Is Success Ever Earned?
There are winners and losers in most endeavors, but does anyone ever deserve to win at what they’re doing? Reflexively, we’d think that, of course, some victories are earned. But let’s look at what has to happen to produce a victory, to confirm whether the commonsense idea of earned success makes any sense.
There seem to be three main factors in any success:
- talent, or our genetic or inborn capacities
- hard work, meaning practice, effort, and the choice to develop or to apply our skills
- luck, including environmental circumstances.
When we examine these factors, it starts to look as if the notion of personal merit were a mirage.
The capacities and aptitudes we’re born with can give us decisive advantages. We might be an artistic prodigy or we might excel at working with language or numbers or perhaps we’re just predisposed to being more interested in this or that subject, which drives us to work hard in that area (leading to the second factor).
But to say that we deserve either our genetic disadvantages or our success to the extent that the latter is produced by our inborn advantage is as grotesque as suggesting that a person might deserve her genetic disadvantages. If children born with deformities, handicaps, or mental challenges don’t deserve them, there’s no reason to think the opposite is true in the case of more favourable traits.
The only way to show that we deserve what we’re born with would be to bring religion into the picture and to say that we’re intelligently designed by a wise deity or that our spirits reincarnate, in which case perhaps we choose our bodies from one life to the next. Only in some such scenario would the rather conservative notion, that we merit our lot in life in so far as our position derives from our innate traits and body-type, be at least half-way intelligible.
I won’t bother taking apart these religious notions here. For our purposes, we should note merely that if such far-fetched theological assumptions are needed to sustain the common conviction that some successes are merited, that conviction is off to a poor start.
The second factor, hard work, seems much more promising since here we have the element of choice. We can choose to work hard, to practice, and to overcome our laziness, and we surely deserve the fruit of our labor, no?
But notice that much of the hard work needed to succeed consists of flatly unethical behavior, including stabbing rivals in the back, lying to get ahead, or just treating competitors as less than fully human, as acquaintances whom you hold at arm’s length rather than empathize with on existential or “spiritual” grounds.
Clearly, success won at such a cost would require a topsy-turvy moral system in which good is bad and right is wrong. In that case, we’d have lost all sense of morality and have a mere Pyrrhic victory. We’d “deserve” our success but that merit would have lost its meaning.
This kind of unethical effort is most prominent in capitalistic societies and in natural, amoral settings, especially when resources are scarce and the competitors aren’t inclined to cooperate or to sacrifice their chance to maximize their personal welfare by winning at the others’ expense.
Moreover, even when someone succeeds based on hard work which isn’t intended to make life harder for her rivals, honest work may nevertheless have that mixed outcome. When resources, opportunities, or positions are limited, they have to be shared or exclusively occupied, and the superiority of anything produced by hard work might be more prized than the inferior products of workers who are out-hustled.
Perhaps that’s as it should be: the winners deserve to be favored because they worked for it, and the losers likewise deserve to lose because they didn’t work as hard. Morally, though, there’s a complication. In so far as the hard-won success has the side-effect of limiting other people’s chances of doing as well, the victory is tainted. We’re able to ignore these side-effects because we focus on our welfare and lack the imagination to reflect on all the repercussions of our actions, but this hardly means a success has only an equally positive impact on everyone.
Indeed, in an environment with limited resources, one person’s success contributes to the bad luck or to the disadvantageous environment faced by her rivals (the third factor).
Game theory models this dynamic with the concept of a zero-sum game, a game in which each point scored comes at an equivalent loss for the other player so that at the end of the game, the points of all the players add up to zero. In this kind of game, it’s impossible for all players to do well or to do poorly together because each progressive step for one player amounts to a detriment for the other players.
Are there non-zero-sum environments in which hard-won success needn’t be ethically tainted by its indirect negative impacts on other members of society? Only in the kind of abstractions entertained by the pseudoscience of math-centered economics or by the toy models of game theory, which externalize real-word complexities as dictated by the theorist’s political orientation.
For example, a conventional non-zero-sum trade would be between two countries that have different comparative advantages: one specializes in growing trees, the other in building furniture, so the second country gladly pays for the wood with the profits earned from their high-quality furniture.
This looks like a win-win since neither party is punished by the other’s benefit. But we can easily recognize that this is a mere abstraction, since in the real world there aren’t just two countries involved in the transaction, and the benefits and potential harms needn’t be limited to that immediate time frame.
What are the costs and benefits of the first country’s practice of growing or cutting down so many trees that are valuable in the other country’s furniture market? What are the indirect upsides and downsides of having a competitive, capitalistic economy in the first place, complete with its materialistic, egoistic ideology, which sustains this “win-win” purchase of lumber? Might the downsides include de-unionization, an end of real wage growth for the middle-class workers of developed countries, and the rise of the precarious gig economy?
Obviously, to the extent that any trade facilitates the mindset of consumerism, and that mindset has a disastrous impact on the planet which endangers all competitors in the future, as climate scientists maintain it does, the economist’s game-theoretic simplifications aren’t likely to rescue the contention that some successes are simply earned.
Finally, there’s luck, which is the opposite of what’s earned. In fact, the first factor, talent, is subsumed by this third one, since luck accounts for the bodies and genes with which we’re born.
Luck or chance has to do with the mathematical distribution of odds, which are quintessentially impartial and therefore in conflict precisely with the assumption that we can get what we deserve in life. In so far as your success is due to luck, you necessarily didn’t earn it. Likewise, if a failure is caused by bad luck, that failure is unmerited.
