Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality
Mark Rowlands (Author) $25.95 November 2013
Like Mark Rowlands, I am a runner, a known associate of canines, and a philosopher in Florida. This probably makes me either well qualified as a reviewer or hopelessly biased.
While the book centers on the intrinsic value of running, it also addresses the broader topics of moral value and the meaning of life. While Rowlands references current theories of evolutionary biology, he is engaging in philosophy of the oldest school—the profound and difficult struggle to grasp the Good.
Decisively avoiding the punishing style that often infects contemporary philosophy, Rowlands’ well-crafted tale invites the reader into his thoughts and reflections. While Rowlands runs with canines rather than his fellow “big arsed apes” his writing has the pleasant feel of the well-told running story. While the tale covers a span of decades, it is nicely tied together by his account of his first marathon.
Since the book is about running and philosophy, there is the question of whether or not the book is too philosophical for runners and too “runsophical” for philosophers. Fortunately, Rowlands clearly presents the philosophical aspects of the work in a way that steers nicely between the rocks of being too technical for non-philosophers and being too simplistic for philosophers. As such, non-philosophers and philosophers should find the philosophical aspects both comprehensible and interesting.
In regards to the running part, Rowlands takes a similar approach: those who know little of running are provided with the needed context while Rowlands’s skill ensures that he still captures the attention of veteran runners. This approach ensures that those poor souls who are unfamiliar with both running and philosophy will still find the book approachable and comprehensible.
While the narrative centers on running, the book is a run across the fields of value and the hills of meaning. In addition to these broad themes, Rowlands presents what seems to be the inevitable non-American’s critique of American values. However, Rowlands’s critique of American values (especially our specific brand of instrumentalism) is a friend’s critique: someone who really likes us, but is worried about some of our values and choices. Lest anyone think that Rowlands is solely critiquing America, his general concern is with the contemporary view of value as being purely instrumental. Against this view he endeavors to argue for intrinsic value. Not surprisingly, he claims that running has intrinsic value in addition to its obvious instrumental value. While this claim generally seems self-evident to runners, in the context of philosophy it must be proven and Rowlands sets out to do just that.
Interestingly, he begins with a little known paper by Moritz Schlick in which he contends that play has intrinsic value. He then moves to Bernard Suits’s account of what it is to be game and notes that running is a form of play; that is, it involves picking an inefficient means of achieving a goal for the sake of engaging in the activity. Running is not a efficient way of getting around in an age of cars, but runners often run for the sake of running-thus running can be a game.
As Rowlands tells the reader, his approach is not strictly linear and he takes interesting, but relevant, side trips into such matters as the nature of the self and of love. These side trips are rather like going off the main trail in a run—but, of course, one is really still on the run.
Near the end of this run, Rowlands goes back to the origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. He notes that the gods, such as Zeus, showed us that play is an essential part of what is best. The philosophers showed us that the most important thing is to love the good. The athletes taught us that running is play and therefore has intrinsic value.
He ends his run with a discussion of joy, which is the recognition of things with intrinsic value. As he says, dogs and children understand joy but when we become adults we lose our understanding—but this need not be a permanent loss.
While Rowlands’s case is well reasoned, he does face the serious challenge of establishing intrinsic value within the context of what I call the MEM (mechanistic, evolutionary, and materialist) world. Many ancient (and later) philosophers unashamedly helped themselves to teleological and metaphysical foundations for the Good. While this generated problems, this approach could seemingly ground intrinsic value. While I agree with Rowlands’s conclusion, I am in less agreement with his attempt to establish intrinsic value in his chosen world view. But, it is a good run and I respect that.
Like a long run, Rowlands’ book covers a great deal of ground. Also like a long run, it is well worth finishing. Plus there are dogs (the most philosophical of animals).
When I return to visit my home town in Maine, I run my favorite route. This year was no exception and the early morning found me running through the forests and fields of the University of Maine. Emerging from a section of the cool and shaded pine forest, I spotted a large buck standing, with a clear sense of the aesthetic, in an open area. He saw me almost immediately and our eyes met across the distance.
The deer and I are both the product of untold generations of natural selection (or, perhaps, the result of design) and we are both well equipped to do what it is that we do. Or, in more teleological terms, we possess attributes that enable us to fulfill our functions with a degree of excellence.
