Sunday, 16 January 2011

Where on earth?

We like to think that who we are and what we have depend pretty much on ourselves. To an extent that’s probably true. A complex mix of Nature and Nurture goes a long way to explaining each of us. But sometimes things happen that make us see life in a broader context. It matters quite a lot where a person is born. Life chances are going to be very different for someone born in England or Brazil, or in Haiti.
We English tend to be pretty smug about our country and think we’re clever. After all we’ve contributed a great deal to Western art, politics, technology, economics, and so on. We’ve given a lot and it’s easy to feel a bit superior. It’s true that a lot of good stuff has come out of England but I’m not sure we should be taking much credit for it. We’ve actually inherited all those good things free, gratis and for nothing and we have a responsibility to be good custodians of them and pass them on intact to future generations. Plus we will enjoy our lives more if we are able to add to them as we go.
If you were born in Haiti, or some god-forsaken hellhole in Africa, you’re not as lucky as the English. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how hard you work, you’re not likely to enjoy such a comfortable life – and if you do get ahead by working hard there’s a good chance that someone will come along and either steal from you or kill you, out of jealousy or avarice.
I’m not about to go down the Socialist road of saying that we lucky people from the West must give to the less well-off around the world to even things up – I think there are better ways to help than compulsion. But there are a few things I think we should try always to be aware of. First, we are lucky – often more lucky than clever. Second, the discoveries that make our lives comfortable and rewarding are boons that, once made, are available to all humankind. Third, social stability is a blessing that comes from willing cooperation among moral individuals. Fourth, it takes time to make anything worthwhile. Fifth, once civilizing progress has been achieved it is our duty to value it and never let it slip away.
Where on earth we are born matters hugely. Let’s not be complacent about our luck.

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