Fortune and misfortune amount to the world’s physical, amoral unfolding which happens to benefit some and to disadvantage others for no rhyme or reason. That’s just how the cookie crumbles.
It’s hard even to imagine a scenario in which every circumstance could be intelligently accounted for such that luck doesn’t intervene in some endeavor and the outcome can be perfectly earned, let alone to maintain that in a real-world attempt to succeed, luck may play no role. Luck is always a factor since we never control all variables and initial conditions in a situation. Regardless of how much effort we put into our victory (or loss), the rest of the world has its say too, and the world can be with us one minute and against us the next.
Can we “make our luck,” as feel-good, prosperity theologies would have it? If we envision our success with enough “positive vibrations,” will the “law of attraction” necessarily pay off? Again, I won’t evaluate this far-fetched response in any detail here, but will only point out that the resort to such New Age gibberish should alert us to the fact that our commonsense pride in our accomplishments may not be as intellectually responsible as it seems.
Science and the Threat of Nihilism
Of course, these three considerations typically don’t spoil our self-esteem or the celebrations of our triumphs in life. Those factors come into play, rather, to soothe our wounded pride when we suffer losses since we’d rather blame others or the world in general than be held accountable for our actions when we fail.
We maintain our fragile self-confidence by focusing on our choices, efforts, and contributions that prove favorable and we explain the benefits we enjoy by attributing them to the factors that were under our control, to make it seem like we earned them, thereby ignoring the unintended or long-term damages and the luck factor. We oversimplify in something like the neoclassical economist’s prejudiced manner, since we naturally care most about ourselves and that narrowness of concern drives our judgment of what’s explanatorily relevant.
Clearly, though, the question of whether anyone really deserves anything at all isn’t as clear cut as commonsense would have it.
To understand this better, we should distinguish between the causal and the moral questions. Success or failure may have certain causes, such as the above three: genetics, personal effort, and environmental circumstance. But just because something is found reliably at the end of a causal chain doesn’t mean the effect thereby has any moral value.
Just because we excel at succeeding in some task doesn’t mean we ought to have done so or that we deserve praise or the benefits. This is what’s overlooked by Aristotle’s teleology, for example. Aristotle compared natural processes to artificial ones so that he could say that everything has its purpose and its proper position. After the Scientific Revolution, that anthropocentric view of nature became untenable, which means that values or judgments of what ought to be so aren’t fundamental.
The more we reflect on the above complications, the more we should hesitate to speak in such unqualified terms about whether anyone deserves anything. If objective events are inherently amoral, the question of what ought to happen is arbitrary or otherwise suspect. Perhaps we can still justify some talk of morality, but we’d likely have to do so without falling back on outmoded commonsense.
Commonsense Pride and Enlightened Humility
For example, there are two attitudes that seem relevant here, one of which is much more prevalent than the other. The received wisdom of commonsense is meant to boost our pride and self-confidence. We feel we ought to be proud of our accomplishments or at least to celebrate them when they happen, knowing that the tide may turn.
But narrow-minded pride is antithetical to the more realistic, philosophical attitude of humility. Pride is based on egoistic illusions, whereas humility, a coming-to-terms with our smallness in the big picture, is based on the background knowledge that value judgments of an event are at best oversimplifications, if not distortions of how anything really comes to pass.
Some successful athletes or actors like to display humility when they’re awarded for their victories. They thank God, their parents, and their trainers, and they make a show of not putting much stock in the praise they receive for their work. But of course, they show up to receive the award and they go to the trouble of competing in the first place and of accepting the millions of dollars in compensation.
Feigned humility is a type of pandering. We want to win over support from those whose religion dictates that they abhor arrogance or we want to maintain the appearance that we deserve a starring role in our personal narrative, that we’re a heroic protagonist.
By contrast, real humility is debilitating. Real humility isn’t just for losers, but for those who opt-out of conventional society because they regard its values and practices as delusions and shams. Cynics, artists, mystics, and ascetics — radical outsiders like these don’t take conventional myths for granted. If they still think there’s a sense in which actions deserve some outcome, their value system nevertheless conflicts with standard practice in society.
More likely, these social outsiders adopt something like what the philosopher Thomas Nagel called the objective, cosmic, impersonal “view from nowhere,” which enables them to see through the charades that make us happy.
If we ask what it means to speak of “earned success” or “merited failure,” we find we have to appeal to dubious conceptions that are nevertheless crucial to our mainstream ways of life. We find we have to presuppose egoism or parochial self-interest, if not also this or that theological narrative that conveniently buttresses capitalism and consumerism. We have to ignore the logical gap between causal explanations and moral assessments.
Ultimately, we’re poised to feel some shame for imposing arbitrary evaluations on amoral, largely chance-ridden events or on our personal status, since those simplistic appraisals are undermined by their unforeseeable social ramifications.
This is close to the Buddhist’s point about the complex interdependence of all events that makes nonsense of the alleged independence of our personal self. But the Buddhist presupposes that we ought to be minimizing the suffering caused by that conventional delusion. The challenge for enlightened individuals, rather, is whether the adequate mindset, the one that conforms to objective reality is nihilistic.
If it is, we should be wondering whether the enlightened nihilist has any reason to get up in the morning. Otherwise, we should be looking for a sustainable value system that’s isn’t so superficial or archaic.