Both the deer and I are equipped with a decent array of senses, although the deer has something of an edge here. We are, interestingly enough, both well optimized for running. However, we are somewhat different sorts of runners. The deer is much faster than I, but I have an advantage in endurance. While I am not a tireless runner, I can (and have) run for hours. The deer can outrun me, but I can outlast the deer. So, a contest between us could come down to his speed against my endurance. I also have a special advantage—my species excels at handling heat. On this warm day, this gives me an edge over the deer.
While the deer is equipped with hooves and horns for offense, I would seem to be poorly equipped. As a human, I lack a proper set of killing teeth and my nails are stubs—shameful nubs when compared to the magnificent claws of a proper mammalian predator like a lion or beer.
However, I have hands and a pretty good brain. As such, I can make and use weapons. For example, the tree limbs I ran past could be easily converted into a club. I also have the ability to throw quite well, thanks to my eyes and arms—unlike any other animal I can hurl an object with force and accuracy over a fairly long distance. Even without weapons, my training allows me to use my hands, feet and grip lethally. In this regard, I am more than a match for the deer in unarmed combat. However, the deer is not helpless. Far from it—nature has blessed him with the tools he needs to survive against hunters like me and my four-legged brethren.
As I look at the deer, the remembered flavor of venison fills my mouth. Venison is my second favorite meat. My favorite is veal, which I gave up almost thirty years ago thanks to Singer’s book Animal Liberation. I also feel the runner’s desire to see if I can outrun someone else. I also have the mental traits that make me a suitable hunter: the aggression, courage and toughness needed to engage another living creature and inflict (and sustain) the damage needed to secure a meal. The deer also has his traits: caution, cunning and courage—I know that while he would endeavor to run, he would also fight for his survival.
The deer shifts slightly and seems to gaze more intently at me—as if he somehow knows that I am hearing the ancient call of the hunter. I can certainly feel the desire to pursue the deer, to face the challenge of the chase. I can see that the deer is getting ready to run. As I have been shaped by my hunter ancestors, he has been shaped by his ancestors—the hunted. We are, as I have said, both very good at what it is we do. We are, after all, what we are.
While I am well equipped for the hunt, I am also endowed with something else—the ability to engage in moral reasoning. While I am hungry (I am seven miles into a 14 mile run), I know that I have breakfast waiting for me. I have no need to kill the deer for food. I will not waste a life simply to gain a trophy, so I would certainly not rob the deer of his life merely in order to rob him of his antlers. While I would love to chase him for sport, I am sure he would not enjoy the game—he would not know it was a game and it would terrify him and waste his energy. As Kant said, cruelty for the sake of mere sport is not something that I, as a rational being, should be involved with. I will not play a game unless everyone involved knows it is just a game. At least, when I am at my moral best, that is what I will do—I do admit to the desire to yield to the call of the chase.
I turn away from the deer, running through the tall grass. The deer turns away as well, heading back into the woods. It is a beautiful day and we both have many miles to run.
There are many ways to die, but the public concern tends to focus on whatever is illuminated in the media spotlight. 2012 saw considerable focus on guns and some modest attention on a somewhat unexpected and perhaps ironic killer, namely pain medication. In the United States, about 20,000 people die each year (about one every 19 minutes) due to pain medication. This typically occurs from what is called “stacking”: a person will take multiple pain medications and sometimes add alcohol to the mix resulting in death. While some people might elect to use this as a method of suicide, most of the deaths appear to be accidental—that is, the person had no intention of ending his life.
The number of deaths is so high in part because of the volume of painkillers being consumed in the United States. Americans consume 80% of the world’s painkillers and the consumption jumped 600% from 1997 to 2007. Of course, one rather important matter is the reasons why there is such an excessive consumption of pain pills.
One reason is that doctors have been complicit in the increased use of pain medications. While there have been some efforts to cut back on prescribing pain medication, medical professionals were generally willing to write prescriptions for pain medication even in cases when such medicine was not medically necessary. This is similar to the over-prescribing of antibiotics that has come back to haunt us with drug resistant strains of bacteria. In some cases doctors no doubt simply prescribed the drugs to appease patients. In other cases profit was perhaps a motive. Fortunately, there have been serious efforts to address this matter in the medical community.
