Not so long along ago Save the Children UK produced a bunch of adverts highlighting how anyone born into a rich country had won the ‘lottery of life’ in terms of expected well-being etc. I.e. however much we might feel like things weren’t great, that in fact we are incredibly lucky, and that globally we are the privileged 1% (or whatever the proportion is). This was popularising a fairly well established philosophical point known as the Veil of Ignorance, which asks you to consider how fair various aspects of public policy are if you do not know in advance which family you will be born into.
However, such invitations to consider the hypothetical can suffer from a sense of individual exceptionalism. (Or at least it does with me, I confess.) It goes like this:-
A key requirement of any good development worker is the ability to empathise with the people you are trying to help. (Without such empathy you probably wouldn’t be working in this sector.) So it is that on many an occasion I have thought how I would act if I were a poor rural farmer like those in the communities we are assisting. I’m a fairly bright guy (if I do say so myself) and I’ve been involved in a lot of innovative work, so even if my educational opportunities were way lower than the fantastically good education I received in the UK, I like to think that as a rural farmer I might rise above the crowd; I would try lots of different things, not everything would pay off, but enough would that I would be one of the most successful farmers in the village, respected by my peers. I may well have some position in the community leadership.
And indeed were you transplant me now, as a grown adult, into such a village I don’t think it is being too arrogant to suggest that something like that would happen. (In order to make it a fair experiment, I would have my entire technical knowledge bank wiped, and have only access to the same information other villagers have.) The life would be tough, much tougher physically and health-wise than my current life, but I like to think I would succeed.
Nature vs. Nurture
But is this really a fair thought experiment? Who am I really? We are all products of the culture in which we, and our parents before us, were brought up, and the resources that were available. We know, for instance, that the diet that a mother eats during pregnancy, and the diet of a child during its first few years, are critically important for later physical and mental development. And not just the diet; my parents talked to me a lot when I was very young, they provided a stimulating play environment, and once I was old enough encouraged me to read. The most valuable aspect of my education was not the knowledge and technical skills I learned, but the capacity to think critically and to think for myself, the thirst for new knowledge and experience, and the self-confidence to try such things. All of which is very hard to separate out from the person I am today.
Quite simply, if I were born into a rural village around here I would not be the same person. Not being the brawniest or healthiest child I may well instead have ended up something of a loser.
A hundred years ago, colonialists would routinely dismiss local people as stupid and ignorant. They were racist, but not totally wrong. They just did not understand the sheer magnitude of advantages they had in life being born a European. Even now it requires a tremendous leap of imagination to truly put ourselves in the shoes of someone born into poverty. If I were a poor African farmer, you might pity me or scorn me. If you are a development worker you might desperately want to help me, to listen to my problems, and try to see life from my perspective. You may strive not to get too frustrated when I am unable to articulate my situation or take apparently irrational decisions. I hope you would respect me. But you would not see me as an equal, because in most things I simply would not be your equal.