How Much is Me?

Usain Bolt winning the 100 m final 2008 Olympics

Back in my undergraduate days I was a participant in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. While almost all of the details of the debate have long since faded from my non-artificial mind, I still recall one exchange very vividly. The professor on the opposing side said that I believed in free will because I wanted to take credit for my successes. Being filled with the pride of youth, I replied with something to the effect of “of course, they are my successes.” I also recall showing some small wisdom by adding something like “my failures are also mine.” This was probably my first real attempt at reflecting on the extent to which I was responsible for my successes and failures. Naturally, this also got me thinking about success and failure in general and not just the specifics of my own victories and defeats.

Not surprisingly, I have thought about this matter over the years, often in the context of teaching. To use a small example, I have noticed that students who do well say things like “I earned an A” while students who do poorly typically say things like “the professor failed me.” At the start of each semester, at least one student will ask me if I fail students. My reply, which I make with a smile, is always “No. People fail themselves. I merely record the failure.” I follow that by saying that students have every chance to succeed and that I will do my best to ensure that they get the grade they earn. As might be imagined, being a teacher does tend to get a person thinking about who is responsible for the success and failures of students.

The matter of responsibility in regards to success (and failure) obviously extends far beyond the classroom. Thanks to a July, 2012 speech by President Obama, this matter became the focus in the political battle between Democrats and Republicans. The key part of Obama’s speech  is as follows:  “…Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

While some Republicans decided to interpret Obama as claiming that business owners owe all their success to others (especially the state), the most plausible interpretation is that Obama is claiming that people who are successful in business owe some of their success to others, including the state.

Mitt Romney, who was very critical of what he claims Obama meant, actually presented a very similar view about success back in 2002: “You Olympians, however, know you didn’t get here solely on your own power. For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers encouraged your hopes. Coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them. We’ve already cheered the Olympians, let’s also cheer the parents, coaches and communities.”

As with Obama, the most plausible interpretation of Romney’s remarks is that he is claiming that the athletes who made it to the Olympics owe some of their success to others.

These claims about success in business and sports seem to be intuitively plausible. Obviously, people do not appear as grown, educated adults ex nihilo via the power of their own will. Less obviously, but still rather obviously, business owners do not create their business out of nothing. To use a silly example, a business owner obviously does not invent the currency used to conduct business. In the case of Olympic athletes, they obviously do not just appear on the starting line with no support or assistance from others.

Outside of the reasoning damaging sphere of political rhetoric, the idea that people owe some or even much of their success to others (and perhaps even to the state) certainly seems intuitively plausible—at least enough so that anyone who claims to be entirely self-created would shoulder the burden of proof.  In any case, I would infer that anyone who can engage in such an act of self-creation would easily handle something as trivial as providing evidence of his/her amazing origin.

Assuming that I am right about this matter, the interesting question is not “do people owe some of their success (and failures) to others?” but “to what extent do people owe their success (and failures) to others?” Making this discussion manageable does require certain assumptions that can, of course, be challenged. I will be assuming that people have meaningful agency and that the universe is not strictly deterministic or entirely random. To illustrate this, I will use the example of a prize drawing after a 5K race. For those not familiar with such events, some races feature the usual earned awards (what the runners get for running well) as well as a prize drawing. One common way to do this is for the race director to pull out a runner’s race number from a bag. Interestingly, people often applaud as loudly when people win the (hopefully) random prize as they do for people who earn (hopefully) a trophy.

In a deterministic universe it makes little sense to speak of meaningful success or failure. To use my analogy, if I “win” the prize because it is determined that I will win (that is, it is rigged) then I have hardly succeeded and the others have hardly failed—there is no victory, there is no defeat.

The same holds true for a completely random universe. To use an analogy, if I “win” the prize because my number is pulled by pure chance, I have not succeeded and the others have not failed. Things have just happened by chance.

Success and failure, then, would thus seem to assume that the agent has a meaningful role in the outcome. Going back to the analogy, while I would not have succeeded by “winning” either a fixed or random drawing, I could succeed by winning a trophy in the 5K via my efforts. Naturally, the nature of this agency in even something as apparently straightforward as a 5K race is something of a mystery. However, for the sake of the discussion that will follow in additional essays, I must make this assumption of mysterious agency. After all, I want to think I earned all those trophies and I am obligated to accept the disgrace of my failures.

