I really like Richard Posner. I don’t always agree with him, but he’s always thoughtful and reasonable. He wrote a recent post on wealth and luck that I thought was fascinating. First of all, I completely agree with him on a purely non-spiritual level. My fundamental philosophical quibble with the extreme right in the US nowadays is the premise that people “deserve” what they “earn”. The standard liberal response (that I also agree with) has been that no one receives what they earn in a vacuum – they benefit from a political, social, and economic system built by many other people, and they have an obligation to contribute back to it.
But ignoring that, as Posner points out, even if you attribute success to effort and character, ultimately those are also a result of luck, the genes you were given, beyond your control. Everything comes down to luck.
What I found remarkable was his straightforward declaration that he does “not believe in free will.” Not the stance itself. As I’ve written about many times, the logical conclusion of modern science is that there’s no place for free will, and indeed, virtually all modern philosophers (those who have taken the time to think it through) accept that. Posner’s post is remarkable in that it’s rare to see a non-philosopher declare it so openly. Especially someone in law, as law is one area in which the free will conundrum has been the most muddled (e.g. in determining whether people are truly responsible for their actions and how that affects their guilt/innocence/sentencing).
Posner concludes that because everything comes down to luck, policy should not be based on morality but on pragmatics. In particular, when talking about taxing the rich, the issue shouldn’t be framed in moral terms (as the right tends to do, saying it’s “wrong” to tax what people “earn”) but in practical terms (how does tax policy affect the society good or bad). I think that’s the best you can do if you’re not a Christian, and were I not, I’d probably hold the same stance as Posner.
But I am a Christian, and I don’t think everything comes down to luck, but providence, and that we should care about the least of these not because life is random, but because we know that we’re not inherently better than anyone else, that ultimately everything we have comes from the grace of God, no matter how hard we “worked” for it.