Friday, February 05, 2016


The first text I assign in my social and political philosophy course is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled "The Lottery in Babylon." In it, Borges' narrator tells the story of his former home, Babylon, where (over the course of many years) a lottery evolves from being a voluntary game of chance into a mandatory determiner of, quite literally, everything: guilt and innocence, life and death, vocation, marriage, where one might live or what one might eat for lunch.  The number of drawings is infinite, the narrator tells us, No decision is final, each branches out into the others.  Under the Babylonian lottery, there is no natural or causal connection between actions and their consequences, between crimes and their punishment, between accomplishments and their rewards. Because the lottery is free, open and mandatory, it is also perfectly, mathematically "fair."  Several mythic and quasi-religious explanations for the lottery's operations emerge over time, each of which attempt to impart it with some ultimate meaning, but the narrator summarily dismisses them all in his final line: Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.

The theme of my course is "Justice," so it is no surprise, of course, that students arrive to class wondering why in the world they have been required to read Borges' story.  When I ask, "Is Babylon a just society?" I get a deafening NO! in response every time.  For my pedagogical purposes, "The Lottery in Babylon" offers up the perfect conditions in which to have inaugural conversations about justice, fairness, and perhaps most of all, merit.

In my experience, most students believe that the world they live in is meritocratic, that things like talent and hard work are rewarded and, correspondingly, that incompetence and indolence are punished.  They seldom stop to think of the many and varied advantages (or disadvantages) assigned to them by what philosopher John Rawls called "the lottery of birth."  So, on that first day of class, I want to get all of their assumptions about merit and desert out on the table.  Did you 'earn' the advantage of being born in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world? Do you 'deserve' the advantages that come along with having been born male, or white, or able-bodied?  And what of your so-called 'natural talents'-- maybe you're smart, or beautiful, or fast, or have perfect pitch-- did you 'merit' those talents? It's a difficult reality to come to terms with when you are young and aspirational and ambitious, the reality that your chances of success in life are already, to a large extent, determined by chance. Eventually, and with considerable resistance, they come around to conceding that the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, those who have been rewarded most in life, are not the most talented, or the hardest working, or the most virtuous. Likewise, the wretched of the earth did not earn the wretchedness of their lives.

Confession: I take a tremendous amount of personal pleasure in watching this particular light-bulb turn on the minds of students.  Maybe that's schadenfreude, but I'd like to think I have nobler reasons.

We professors are frequently called upon to burst ideological bubbles, to unshroud hard truths, to demystify false beliefs in the classroom.  That's never a pleasant thing to experience, but it is a pleasant thing to watch happen. With respect to deflating the myth of American meritocracy in particular, I know that this makes a space for students to engage less dismissively and more productively in conversations with one another about what constitutes their common good. I regularly discourage students from speaking of their shared world as meritocratic, for many of the same reasons that I refuse to permit them to deny global warming or insist that vaccines cause autism. Of course you have a "right" to say that, all evidence to the contrary, I tell them.  People are wrong every day.

What we're trying to accomplish in a Philosophy class is to situate our beliefs in relation to Truth, after all.  There are many good, even practical, reasons to believe that hard work and perseverance are rewarded, that talent wins out over incompetence, that people get what they deserve.  But those beliefs are not descriptively accurate; they do not align with the realities of our world. More importantly, neglecting to reckon with the manner in which perpetuating the myth of meritocracy actually works to re-entrench unjust and inequitable structures of power, wealth, status and opportunity is grossly irresponsible.  It tends to distort not only one's self-image, but one's evaluation of others and, as a consequence, can at best only give one a funhouse-mirror image of the public good.

1 comment:

Benjamin Curtis said...

People are wrong every day!