as that mentioned above. This opposing force, like its foil, can be extended to higher levels. Because of the (widely-known, chance-induced) practical difficulty in securing the instrumental rewards attainable through others’ recognition of the fact that one does good for intrinsic reasons, intrinsic good-doers might more feasibly convince others that they do good for intrinsic reasons for intrinsic reasons, while they really do good for intrinsic reasons for instrumental reasons. Generally, the Job phenomenon could encourage reward-seeking at all levels by making deception more feasible at each decision point.

It’s difficult to predict which consequence of chance might more strongly prevail.

Whatever our prediction, moreover, we must also decide whether the pursuit of good for (eventual) reward’s sake is itself desirable. For those who discourage goodness for rewards’ sake – whether, say, because it leads to attachment in the Buddhist sense or manipulation in the Machiavellian sense – a precedence of the former force would be auspicious for chance (and oppositely for the latter). For those contrarily disposed – Ayn Rand, to name a complementary example, would emphatically condone good for reward’s sake – a precedence of the latter would be positive for chance (though the former here wouldn’t necessarily detract). I’ll, now, refrain from taking stances on these particular questions. Comments could be a good place for this.

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3 comments on “Fighting Chance

  1. AD says:

    You make a quick jump from “We both morally demand (first problem), and pragmatically wish (second problem), that our ‘feedback loops’ … be as ‘watertight’ as possible” – in other words, that chance often frustrates our plans – to the claim that chance is philosophically problematic. Why should we assume that some sort of direct, quid-pro-quo system of justice or feedback should be inherent in the world? It makes more sense to see chance less as a philosophical anomaly and more as just another manifestation of the inherent limits on our human foresight and agency – a limitation that it is almost impossible to imagine transcending (let alone truly wanting to transcend).

    One might also note that perhaps the most famous “meritocracy” in natural history – evolution by natural selection – was also critically dependent on the existence of chance!

  2. Josh says:

    I think the distinction between chance as a philosophical versus a pragmatic issue could be restated as follows. Instead of asking about chance’s philosophical status, one might ask: “Is chance good for society?” (Alternatively: “Is it generally good that chance exists?”) And regarding the pragmatic side, one might ask: “Is chance good for me?”

    One might view chance as a societal bad, and also a personal one; alternatively, one might view it as a societal good, and also a personal one (Zarathustra). Also, though, one could view it as a societal good but a personal bad. This person is a defector in game-theory-speak. Presumably, one could view chance as a societal bad but a personal good, although I can’t imagine why. The point, though, is that these are two different questions and their answers may well be independent.

    This brings me to my next point: one need not even answer the societal (philosophical) question in order to develop a personal prescription regarding chance. Indeed, as stated by AD, the question of whether or not chance is a societal good may not even merit a philosophical discussion (perhaps we need a philosophical discussion to decide if it merits one). In any case, one could easily decide that chance is bad for himself, and thus try to minimize it, without knowing, or caring, whether or not chance is a philosophical good.

    • Ben says:

      The framework you propose — which differentiates between “global” and “personal” goods — is crucially insightful and useful. It is, though, I believe, a bit semantically confused.

      Here’s your first distinction. Global (i.e. societal) philosophical goods might not be personal philosophical goods. In the cases where these align, great. In the cases where they don’t, we get collective action problems. So far, so good.

      Third, now, we have the pragmatic question. Supposing that we identify a personal philosophical bad, how should we pragmatically react to it? It seems that you conflate the philosophical identification of personal philosophical bads with the pragmatic question of our response to these personal bads.

      “One could easily decide that chance is bad for himself, and thus try to minimize it,” you say, “without knowing, or caring, whether or not chance is a philosophical good.” Perhaps this might be more clearly rephrased as follows. “One might determine that chance is a personal philosophical bad, and accordingly begin to develop pragmatic prescriptions for its amelioration, without having addressed the question of whether chance is a global philosophical good.”

      Interestingly, the framework may be extended. Let us suppose that chance is a global philosophical bad. We then, accordingly, might (collectively perhaps) develop pragmatic prescriptions for the (again, collective) amelioration of this global bad. Separating the philosophical and pragmatic is quite clarifying.

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