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.