Monday, September 21, 2009

Delusions and Consequences

Is it your fault if a relative you drove to a hospital doesn't like your choice of venue or somehow gets sicker, even though you didn't choose the equivalent of a refugee camp clinic in Chad over a peer of the Mayo Clinic? You had two apples, a red delicious and a granny smith and with the best intentions you chose one over the other.

Is it your moral, philosophical or psychological fault if the person you gave the apple to gets an indigestion or just plain doesn't like the taste? There are people -- often enough they are women taught to apologize for their mere existence -- who would beat themselves up, who would engage for hours in exploration of the chain events that any small and largely apparent choice brings on.

You decided to major in English literature and not accounting, so you failed as a novelist and live in a garret in East St. Louis, but your accounting-major classmates have already retired to mansions in Provence. You turned left rather than right at a certain intersection and a truck laden with hundreds of pounds of bananas backed into your car three blocks later.

Remember, we're not talking legal here. Lawyers could argue that a matricidal maniac should not be punished harshly because he is an orphan, but that's not the kind of issue on which I want to dwell.

Responsibility, to my mind, turns on whether we actually have choices. I would argue that most of us have extremely few meaningful choices and it's a delusion of grandeur -- or Calvinism, depending on your mileage -- to think otherwise.

If I were given the choice of being 15 again to relive it all, given what I know now, I would like to think I would make choices that would make me either rich as Donald Trump or famous as Albert Schweitzer or, at a minimum, irresistibly handsome to women ranging from Heidi Klum to Janet Reno. But it's just not so.

Let's take Heidi Kulm and Janet Reno. Attractiveness to the opposite sex is based on a wide range of biological factors that pair certain groups of men and women with each other and the results ... are happenstance. An actress once told George Bernard Shaw that if they had a child it would be beautiful and brilliant, only to hear from Shaw that the reverse would be true if the child inherited her brains and his beauty.

Social norms have tended to accentuate some aspects over another. Indeed, in its pursuit of study, the Jewish tradition has historically pushed its most intelligent people to marry. A rabbi's son was once the dream husband. Conversely, the rule of priestly celibacy in Catholicism assured that, at least during the long medieval night, the era's most educated and talented men of western Europe either did not reproduce or spawned children born into social disadvantage.

I belabor birth, because one's birthplace and parentage remain the most meaningful and decisive factors in lifetime social and economic outcomes -- democracy and everyting else notwithstanding. Unlike many Americans, I did not get to choose mine, which is why I am not particularly proud of being American -- or of occupying a given quintile in U.S. income distribution or hailing anciently from a particular corner of the world.

It's simply not true that being superior makes you white or being smart makes you rich or being chosen by Uncle Sam makes you number one. Even if it were, what did you have to do with any of those?

So what makes you think that you had a real choice in the hospital for your relative? You didn't have a choice between the Chad and Mayo clinics. At worst you had a choice between equally mediocre hospitals operating in the midst of a collapsing system.

We all do our best -- and, yes, we can choose not to -- and consequences spring whether we like them or not. I'm not even sure that doing one's best makes a difference, except to ourselves.

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