A Philosopher's Blog

Chance, Success & Failure

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 10, 2014

“The amazing, the unforgivable thing was that all his life he had watched the march of ruined men into the oblivion of poverty and disgrace—and blamed them.”

-The Weapon Shops of Isher, A.E. van Vogt


Dice for various games, especially for rolepla...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous essay, I discussed the role of chance in artistic success using Matthew Salganik’s virtual world experiment as a focus. In his discussion of this experiment, Salganik noted that it was likely to have implications for success (and failure) in a much broader context. Sorting out the role of chance in success and failure seems both interesting and rather important.

One obvious reason why it is important to sort out the role of chance is to provide a rational basis for assigning praise and blame (and the possible accompanying reward and punishment). After all, success or failure by pure chance would not (in general) seem to merit praise or blame. If I win a lottery by pure chance, I have done nothing that would warrant being praised—aside from acquiring a ticket, I had no substantial role in the process. Likewise, if I do not win the lottery, I do not warrant being accused of a failure.

This also, obviously enough, ties into morality: chance can mitigate moral responsibility. If the properly maintained brakes on my truck fail as I approach a stop sign at a reasonable speed and I thus crash into an innocent pedestrian, I am not to blame—this was a matter of chance. Likewise, if my truck were to crash into a person attempting murder in the street, I am also not responsible for this fortuitous outcome.

Somewhat less obvious is the tie this matter has to setting rational public policy and laws. After all, to set public policy on such matters as unemployment benefits and food stamps without properly assessing the role of chance in success and failure would be a grave moral error. Suppose that, as some claim, people end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of factors that are within their control—that is, they essentially decide their way into unemployment or need. If this is the case, then it would be reasonable to set public policy to reflect this alleged reality. The general idea would seem to be that there should not be such support. To use an analogy, if someone throws her money away foolishly, I have no obligation to give her more money. Her poor decision making does not constitute my obligation.

However, if chance (or other factors beyond the control of the individual) play a significant role in success and failure, then it would seem reasonable to shape policy to match this alleged reality. Suppose, as some claim, people do often end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of chance. In this case, public policy should reflect this alleged reality and such aid should be available to help offset chance.  To use an analogy, if someone stumbles across some muggers and is robbed of the money she needs to buy food for herself and her children, then her situation does obligate me—if can help her at reasonable cost to myself, I should certainly do so.

Thus, it would seem that sorting out the role of chance in success and failure is a rather important matter. Unfortunately, it is also a very complex matter. However, I think it would be helpful to use an example to show that chance does seem to be a major factor in success in factor. Since I am most familiar with my own life, I will do a short sketch of the role of chance in my success and failure.

As I mentioned in the previous essay on this matter, I have been accused of believing in choice because I want to get credit for my successes. As might be imagined, people who are successful tend to want to believe that their success is due largely to their own decisions and efforts—that they have earned success. Likewise, people who are failures often tend to blame chance (and other factors) as the cause of their failures. Both sets of people tend to also apply their view to the opposite of their situations: the successful also attribute the failure of the failures to the decisions of those who have failed while those who are failures attribute the success of others to chance. People do, quite clearly, embrace the narrative that pleases them most. However, what pleases need not be true. As such, while I like to believe that my success is earned, I am willing to carefully consider the role of chance.

One blindingly obvious factor that is entirely a matter of chance is the matter of birth: it is, if there is chance, a matter of chance that I was born in the United States to a middle-class family and that I was healthy and normal. It is also largely a matter of chance, from my standpoint, that I had a family that took care of me and that I was in a society that provided stability, healthcare and education. If I had been born in some war and poverty ravaged part of the world and had horrible health issues, things would obviously be much different.

The rest of my life was also heavy with chance. For example, I almost ended up a Marine, but budget cuts ended up preventing that and instead I ended up at Ohio State. I ended up meeting a woman there who went to Florida State University and thus I ended up in Tallahassee by chance. This allowed me to get the job I have—which was also largely chance (Florida A&M University needed a philosophy professor right away and I just happened to be there). I could, easily enough, go through all the matters of chance that resulted in success: meeting the right people, being in the right place at the right time, avoiding the wrong people, and so on.

Of course, my desire to take credit for success drives me to add that I surely had a role to play in my success. While chance put me in the United States with a healthy body and mind, it was my decisions and actions that got me through school and into college. While chance had a major role to play in my getting a job as a professor, surely it was my actions and decisions that allowed me to keep the job. While chance has surely played a role in my book sales, surely the quality of my work is what wins people over. Roughly put, chance put me into various situations, but it was still up to me to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid dangers.

While my pride drives me to seize a large share of the credit for my success, honesty compels me to admit that I owe a great deal to pure chance—starting with day zero. Presumably the same is true of everyone else as well. As such, I think it wise to always temper praise and condemnation with the knowledge that chance played a major role in success and failure.


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17 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on March 10, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

    Ecclesiastes 9:11

    But I notice that as wisdom has increased, so has my luck. You still had choices in all your chance encounters.

    • WTP said, on March 10, 2014 at 9:04 pm

      The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet. – Daymon Runyon

      Luck is for losers. By losers, I don’t mean people who are on a losing streak. I mean those who, upon failing a few times, give up and attribute the winner’s success to luck, thus learning nothing.

