Political junkie that I am, I've been fascinated by the response to President Obama's statement in a speech that successful Americans owe much of their success to societal factors -- education system, roads and bridges, Internet, etc. -- they didn't build themselves.
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)
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. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
I don't see how anyone could disagree with these sentiments. Obviously we live in a highly interconnected world. No one stands alone. No one succeeds alone. No one fails alone.
Even Mitt Romney seems to agree, since he's been trying to falsely claim that when Obama said "you didn't build that," he was referring to someone's business, not to the infrastructure examples Obama had just mentioned.
However, both the Romney and Obama campaigns are understandably ignoring the most interesting philosophical questions in this you didn't build that debate. Namely, does anyone ever do anything? Is there really a "you"? Does free will exist?
Recently George Ortega left a comment on a blog post I wrote about how ridiculous the notion of "compatibilism" is, which argues that free will and determinism are compatible somehow (I can't understand the tortured reasoning behind compatibilism).
Ortega, I learned from a link to his web site, is admirably, if quixotically, dedicated to promoting the scientifically solid understanding that free will is an illusion. For quite a few years he's been at this, not through his own free will, of course.
(My post is part of his "Free Will Refuted in the Blogs" page. Glad to help the cause, George.)
Check out Ortega's "President Obama Refutes Free WIll." I doubt that Obama would publicly admit to doing that in his you didn't build that speech, but Ortega correctly points toward the deeper philosophical currents that lie under the surface of Obama's remarks.
Ortega shared a link to Dylan Matthews' essay, "The Philosophy of 'You Didn't Build That'" on a Washington Post blog. Matthews discusses whether we deserve anything, including credit for building a successful business.
Political philosophers are sharply divided on these questions. Many do not like the idea that people “deserve” things at all. For one thing, most people think that to deserve something, a person must have done something to deserve it. That implies that there are actions that for which certain people are responsible. Seem obvious?
A lot of metaphysicians don’t think so. For one thing, that claim presupposes the existence of free will. Some philosophers are what is called “hard determinists,” who deny that anything that could be called free will exists. Others, called compatibilists or “soft determinists,” believe that it is both true that free will exists and that every action is determined.
They reason that free will exists if people can act according to their own motives without interference. Those motives are determined by factors outside those people, compatibilists argue, but they still have free will.
But if hard or soft determinism is true, how can people be responsible for their actions, and thus deserve things because of them?
However, given the superficial sound bite character of modern presidential campaigns, issues of free will, responsibility, and deservedness aren't going to become a significant part of political discussions any time soon.
Rush Limbaugh did devote time on his program to trashing Matthews' essay, though. As would be expected, Limbaugh failed to understand the philosophical and neuroscientific issues involved in you didn't build that.
Kudos to George Ortega for putting so much effort into bringing free will (actually, the lack thereof) into broader public awareness. Browse his web site if the cosmos has determined that you're interested in doing so.