A second reason is that pharmaceutical companies did a good job selling their pain medications and encouraged doctors to prescribe them and patients to use them. While the industry had no intention of killing its customers, the pushing of pain medication has had that effect.
Of course, the doctors and pharmaceutical companies do not bear the main blame. While the companies supplied the product and the doctors provided the prescriptions, the patients had to want the drugs and use the drugs in order for this problem to reach the level of an epidemic.
The main causal factor would seem to be that the American attitude towards pain changed and resulted in the above mentioned 600% increase in the consumption of pain killers. In the past, Americans seemed more willing to tolerate pain and less willing to use heavy duty pain medications to treat relatively minor pains. These attitudes changed and now Americans are generally less willing to tolerate pain and more willing to turn to prescription pain killers. I regard this as a moral failing on the part of Americans.
As an athlete, I am no stranger to pain. I have suffered the usual assortment of injuries that go along with being a competitive runner and a martial artist. I also received some advanced education in pain when a fall tore my quadriceps tendon. As might be imagined, I have received numerous prescriptions for pain medication. However, I have used pain medications incredibly sparingly and if I do get a prescription filled, I usually end up properly disposing of the vast majority of the medication. I do admit that I did make use of pain medication when recovering from my tendon tear—the surgery involved a seven inch incision in my leg that cut down until the tendon was exposed. The doctor had to retrieve the tendon, drill holes through my knee cap to re-attach the tendon and then close the incision. As might be imagined, this was a source of considerable pain. However, I only used the pain medicine when I needed to sleep at night—I found that the pain tended to keep me awake at first. Some people did ask me if I had any problem resisting the lure of the pain medication (and a few people, jokingly I hope, asked for my extras). I had no trouble at all. Naturally, given that so many people are abusing pain medication, I did wonder about the differences between myself and my fellows who are hooked on pain medication—sometimes to the point of death.
A key part of the explanation is my system of values. When I was a kid, I was rather weak in regards to pain. I infer this is true of most people. However, my father and others endeavored to teach me that a boy should be tough in the face of pain. When I started running, I learned a lot about pain (I first started running in basketball shoes and got huge, bleeding blisters). My main lesson was that an athlete did not let pain defeat him and certainly did not let down the team just because something hurt. When I started martial arts, I learned a lot more about pain and how to endure it. This training instilled me with the belief that one should endure pain and that to give in to it would be dishonorable and wrong. This also includes the idea that the use of painkillers is undesirable. This was balanced by the accompanying belief, namely that a person should not needlessly injure his body. As might be suspected, I learned to distinguish between mere pain and actual damage occurring to my body.
Of course, the above just explains why I believe what I do—it does not serve to provide a moral argument for enduring pain and resisting the abuse of pain medication. What is wanted are reasons to think that my view is morally commendable and that the alternative is to be condemned. Not surprisingly, I will turn to Aristotle here.
Following Aristotle, one becomes better able to endure pain by habituation. In my case, running and martial arts built my tolerance for pain, allowing me to handle the pain ever more effectively, both mentally and physically. Because of this, when I fell from my roof and tore my quadriceps tendon, I was able to drive myself to the doctor—I had one working leg, which is all I needed. This ability to endure pain also serves me well in lesser situations, such as racing, enduring committee meetings and grading papers.
This, of course, provides a practical reason to learn to endure pain—a person is much more capable of facing problems involving pain when she is properly trained in the matter. Someone who lacks this training and ability will be at a disadvantage when facing situations involving pain and this could prove harmful or even fatal. Naturally, a person who relies on pain medication to deal with pain will not be training themselves to endure. Rather, she will be training herself to give in to pain and become dependent on medication that will become increasingly ineffective. In fact, some people end up becoming even more sensitive to pain because of their pain medication.
