Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: No fortune of birth

Nick Shackel
Cardiff University

Suppose you are born with valuable talents or to wealthy parents. What is added if we say that your talents or wealth are a fortune of birth? I say, nothing! This is merely a misleading way of repeating that you were born with good possessions. It is misleading because it seeks to insinuate what requires proof and in fact, as I shall now show, cannot be proved.

What this statement seeks to insinuate is used as a premise in an argument that you do not deserve the advantages you accrue because of the good possessions you were born with. To deserve the advantages you would have to deserve the good possessions and you do not deserve the good possessions because it is mere luck that you possess them, because those possessions are a fortune of birth.

Now there are later steps in this argument that can be resisted. It need not be true that advantages that flow from possessions acquired by luck are undeserved, although at this point one might want to distinguish desert and entitlement. That, however, is not what I wish to consider here. I am concerned with the first step.

First of all, the phrase ‘fortune of birth’ is ambiguous between the meaning needed by the proponent of this argument, a meaning that entails what is had by fortune of birth is had by mere luck, and a meaning that simply refers generally to good possessions had at birth. This ambiguity makes the argument a fallacy by equivocation without some proof that good possessions had at birth are possessed through mere luck.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.