My Amazon author page.

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  1. I don’t have time for an in-depth response at the moment, but it occurs to me that there is a certain humor in making a statement like “I don’t believe in an individual success”… or, “I don’t believe in individual consciousness”.

    It’s awfully hard to tease out whether those are ideas simply imbedded in culture and language, or if they are real distinctions.

  2. …that anyone who claims to be entirely self-created would shoulder the burden of proof.

    It would seem to me that the strictly self-reliant successes would be extremely rare, and unusual in nature. For someone to accomplish something with absolutely no help from anyone else in any way, that would be extremely difficult.

    Perhaps we are talking about a less exhaustive version of “public aid,” but if taken literally, even in the most trivial ways, were we aided by someone else in some fashion or another.

  3. I agree with everything you say about agency and how we understand success. However, I want to add a little analysis that helps reassure us that it makes sense to applaud the winners even if they’re not really responsible for their victory.

    Two identical twins, after identical training, compete in a 5K. Twin A gives all his effort and beats twin B, who mentally gave up near the end.

    Presumably, there’s an ultimate sense in which it wasn’t B’s fault that he gave up. Something happened to him earlier, or some stray thought distracted him, or maybe experiences in his childhood made him less mentally tough. And A was just lucky that these things didn’t happen to him.

    But perhaps we can still cheer for A unreservedly, because our cheering may motivate A to keep being mentally tough and strive for achievement in the future. And mightn’t it motivate B, too, who may see A’s success and want to strive as well?

    So our response to success can still make sense even if our folk-psychological beliefs about luck vs effort/skill are ultimately flawed (because free will is an illusion).

  4. In what sense does it make sense to partake in a discussion like this? Does it not imply that an individual intends to inject causation into the functioning of a system? Shall that individual, in arguing there is no free will, not inherently violate his premise?

  5. Lee,

    People can argue against free will. Naturally, they will add that their argument is not a matter of free will.

    Also, even folks who buy into free will disagree about the extent and the nature of the freedom, thus allowing plenty of room for arguing.

  6. Thos.,

    True-we could still cheer for people on the grounds that doing so would motivate them. Also, there is the fact that we might not know that a person’s failure (or success) was not his/her responsibility. For example, a basketball player might slip while running while time is almost out and the ball could fly through the hoop. To the crowd, it looks like she made an amazing last second shot, but it was just chance. However, the applause of the crowd would seem appropriate-perhaps even if she said that it was just luck later on.

  7. Ben Myers-Petro,

    True-we all owe somebody something.

  8. I think you are right to say you earned all those trophies. And I also think you are correct to say you accept your failures. I could equally see how you could say you did not earned the trophies – that you were helped along the way. And that your failures were not of your own making – you were set up.

    So you could say,on one hand, there is free will, and on the other hand, there is no free will – a truism. Both exist.

  9. POD,

    Kant would be proud of you, handling those antimonies like a pro. 🙂

  10. It seems obvious that somebody who succeeds in some realm owes this in part to others (and perhaps, the state) — this is in some sense a simple analytic derivation of the meaning of <> (analytic in the sense analytic jugdment vs. synthetic jugdment).

    But there remains another mystery: if I owe to others in succeeding in any given realm, how is it that I could nevertheless, in some strange way, owe it to myself too?

    For the sake of the argument, I assume that the world is not purely deterministic, — that is, I really have some kind of responsibility in my successes. Otherwise, the philosophy we must adhere to, even though it be very odd and intriguing, is too simple too, and not so interesting for our present debate.

    So, let’s assume I hold some responsability of my successes, how can I account for that? Should I think there is some irreductible kernel of “POWER MINE” in my actions, that explains this ability which is mine? Or should I formalize it completely otherwise?

    In any case, how should this “POWER MINE” be labelled the best way? As “FREEDOM”, “FREE WILL”? I contend that: this labelling seems too simple.

    The most intriguing statement here is that this POWER MINE is so “atomic” in its essence, that it should perhaps escape any ontological characterization, by itself.

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