From a moral standpoint, a person who does not learn to endure pain properly and instead turns unnecessarily to pain medication is doing harm to himself and this can even lead to an untimely death. Naturally, as Aristotle would argue, there is also an excess when it comes to dealing with pain: a person who forces herself to endure pain beyond her limits or when doing so causes actually damage is not acting wisely or virtuously, but self-destructively. This can be used in a utilitarian argument to establish the wrongness of relying on pain medication unnecessarily as well as the wrongness of enduring pain stupidly. Obviously, it can also be used in the context of virtue theory: a person who turns to medication too quickly is defective in terms of deficiency; one who harms herself by suffering beyond the point of reason is defective in terms of excess.
Currently, Americans are, in general, suffering from a moral deficiency in regards to the matter of pain tolerance and it is killing us at an alarming rate. As might be suspected, there have been attempts to address the matter through laws and regulations regarding pain medication prescriptions. This supplies people with a will surrogate—if a person cannot get pain medication, then she will have to endure the pain. Of course, people are rather adept at getting drugs illegally and hence such laws and regulations are of limited effectiveness.
What is also needed is a change in values. As noted above, Americans are generally less willing to tolerate even minor pains and are generally willing to turn towards powerful pain medication. Since this was not always the case, it seems clear that this could be changed via proper training and values. What people need is, as discussed in an earlier essay, training of the will to endure pain that should be endured and resist the easy fix of medication.
In closing, I am obligated to add that there are cases in which the use of pain medication is legitimate. After all, the body and will are not limitless in their capacities and there are times when pain should be killed rather than endured. Obvious cases include severe injuries and illnesses. The challenge then, is sorting out what pain should be endured and what should not. Since I am a crazy runner, I tend to err on the side of enduring pain—sometimes foolishly so. As such, I would probably not be the best person to address this matter.
The arrive of a new year typically causes me to think about past years-this usually involves remembering how good I used to be. Since some might suspect that the older I get, the better I used to be, I thought I’d post my best running times. Or at least the best times that I actually have supporting documentation for-I did not actually start recording my runs until the fall of 1987 and the tracking of Maine races back in the 1980s was limited, at best. There are probably some dusty records back at Marietta College as well-I should probably look for those one of these days.
As might be imagined, my current times are somewhat slower than these. But time can be cruel.
WTP will note that I have used an old newspaper clipping rather than a shirtless image of myself. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to post somewhat fewer such photos than in 2012. It will be tough, but Dr. Phil is coaching me and Sixpack Chopra (Deepak Chopra’s cooler and less annoying younger brother) is also on board as my spiritual guide.
|10K||33:45||Peter Ott’s 10K|
|13.1 (Half Marathon)||1:24||1/17/1999|
In the United States, race has been forged into a matter of great concern—at least for some people. One of the not uncommonly expressed concerns is whether or not someone is black. In the past, this was often a concern that a black person might be attempting to pass as white. As might be imagined, this was mostly a matter of concern to certain white people. In more recent years a twist has been added to the matter of discerning a person’s blackness. To be specific, one matter that concerns some people is whether or not a person is authentically black as opposed, presumably, to being inauthentically black. In such cases, the racial classification of the person is generally not in dispute. That is, s/he is identified as being black. The concern is, rather, over whether or not the person is properly black. As such, this adds another normative level to the judgment being made.
One recent incident that raised this matter occurred on the ESPN program “First Take.” While this is a sports program, the conversation turned to race when Rob Parker asked if Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is “a brother or is he a cornball brother?” This, on the face of it, seems to be in inquiry into whether or not Griffin is “properly black” or not. When asked what he meant, Parker replied “well, he’s black, he kind of does his thing. But he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us. He’s kind of black. But he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with because he’s off to do something else.”
While Parker does not clearly lay out detailed standards for being authentically black, he did expand on his remarks in a way that suggested what he meant by “being down with the cause.” Parker noted that Griffin has a white fiancée and that there are rumors that he is a Republican.
Parker’s concern over Griffin having a white fiancée is not uncommon. While whites have often been dismayed by attempts to “mix the races” (and it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled against laws restricting marriage based on race), blacks sometimes criticize other blacks for having relationships with non-blacks. Interestingly and disturbingly, the reasons advanced against “race mixing” often mirror those advanced by racist whites (such as preserving the race). As such, this sort of criticism of Griffin seems to be racist. Naturally, there have been attempts to defend opposition to “race mixing” as being non-racist, but that seems to be a rather challenging (but perhaps not impossible) goal.
