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The Accident of Birth Fallacy

In his State of the Union address, President Obama referred to “the accident of birth” referring to the circumstances into which a particular human being is born. That phrase has entered common usage to refer to the disparity of opportunities experienced by children. It should, however, be abandoned because it does not do justice to the particularities that make us human.

Every person in human history is inseparable from:

  1. Genetics: Each human person is the unique genetic combination of his or her parents. There is nothing accidental about this. You could not be you with different parents.
  2. History: The unique genetic combination that defines who you are is the product of a historical event – the joining of one particular egg and one particular sperm at a specific moment. If any other egg and sperm had combined, you would not exist. Furthermore, the historical moment into which you were born is essential to your particularity.
  3. Geography: You are also born in a particular place. The law, medicine, culture, and agriculture (to mention a few) of your particular place shape you in ways that define who you are.
  4. Parenting: Your particular parents – in their presence or absence – profoundly shape your health, education, temperament, personality and opportunities.
  5. Community: The people who nurture (or neglect) you and form the moral ecology of your community shape your character, establish social expectations, and create (or limit) your opportunities.

Referring to the “accident of birth” does justice to none of these dynamics that make each individual person unique, important and human. Take the President himself, for example:

  1. Genetics: The son of Barack Obama Sr. and Ann Dunham, President Obama is African American. His role as the first African American President in the history of the United States is inseparable from his genetics.
  2. History: The timing of President Obama’s birth is important. Had he been born (bracketing the genetic impossibility of that claim for a moment) fifty years prior, he would not have had the opportunity to run for President.
  3. Geography: President Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. Had he been born in his father’s home in Nairobi, Kenya, he would not be eligible to run for President of the United States.
  4. Parenting: Both the opportunity and adversity of our President’s formative years define him. His mother’s education and abilities unquestionably shaped her son. His father’s absence called for a kind of resilience and persistence unique to Obama Jr.’s situation. Furthermore, his mother’s decision to enroll him in a private college prep school significantly shaped his educational prospects.
  5. Community: The care of his grandparents made it possible for young Obama to return to Hawaii at 10 years old for schooling. Had they not been present and supportive, President Obama might have had a very different educational and vocational trajectory.

These are but a few examples that demonstrate the important particularities of our President, which define him. He is not an accident of birth. To say such would be an insult to him.

This is true of every historic individual, and of every human being. Indeed, many of the most important historical figures are defined precisely by their ethnicity, historical moment, particular place, and the nurture of family and community. Consider Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King’s was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929 to an African American pastor and his wife. The community and social networks which Dr. King and his family inhabited were not incidental either to Dr. King’s formation or his historical import. The oppression he experienced as a black man in the South is not incidental. Dr. King cannot be separated from these essential genetic, historical, geographic, relational realities. Neither he nor anyone else is subject to “accident of birth.”

Finally, it must be noted that adversity is not incidental to the identity and character of a person. The expression “accident of birth” suggests that the same person, magically plopped into a different context, would be the same person. This is patently not true. Nelson Mandela’s 26+ years in prison shaped his character and his ability to speak with moral authority. We honor individuals precisely because of the particularities. Conversely, we (rightly) discount the voice of those whose lived experience has not persevered through adversity. The actual, historic, geographical, relational situation of each and every human person matters. We dishonor both the poor and the virtuous by any suggestion that anything about them is accidental or incidental.

About Graham Scharf

My name is Graham Scharf. I am a father of two delightful daughters, the husband of a developmental pediatrician, a NYC Teaching Fellow alumnus, co-founder of Tumblon.com and author of The Apprenticeship of Being Human.
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