Unreal Nature

May 29, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:41 am

Do you think that some photographers have an unfair advantage because of their natural talent and/or because they are rich and well-connected? You can’t compete because you were born with disadvantages? Do you think this is unfair? That great photographs are hard to find, and that only a few have the resources and raw luck to happen to be in the right place at the right time?

Or do you think that anybody with a camera can be a good photographer if they are willing to work hard enough? That potential photographs are everywhere, all the time, waiting for those photographers who are committed enough to take the time and effort needed to develop their visual skills to see what is all around them?

What is your opinion on the role of luck and equality in the course of your own life? I began thinking about this after reading the article, Equality, Luck, and Pragmatism  by David Rondel. It doesn’t translate directly to the issues of luck in photography because it’s definitely not about the kind of luck that photographers think about most — of being in the right place at the right time. But it is about the issue of the fairness of the larger endeavor. The conclusion is, that society should seek equality not in endowment, but in opportunity.

In philosophy, the old way of thinking about luck and equality used to be (and often still is) summed up by the statement:

“No one deserves [in the moral sense of desert] his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society.”

But this leads to the idea that naturally lazy or peculiar (strange preferences, tastes, etc.) people require or deserve compensation. This is also a negative sense of luck or equality. Many people who are discriminated against don’t consider their difference to be a negative quality; they are merely not the same as the majority (women, or racial/ethnic minorities). In conclusion:

Although there is a place in [philosopher John] Dewey’s account for considerations of luck and choice, they are by no means the central concepts. As he says, equality “denotes effective regard for whatever is distinctive and unique in each”. (Dewey 1954, 151) Dewey’s egalitarianism, therefore, substitutes the question “Is the inequality a result of luck or choice?” with the rather different one “Is the inequality affecting someone’s opportunity ‘to realize the potentialities of which he is possessed’?” (Dewey 2000, 59) The shift here is significant. Instead of asking about the metaphysical source of the inequality, whether it is traceable to luck or choice, Dewey asks about its practical consequences. As he says, “one person is morally equal to others when he has the same opportunity for developing his capacities and playing his part that others have.” (Gouinlock 1994, 191) All of this suggests that Dewey’s account is similar, in spirit if not in detail, to the kind of “capabilities approach” to equality developed by, among others, Amartya Sen. Correspondingly, Dewey thinks that people should be equal in their “effective freedom”. That is, “the absence or removal of any legal or social obstacles to free access to social participation and command of resources adequate to allow us to participate in meaningful ways.” (Welchman 1995) Again, the focus is not, as for LE [luck egalitarianism], on the cosmic source of the inequality, it is on the real capabilities (the word effective should be underscored) that individuals have for democratic participation and moral growth.

First, Dewey’s account has no use for the free-will/determinism controversy, and would probably eschew the suggestion that that controversy is significant, if it ever is, to our political thinking about equality. Second, unlike LE [luck egalitarianism], Dewey’s approach to equality features both a negative and positive dimension. While LE insists that the point of equality is to eliminate the effects of brute luck (as if a democratic society of equals might be brought about merely by subtraction) Dewey’s account stresses, in addition to that, the importance of ameliorating people’s positive capacities for democratic participation, moral growth, and more meaningful “associated activity”. Third, as one would expect, Dewey does not dwell in the remote provinces of abstract theory as luck egalitarians do. He is on the ground, so to speak, stressing the importance of observation, experimentalist intervention, and empirical responsibility. This latter point ensures that egalitarian theory and practice remain integrated, as pragmatists insist they must. And finally, fourth, in placing emphasis on the capacities of individuals, Dewey’s account grasps, in a way that LE cannot, that the fundamental point of equality is not merely the search for a just distributive scheme. Our aim in pursuing equality, Dewey reminds us, has its home within a much broader moral and democratic ideal: what he calls “the search for the great community”.

— from Equality, Luck, and Pragmatism   by David Rondel





  1. I don’t think that having a talent is unfair; but nor do I think that anyone who works hard enough can be just as good as the talented.

    I am totally devoid of talent in music. I am modestly run-of-the-mill talented in quite a lot of ways. I have no very great talent in any area. These are facts of life, not fair or unfair, just how life is.

    I have worked harder than some people on some of my modest talents, though not as hard as some others; I have been too lazy or too otherwise occupied to do any work at all on some of them. As a result, I am less successful than some, more successful than others … and that includes being more successful than some with greater talent, less successful than some with less talent. None of this is fair or unfair, either.

    I have a student with very little talent for photography, but tremendous enthusiasm for it and for life and for everything in the world – and extraordinary commitment to expressing that enthusiasm. She is, as a result of that enthusiasm and commitment already succeeding as a photographer: photojournalism, regular magazine illustration sales in a dozen specialist areas, and so on. Her more talented but less energetic peers resent this success; and some of them will in time outfly her, while others will fall by the wayside.

    We can do nothing about the hand of cards we are dealt; that is luck, or chance, or whatever. What we choose to attempt to do with that hand is up to us.

    I should say, though, that none of this contradicts my passionate belief that, having either been lucky or hard working, I have a human responsibility to offer a hand to those who have not.

    Comment by Felix Grant — May 31, 2008 @ 3:42 am

  2. I also have a strong bias in favor of hard-work. But I have a suspicion that many lazy people *think* they work hard — and so I may be a lazy person; how would I know? Self-evaluation never seems to match outside evaluation. Also, if you want to help others, it’s tricky to separate help (always good) from indulgence (which can be counterproductive). This is especially true if talking about photography which is certainly not one of life’s necessities.

    Like many fairness/quality of life issues, I think it’s much easier to talk about luck/equality for populations than it is for individuals. My attempt to extend the linked essay to photography was not really fair. It’s not a good fit. But I like thinking about it anyway.

    Your description of your hard-working student reminded me of something I’m going to write about in a new post. Thanks.


    Comment by unrealnature — May 31, 2008 @ 7:36 am

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