Of course, even if being suspicious of “race mixing” is at least a bit racist, it could still be argued that being authentically black requires that a person only have relationships with other black people. That is, that being involved with a non-black would somehow make a person less properly black. Presumably this could apply to other races, so that a white person who dates outside of her race is not properly white and so on for the other races. That is, to be a proper member of the race, one must only be involved with one’s own race. This, of course, requires working out an account of race so that people can date properly if they wish to be authentic. After all, if having a relationship with a person of another race causes one to be inauthentic, then presumably it would follow that dating someone of mixed race could lead to a partial inauthenticity. There is also the obvious problem that “race mixing” has already occurred on a rather large scale and hence those concerned with racial authenticity will need to sort out the matter of mixed-race people, such as President Obama and myself (I’m a colonial blend of English, French, Mohawk and “other”).
Parker’s second main point seems to be in regards to the rumor that Griffin is a Republican. While the Republicans were once popular with African-Americans, that certainly changed (and did so well before Obama ran for president in 2008). The modern Republican Party is often regarded as being tainted with racism and, at the very least, is regarded primarily as a white male party. Not surprisingly, known black Republicans, such as Colin Powell and Herman Cain, are sometimes accused of selling out or even of being “Uncle Toms.” The underlying assumption seems to be that the Republican Party is simply not the place for an authentic black American, presumably because of the values endorsed (or attributed to) the Republican Party.
This does, of course, raise the obvious question as to whether or not being properly black entails that one is obligated to hold to a specific set of political views (namely those not held by the Republican Party). This would seem to suggest that part of the definition of being authentically black involves not merely appearance (having black skin) but also ideology. This would indicate that authentic blackness is not merely a matter of race but also of mind. On the face of it, it does seem odd that being an authentic black would be incompatible with being Republican. After all, while the Republican Party is often presented as the white party, a white person who is a Democrat (or independent) is not regarded as being an inauthentic white. But perhaps things are different for whites.
As a final point, Parker does seem to regard physical appearance as an important part of being an authentic black. When speaking of Griffin’s braids he said, “To me, that’s very urban…. You’re a brother if you have braids on.”
While Parker might be presenting a sufficient condition for being “a brother” (presumably being authentically black), it seems reasonable to assume that it is not a necessary condition. It is not, however, clear to what degree the braids offset the other suspicious qualities of Griffin or others. However, combining this remark with the other claims made by Parker, it would seem that racial authenticity involves behavior (specifically relationships), ideology (specifically politics) and appearance (specifically hairstyle). This would seem to provide the basis for a theorist to work out an account of authenticity.
Given what Parker has said, one might wonder what Griffin thinks about the matter of color. Interestingly, Griffin echoes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “For me, you don’t ever want to be defined by the color of your skin. You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That’s what I’ve tried to go out and do.” Griffin, then, seems more concerned with being authentically himself than with meeting a Parker style standard of being authentically black. Not surprisingly, I agree with Griffin in this matter.
How many pictures of a shirtless Mike does the internet actually need?
This question has a clear normative aspect in that it addresses the matter of what the internet needs. This could be taken as a moral question or, more plausibly, an aesthetic question. Taken as an aesthetic question it raises the issue of the aesthetic needs of the internet.
Fortunately, this is one philosophical question that admits of a definitive answer. This answer is, of course, “all of them.”
This answer can be based on numerous theories, since all plausible theories will yield the same answer. For example, the shirtless imperative states that “act in a way such that if a picture of Mike shows him shirtless, then it is posted on the internet.” As another example, the shirtutilitarian theory states ”actions are good as they tend to promote the posting of pictures of a shirtless Mike; wrong as they tend to retard the posting of pictures of a shirtless Mike.” Even the shirtless command theory makes the matter clear: “thou shalt post shirtless pictures of Mike on the internet.”
The Noble Philosophy Prize for this year will be going to WTP for his work on this matter.
As a runner, martial artist and philosopher I have considerable interest in the matter of the will. As might be imagined, my view of the will is shaped mostly by my training and competitions. Naturally enough, I see the will from my own perspective and in my own mind. As such, much as Hume noted in his discussion of personal identity, I am obligated to note that other people might find that their experiences vary considerably. That is, other people might see their will as very different or they might even not believe that they have a will at all.
