by Chris Lebron
I’m not sure how many days are left in my life.
I am not suffering from a terminal disease. I don’t work in a high-risk occupation. No, I don’t have suicidal thoughts. I don’t even live in an especially dangerous neighborhood.
I am racially black and I live in America, which raises the question: Will I live as long as I intend?
Depending on who you are, the question may seem absurd. No one truly knows their own life span, and few live as long as they intend to. You may feel I am just being melodramatic in thinking that because I live in America as a black person I am somehow at special risk.
But I do believe that I am at special risk.
Let’s begin with an idea that is at the core America’s founding, and is also central to most 20th-century political and moral thinking, particularly in the work of John Rawls: a plan of life. When our revered founders decided to lift a gun against the British crown, a main pillar holding up the will to armed resistance was self-determination. On one level it mattered that the colonies be able to determine their fate as an independent entity. But that capacity for collective self-determination was very much in service of private or individual self-determination. That is why the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” roll of the average American’s tongue with such ease. These words indicate an essential American ideal: freedom, in particular, the freedom to cultivate ambition over a lifetime and see it to fruition without undue interference from other citizens or the state.
Without making too much of the plain fact that people’s ambitions change over time for any number of reasons, it is apparent that a person’s ability to plan for a life is a fundamental element of membership in a free society, and depends on at least three basic features of the world.
First, to plan for a life one must be able to see an open path to basic resources necessary to make good on a plan, such as education, housing and health care. Second, one must be able to rely on some degree of balance between the effort expended on realizing that life plan and the rewards received for that work. Finally, one must be able to depend on the absence of arbitrary interference or oppression, by either fellow citizens or the state.
Of course, things happen. We lose loved ones, jobs or faith, or we find them; we explore new skills; health conditions make us re-evaluate our priorities or goals. But these are normal contingencies of life. What I am referring to is something very different and has to do especially with the last condition of noninterference.