the ethics of serendipity

July 15, 2013

ser·en·dip·i·ty  

The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: "a fortunate stroke of serendipity".


I've been thinking a lot about serendipitous occasions because of the role of luck in so much of my life. Relationships especially--as an example, I've met crushes because of incidents as inexplicable and random as walking faster than everyone else, being at the same event or camp or class, or asking for a ride. Okay, that may not be as crazy as seeing someone's face fleetingly through a subway window, but I still think of it as serendipity.

I suppose that everything beneficial is serendipitous, in a way, then, with a definition as broad as "development of events by chance." You don't have to be hardcore deterministic to realize that a lot of life is up to luck. All those news stories where the anchorman or woman begins with "S/he was in the wrong place, at the wrong time..." All this is in hindsight--something isn't right or wrong before events take place and make it so.

So if we don't get the blame for terrible turns of chance outside of our control (if you hurt someone in self-defense--post-Zimmerman trial, I feel the need to stress legitimately--you're someone who had to do an unfortunate thing, not a criminal; it wasn't your fault that a criminal happened to be there with aggressive intent), should we reap the rewards, including, often, a sizable amount of praise, for the good things that happen to us because of chance? We usually do.

After all, as a society, we're inclined to celebrate the end results and not the process of getting there. Who cares if you only made millions because you happened to stumble across a lithium mine while out on a walk with your dog (terrrrrrrrrrrrible example I know, but bear with me)? It's still the same millions as if you'd spent years of your life methodically surveying the land.

Indeed, it's the serendipitous occasions, like that terrible example, that make the headlines. Perhaps it's because there's an implicit equality to serendipity--luck can happen to anyone, hard work has to be, well, worked on. Still, though, is it really right to treat the things that come to us by luck the same way we treat the things that come to us by work? Or, of course, you could justify it by saying that everything is driven by luck and that there's really no difference in the end at all.

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