As a gamer, I also have the odd habit of modeling reality in terms of game rules and statistics—I am approaching the will in the same manner. This is, of course, similar to modeling reality in other ways, such as using mathematical models.
In my experience, my will functions as a mental resource that allows me to remain in control of my actions. To be a bit more specific, the use of the will allows me to prevent other factors from forcing me to act or not act in certain ways. In game terms, I see the will as being like “hit points” that get used up in the battle against these other factors. As with hit points, running out of “will points” results in defeat. Since this is rather abstract, I will illustrate this with two examples.
This morning (as I write this) I did my usual Tuesday work out: two hours of martial arts followed by about two hours of running. Part of my running workout was doing hill repeats in the park—this involves running up and down the hill over and over (rather like marching up and down the square). Not surprisingly, this becomes increasingly painful and fatiguing. As such, the pain and fatigue were “trying” to stop me. I wanted to keep running up and down the hill and doing this required expending those will points. This is because without my will the pain and fatigue would stop me well before I am actually physically incapable of running anymore. Roughly put, as long as I have will points to expend I could keep running until I collapse from exhaustion. At that point no amount of will can move the muscles and my capacity to exercise my will in this matter would also be exhausted. Naturally, I know that training to the point of exhaustion would do more harm than good, so I will myself to stop running even though I desire to keep going. I also know from experience that my will can run out while racing or training—that is, I give in to fatigue or pain before my body is actually at the point of physically failing. These occurrences are failures of will and nicely illustrate that the will can run out or be overcome.
After my run, I had my breakfast and faced the temptation of two boxes of assorted chocolates. Like all humans, I really like sugar and hence there was a conflict between my hunger for chocolate and my choice to not shove lots of extra calories and junk into my pie port. My hunger, of course, “wants” to control me. But, of course, if I yield to the hunger for chocolate then I am not in control—the desire is directing me against my will. Of course, the hunger is not going to simply “give up” and it must be controlled by expending will and doing this keeps me in control of my actions by making them my choice.
Naturally, many alternatives to the will can be presented. For example, Hobbes’ account of deliberation is that competing desires (or aversions) “battle it out”, but the stronger always wins and thus there is no matter of will or choice. However, I rather like my view more and it seems to match my intuitions and experiences.
Long ago, when I was a young boy, I was afflicted with the dread three Ss. That is, I was Small, Smart and (worst of all) Sensitive. As a good father, my dad endeavored to see to it that I developed the proper virtues of a young man. Fortunately, his efforts were ultimately successful although the path was, I am sure, not quite what he expected. Mainly because the path was mostly track, road and trail rather than field, court and gridiron.
As part of this process, I was sent to basketball camp to develop my skills in this reputable game. I was a terrible player with no real skill and I had no real interest in the sport. I much preferred reading over shooting hoops. However, I went to the camp and tried to do the best I could within the limits of my abilities.
During one drill, the coach yelled out for the best player to run to the center of the court. Immediately all the other boys rushed to the center of the court. Being honest in my assessment of my abilities I did not move. While I might not have been the worst player present, I was clearly not the best. I was not even within free throw distance of the best. For some reason, the coach made all the boys do pushups. He also made me do pushups, albeit double the number done by the other boys.
I thought this was very odd since this sort of thing seemed to encourage self-deception and that seemed, even to the young me, wrong. I recall quite well getting considerable abuse for my actions, which made me think even more about the matter. I did know better than to discuss this with anyone at the time, but I have thought about it over the years.
In recent years, I have run into something similar. I am always asked before I go to race if I will win. I always give an honest answer, which is usually “no.” This always results in an expression of dismay. While I have won races, I am now 46 years old and folks with far fewer years and miles show up to take their rightful place ahead of me, earning this because they are better than I am. My pride and arrogance, of course, compel me to say that when I was the age of many of my competitors, I was faster than they are now. But, as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Barring a TARDIS picking up my twenty-something self to go to the races of now (to save the galaxy, of course—racing is very important) I am forced to content myself with a folly of age: looking back on how good I was and comparing the younger me with my current competition.
