I've been thinking about the problem of poverty, and the solution to it. People complain about having to support people who freeload. People who dont get a job, and we have to pay for them to survive. But sometimes the issue is more fuzzy. People want a job, but cant get one, but the blame could still be put on them because they didnt put in the work to obtain the knowledge and skills to make something of themselves. But the issue gets fuzzier still: What if it isnt the person's fault? They might be a product of their environment, raises around poverty and dont know to aim higher. Well do we just deal with it, feed them and pay for their medical care and that's just how the world works?

These are all far too fuzzy questions to be simply answered, so I thought of a solution where we, as a society, would take responsibility for providing "parenting", or motivational training, if you will, for all children, and when those children grow up after having been exposed to all of this information about possibility, and all being exposed to a great education, they're expected to compete with the rest of the world and survive, and if they dont, its certainly then their own fault, and they can starve, at their own choosing.

But there's still a big problem with that: Obviously, the world doesn't and probably never will work this way (links to my somewhat related question on World Builders SE).

I listen to motivational speeches sometimes, focusing on achieving something great myself, and sometimes I think about the rest of the world as a whole, and imagine myself giving a speech to someone who doesn't have an education like me, or who hasn't developed intelligence like me, someone who's about to spend highschool drinking and partying instead of pursuing a skill.

I imagine telling someone they can be incredible, do the things most people think are impossible, change the world, etc. That sounds fine and dandy. But the next thing I imagine is speaking to an audience of millions, or perhaps a speech published for all people to see. Then, as the question I linked above explores in an abstract way, that little speech deteriorates. It doesn't seem that it is possible for everyone to achieve greatness in their field.

It seems I cannot honestly tell an audience

"You can all do great, world-changing things, and accomplish massive dreams."

Not everyone can change the world, but if educated and inspired, we all seem to want to.

So what have philosophers had to say about this dilemma? What's the "answer" to such a problem?

The best answer I can figure would be "Try your best and you still might fail, get over it, some people are rich, some are poor, fight for your happiness with everything you have and accept the results." but perhaps there are more elegant philosophies on the subject. What are some philosophies that explore this problem and what different ways do they approach it?

I'm looking for philosophies which might offer an explanation of the issue that sounds a little more logical than "Well, life just sucks sometimes."

  • Socialism, humanism, existentialism...?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 23, 2015 at 22:27

2 Answers 2


Fault is heavily tied to causality, which is a topic of endless debate in Philosophy. Uncaused acts are very frustrating, because we want to find a cause. However, sometimes identifying the cause can be incredibly difficult, to the point where some argue that there are events without causes.

I find the concept of fairness to be one built around the presumption that all people are equal. This is a popular conception, until you actually try to dig at it (how do I explain to my child why we are equals, yet I get to tell them who is boss?) Then we quickly find that we only want some ephemeral part of us to be equal.

The issue is made more complicated in western culture, especially American culture, where we are taught that "we can be anything we want to be." That phrase is true, but there's a devil in the details. We cannot be (future) anything we want to be (present). Its very rare for someone to be able to decide "I want to be a fireman when I grow up" and go make it happen. What causes this problem is that we believe that we can fix things that are in our intellect to a specific value, and hold them forever. We encourage the belief that what we believe to be true is true and if it turns out to be untrue, we are encouraged to use our full capacities to enforce that truth onto reality.

That's probably an overstatement. I'm certain there's more balance than that. However, I believe overstating it in that way demonstrates why the phrases you are studying are so difficult to convey. It's easy to interpret them in a "me against the world" mindset. If it becomes "me against the world," then its entirely possible you cannot do what you want because in many cases, the world is more powerful and more strong willed than an individual.

Now consider the other extreme overstatement, pure capitulation. Pure collapsing. If you decide to make your desires to be whatever the world wants them to be, its easy to see that you have no aspirations, so you will naturally achieve all you set out to do. Needless to say, few believe this to be an ideal path (though "surrender" does show up in more philosophies than I care to admit).

At this point I would dare to bring in some mathematics to bring the argument home. On one side, we have "me against the world," where it is easy to see why you may not always be able to accomplish what you want. On the other side, we have "do whatever the world asks," where it is easy to see that you will accomplish everything you want, because you want nothing of yourself. What if we considered the space between them. Let me make a highly contentious assumption for a moment: that there's a continuous line between them. If such a line exists, then it is mathematically provable that there exists a point on that line where you can accomplish that which you want by riding the balance between your wants and the world wants. I'd even go so far as to declare that that point is not just at the "capitulate to the world's desires," though to argue for why I believe that I'd have to go quite far into my own personal philosophy.

I'd say a more useful phrasing rather than "You can do anything you set your mind to," may be "There is a place for you in this world, where you can accomplish everything you wish to accomplish at that time. If you work with the world to accomplish both of your goals, you can find that place."

These phrases are also easily defended with game theory and drama theory. Many people who set out with the "you can do anything you set your mind to" forget to be flexible to work with the world, and instead become a battering ram to knock down obstacles. The trick is simply that you need to be flexible. Your Self needs to be flexible. Western philosophy tends to prefer to think of the essence of the self as rigid and immutable. Eastern philosophy tends to presume the self is always flexible. All real philosophies fit somewhere in that spectrum between extremes (real Western philosophy does have flexibility, real Eastern philosophy does teach rigidity).

  • I was unsure whether someone would be able to satisfy my question with a fulfilling answer but I think you did it. And you didn't just list a few massively broad philosophy types, and say "All of them." the way I expected, but rather you pinpointed the concepts of philosophy in general which cover the issue. Thanks. +1 for the explanation of middle ground as an answer to the problem. Maybe it was obvious, but I didnt see it fully until explained
    – J.Todd
    Dec 23, 2015 at 23:28
  • Glad to help! And believe me, I consistently find the middle ground impossible to see until someone points it out to me, then it's obvious after that! It must be some sort of rule or something.
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 24, 2015 at 2:22

Try your best and you still might fail, get over it, some people are rich, some are poor, fight for your happiness with everything you have and accept the results

Platos Republic covers this issue, where he turns over the notion of what constitutes good governance.

A part of his solution is pedagogy, to bring about a philosophically educated polis; from which a class of guardians are drawn.

What guards the polis of today - the law; and is the law not philosophical, at least in part - that part that constitutes its spirit, and not it's letter?

Notably, Plato distinguishes a polis ruled by the rich in two ways; the good being aristocratic - they preserve values - and oligarchic where values are corrupted.

Much later, and for us more recently - there was socialism; which in Europe, became social democracy - mitigation by redistribution; and in the US - a 'dirty word'; which demonstrates the power of dirt ...

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