The Lottery Of Life

Third instalment

What exactly do I mean by ‘luck’?

It is time, before I progress further with my thesis, to define terms. 

Those who have read the previous instalment of this blog might well be scratching heads in perplexity – or tearing hair out in anger – at my use of the word ‘luck’. It must seem ignorant, or deliberately provocative, to describe Katriona O’Sullivan as lucky, given the poverty, neglect and abuse she endured as a child. I can say only that I agree.

I therefore need to explain myself. The problem I face is that there isn’t a single English word whose meaning aligns with the concept that is the subject of my argument. I have considered several vocabulary options.

But first, what is the concept that I have identified and hope to define? There is no one word for it, but I can explain it. It is, essentially, that long-term, background factors over which the individual has no control – for instance parentage, nationality, genetic inheritance, mental and physical attributes, early upbringing – do not merely influence but act to determine the individual’s situation in life.

These long-term, background factors must be differentiated from single instances of good or bad fortune. As an example, I offer the fictitious case of Simon, a young man living in London. One day Simon drops in to the central London club of which he is a member and happens to meet Tim, with whom as a child he attended private school. Tim offers Simon a directorship of one of the companies of which Tim is chairman. This is, for Simon, a stroke of good luck. I would argue that his luck has two components: the immediate, one-off accident of meeting his old school friend; and the long-term, background good fortune that consists of being male, resident in an advanced Western democracy, wealthy enough to live in London, with parents who were wealthy enough to send him to a private school.

And here’s the thing: once those long-term, background factors are taken into account, the accidental meeting in the club ceases to be as significant as it first appeared. One’s first thought is that Simon’s good luck consists in his chance meeting with Tim; but once Simon’s underlying life situation is factored in, the chance meeting doesn’t look that remarkable. Simon is a privately educated, wealthy, young man about town with membership of a private club: if he hadn’t picked up a directorship that day he probably would have done so on another occasion. The greater part of Simon’s good luck is his overall situation in life; his chance meeting with Tim is merely a thin coating of icing on the cake.

Having identified what constitutes the concept I’m attempting to define, and just as importantly what does not, the difficulty is to find a word for it. ‘Long-term background factors over which the individual has no control’ is simply too long.

One obvious candidate is the word ‘privilege’. I like this word; it has considerable congruence with the concept I’m proposing. The problem is that in modern usage it has become attached to specific, discrete areas of advantage: white privilege, male privilege, and so on. I’m looking for a term that encompasses many forms of privilege.

‘Advantage’ has perhaps a more general meaning than ‘privilege’, and is therefore better suited to my purpose. But the problem with both ‘privilege’ and ‘advantage’ is that neither conveys with clarity the idea that the privilege and advantage enjoyed by a person have accrued to that person by chance. Life is, after all, a lottery. An equally significant difficulty with both words is that both are positive: privilege and advantage are good to have. But the long-term factors that determine one’s situation in life are by no means all positive.

And that brings us back to ‘luck’. This word certainly contains the ‘life is a lottery’ concept; and it has the advantage of being neutral: luck can be good or bad, as can the long-term background factors that determine a person’s situation in life.

And therefore I’m going to stick with ‘luck’ – and I will insist that when used in this blog what is meant by ‘luck’ are the long-term background factors that are outside of an individual’s control. For occasional, one-off events such as Simon’s meeting with Tim, which at first sight appear to be lucky, I will use the term ‘chance’.  

Next – unless I’m blown off course – I’ll begin to set out the factors that constitute a person’s luck.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.