One the one hand, I do get the point of self-deception in regards to one’s abilities. After all, it could be argued, that a person thinking incorrectly that he is the best would help him do better. That is, thinking he is the best will push him in the direction of being the best. I do, in fact, know people who are like this and they often push very hard in competition because they believe they are better than they actually are and are thus driven to contend against people who are, in fact, better than them. On the downside, when such people are defeated by those who are better, they sometimes grow angry and concoct excuses for their defeat to maintain the illusion of their superiority.
On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. There are, in fact, two well-known cognitive biases that involve a person thinking he is better than he is.
One is known as the “overconfidence effect.” This bias causes a person to believe that she has done better than she has in fact done. As a professor, I commonly see this bias when students get their grades. For example, I have lost track of the times a student has said “my paper felt like an A” when it was a D (or worse) or has said “I think I did great on the test” when it turns out that they did not do so great.
A closely related bias is the “better-than-average Illusion.” A person falls victim to this when she overestimates her abilities relative to others, usually those she is engaged in competition with. Since people often think very highly of themselves, people commonly fall into this trap.
While confidence can be a good thing (and thinking that one is going to do poorly is a way of contributing to making that a reality), this bias obviously has negative consequences. One rather serious problem is that it can lead people to actually do worse. After all, a person who overestimates her performance or abilities might not try as hard as she should—after all, she will think she is already doing much better than she is, thus overestimating her performance and coming to a false conclusion about, for example, her grade. This is most likely to occur when the person does not have immediate feedback, such as on a test or paper.
It can also have the impact of causing a person to “burn out” by trying to hard it based on a false assessment of his abilities. For example, a common sight at road races is inexperienced runners sprinting out ahead of the experienced (and better runners) only to quickly discover that they are not as a capable as they had believed. It can even happen to people who should know better. For example, some years ago I went to the USA 15K championship race as part of a team. Our supposed best runner was bragging about running with the Kenyans. Unfortunately, he got passed by some female runners (as did I—the race attracts top talent) and this apparently broke him to the point where he gave up. I knew my capabilities and was honest about them, so when the fast ladies surged past me I just stuck to my plan. I knew what I could do and what I could not do—and I knew I had a lot of race left and no reason to burn myself out due to a false belief in my abilities. Fortunately, the rest of the team delivered solid races and we took an honorable third place. My experience has been that I do better when I have an accurate assessment of my abilities relative to my competition, most especially in running. Naturally, I do my best—but to do this, I must have a reasonable gauge of what this is to avoid being overconfident and to resist being defeated by my own foolish and unfounded pride.
It might be objected that my rational assessment of my abilities robs me of the critical passion that one must have to be a true competitor. This is, however, not the case. As my friends will attest, while I am gracious in defeat I also hate to lose. In fact, honesty compels me to say that I hate losing slightly more than I love winning. And I really love to win. As such, when I get to the starting line, start presenting a philosophical paper to people looking to score philosophical pissing points, or join a competitive video game I am there to win and to make others lose. But, victory often rests on knowing what I and my competitors can and cannot do. I gain no advantage by deluding myself into thinking I am better than I am or they are worse than they are. True, I am not free of self-deception. But I do not willfully add to it.
Long ago, when I was a young boy, I was afflicted with the dread three Ss. That is, I was Small, Smart and (worst of all) Sensitive. As a good father, my dad endeavored to see to it that I developed the proper virtues of a young man.
As part of this process, I was sent to basketball camp. I was a terrible player with no skill and I had no real interest in the sport. I much preferred reading over shooting hoops. However, I went to the camp and tried to do the best I could within the limits of my abilities.
During one drill, the coach yelled out for the best player to run to the center of the court. Being honest in my assessment of my abilities I did not move. The coach made the other boys do pushups and made me do double the number, since I had failed to consider myself the best. I thought this was very odd since this sort of thing seemed to encourage self-deception and that seemed wrong. I recall quite well getting a lot of abuse for my actions, which made me think about the matter. I did know better than to discuss this with anyone, but I have thought about it over the years.
One the one hand, I do get the point of such self-deception. After all, it could be argued, that a person thinking incorrectly that he is the best would help him do better. That is, thinking he is the best will push him towards being the best.
On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. Of course, there is a clear challenge here, namely being motivated to be the best while still being realistic about one’s abilities.