      Years ago working at a very boring 2nd & 3rd shift job launching space shuttles, in order to pass the time away with the two other people on my station I derived a 3-way version of the game Battleship. Some people view that game as one of luck. I would win virtually every night. I actually would tank a few games hoping the others wouldn’t wise up. I had one coworker convinced I was the luckiest guy he ever met. FWIHH, he still believes that to this day. In some ways, he may be right. But not because he knows this. He just got lucky.

      • magus71 said, on March 11, 2014 at 4:21 am

        Yeah but dice games bug me. Which is why I took up chess. No one to blame but myself for a loss.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 11, 2014 at 1:50 pm

          That is because you are the worst damn roller I have ever seen. My battle plans always factored in the fact that you would roll something awful at some important moment, perhaps having your biggest mech fall off a 100 foot hill onto its head.

          • magus71 said, on March 11, 2014 at 7:02 pm

            I try not to think about it. Because then I correlate my dice rolling with other things over the course of my life….

            • T. J. Babson said, on March 11, 2014 at 10:14 pm

              Magus, as you have written a novel, the documentary “The Rough South of Larry Brown” shows how sheer force of will can triumph over mere circumstance. It is well worth watching if you ever get the chance. Here is a snippet:

            • magus71 said, on March 12, 2014 at 5:55 am

              TJ, thanks for this. I’m still working on my second book;one of the reasons I don’t blog much anymore. I also plan to try to get my first book published in hard copy.

            • magus71 said, on March 12, 2014 at 6:10 am

              By the way TJ, I’d appreciate any input as to what you think the strengths and weaknesses of For Want of Knowledge, were.

      • magus71 said, on March 11, 2014 at 6:12 am

        And yes, all my money is on Ted Williams vice Mario Mendoza.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on March 10, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    Is there really someone out there who believes that chance does not play a role in life?

    • WTP said, on March 11, 2014 at 6:03 am

    • apollonian said, on March 11, 2014 at 2:09 pm

      “Chance” Mere Alternate Version Of Subjectivism/Platonism

      TJB: the first problem is DEFINITION of “chance”–is there any causality to “chance”? Observe that “chance” is classic question-begging.

      For note the basic metaphysical question of all existence is regarding objectivity (Aristotle) or subjectivity (Plato)–the nature of existence. Subjectivity is absurd as anything goes, and we’re all gods unto ourselves, submerged within hubris.

      Objectivity requires DETERMINISM, absolute cause-effect, hence, as I’m understanding “chance,” no possibility of any kind of a random “chance”–there’s problem of causality, as I note.

      So u see, “chance” then could only be understood as a kind/version of subjectivity–which Mike needs as he’s so enamored of “good-evil” moralism/Pharisaism, this impelled by under-lying guilt/inferiority -complex, a kind of hubris programmed in to the mind fm child-hood, evidently.

      “Chance” as “a role in life,” then, to answer ur question, is mere substitute for understandable ignorance of the cause-effect of things–as humans are not gods and can’t know everything.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on March 10, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    Chance isn’t a thing. Chance cannot cause anything. And it’s unwise to believe it can…

    For, not thinking rightly, they said among themselves:

    “Brief and troubled is our lifetime;
    there is no remedy for our dying,
    nor is anyone known to have come back from Hades.

    For by mere chance were we born,
    and hereafter we shall be as though we had not been;
    Because the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
    and reason a spark from the beating of our hearts,

    And when this is quenched, our body will be ashes
    and our spirit will be poured abroad like empty air.

    Even our name will be forgotten in time,
    and no one will recall our deeds.
    So our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
    and will be dispersed like a mist
    Pursued by the sun’s rays
    and overpowered by its heat.

    For our lifetime is the passing of a shadow;
    and our dying cannot be deferred
    because it is fixed with a seal; and no one returns.

    Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are here,
    and make use of creation with youthful zest.

    Let us have our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
    and let no springtime blossom pass us by;

    let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.

    Let no meadow be free from our wantonness;
    everywhere let us leave tokens of our merriment,
    for this is our portion, and this our lot.

    Let us oppress the righteous poor;
    let us neither spare the widow
    nor revere the aged for hair grown white with time.

    But let our strength be our norm of righteousness;
    for weakness proves itself useless.

    Let us lie in wait for the righteous one, because he is annoying to us;
    he opposes our actions,
    Reproaches us for transgressions of the law
    and charges us with violations of our training.

    He professes to have knowledge of God
    and styles himself a child of the LORD.

    To us he is the censure of our thoughts;
    merely to see him is a hardship for us,

    Because his life is not like that of others,
    and different are his ways.

    He judges us debased;
    he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure.
    He calls blest the destiny of the righteous
    and boasts that God is his Father.

    Let us see whether his words be true;
    let us find out what will happen to him in the end.k

    For if the righteous one is the son of God, God will help him
    and deliver him from the hand of his foes.

    With violence and torture let us put him to the test
    that we may have proof of his gentleness
    and try his patience.

    Let us condemn him to a shameful death;
    for according to his own words, God will take care of him.”

    These were their thoughts, but they erred;
    for their wickedness blinded them,

    And they did not know the hidden counsels of God;
    neither did they count on a recompense for holiness
    nor discern the innocent souls’ reward.

    For God formed us to be imperishable;
    the image of his own nature he made us.

    But by the envy* of the devil, death entered the world,
    and they who are allied with him experience it.

    (Wisdom 2)

  4. magus71 said, on March 11, 2014 at 8:42 am

    Luck should not be our focus. Our focus she be:what can I do?

    “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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