One of the more prominent strands of modern political philosophy is what has been called “luck egalitarianism,” which of course raises basic questions for Mormon theology. Luck egalitarianism comes in many forms and flavors, but the basic gist of the argument goes like this. Distributing the good things of this world on the basis of arbitrary social distinctions is unjust. It is wrong that one person should have a dramatically inferior life simply because he was born a particular color or into a particular social caste. The implication of this basic insight, however, is not meritocracy, i.e. the belief that people should be rewarded for their abilities and accomplishments. The reason is that native ability is itself an arbitrary factor. No one has really earned their innate mental or physical ability. Rather, such endowments are a matter of luck. Hence, they ought not to be the basis on which the good things of the world are meted out. Instead, social institutions should be constructed so as to ameliorate the negative effects of luck on human flourishing. The foregoing is a crude statement, but this is a blog post, so deal with it.
It seems to me that at the heart of the luck egalitarian position is the basic assumption that we start with certain innate abilities that are not the result of any morally relevant act on our part. In other words, the luck egalitarian argument requires some fairly strong notion of origins to get off the ground. This is where Mormon theology injects an interesting set of questions and problems.
On at least one reading of our theology, we are eternal intelligences who are of essentially the same species as God. All of us have existed from all eternity and will exist to all eternity. The difference between us and God is not a radical disjunction between creator and creature, but rather one of an astronomically huge gap in progress and intelligence. At this point, we get the uniquely Mormon conundrum of trying to understand why God is God and we are not. Put in another way, “If we have been around just as long as God, then why aren’t we God yet?”
It seems to me that there are two radically different answers to this question. First, we can say that nature is prior to agency. Under this theory, God is God and we are not because God is simply a superior sort of person to us. He is inherently better than we are and this explains why he has progressed so much further than us. Second, we can say that agency is prior to nature. Under this theory, God is God and we are not because God has made better choices than us. Which answer we give, it seems to me, has dramatic implications for luck egalitarianism.
If nature is prior to agency, then we are in essentially the luck egalitarian position. Certain abilities are simply a matter of the arbitrary structure of the metaphysical frame that we share with God. Indeed, God’s power and ability itself becomes an arbitrary result of the way that existence happens to be structured. On this view, God’s work to bring to past the immortality and eternal life of man can be thought of as analogous to the luck egalitarian’s approach to social institutions. It is an attempt to use agency to ameliorate the effects of blind chance.
On the other hand, if agency is prior to nature, then in a deep sense we are self-created entities. Who we are at the most basic level has been determined by our choices, and there is no origin where agency is not present. In other words, we deserve to be who it is that we are. This doesn’t imply a gleeful indifference to situation of others, nor does it deny that the circumstances of life play an huge — perhaps overmastering — role in creating social outcomes. It does mean, however, that our inherent abilities are not simply a matter of luck, but rather flow from morally relevant choices stretching back without beginning into the past. Furthermore, it changes who we view God’s work and his glory. Rather than seeing it as a heroic exercise in noblesse oblige by one arbitrarily given abilities by the structure of existence, God’s solicitude for our immortality and eternal life becomes an act of grace and generosity on the part of one who genuinely deserves his exalted position on the basis of the choices that he has made.
I don’t know which view — nature prior to agency or agency prior to nature — I ultimately subscribe to. It does seem to me, however, that we do have the good fortune to have a theology that gives us a set of philosophical paradoxes of our own to puzzle out.