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Defining hard work and how it relates to success

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By Benjamin Goes


MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry caused waves of controversy last week when she cautioned her guest, Alfonso Aguilar, against using the term “hard worker” to describe Rep. Paul Ryan.  

“I want us to be super careful when we use the language ‘hard worker.’ I actually keep an image of folks working in cotton fields on my office wall because it’s a reminder about what hard work looks like,” Harris-Perry said.

At first glance, the quote above seems to be equating hard work and slavery. This could mean that hard work is undesirable, and those who engage in it are like slaves. Or, it could mean that only those who work like a slave, those who engage in difficult, manual labor, actually work hard. However, it doesn’t seem likely that Harris-Perry meant either of these things.

A much better explanation of her argument was presented by celebrity Mike Rowe when he said that “Harris-Perry appears to be put off by the suggestion that ‘hard work’ is too often linked with success… She’s suggesting that because certain ‘hard workers’ are not as prosperous as other ‘hard workers’—like the people on her office wall—we should all be ‘super careful’ about overly praising hard work.”

He then went on to defend the hard-work doctrine, which says that working hard makes you more successful. I think Rowe’s interpretation of Harris-Perry is quite accurate, and I agree with him that hard work is indeed always worthy of praise.

However, Harris-Perry does raise an interesting point, which deserves a better response than it has received. It is obvious that many people who work very hard are not as successful as others who work very hard (or don’t, as the case may be). Harris-Perry credits this disparity in outcomes to social privilege: Just because Paul Ryan is successful doesn’t mean his success is because of hard work. His success may just be a result of his social circumstances. However, this does not justify her objection to the term “hard worker.” While privilege undeniably plays a role in how successful we are, its existence does not diminish the validity of the hard work doctrine or the praiseworthiness of hard work.

Of course, asserting that working hard will make you more successful is like saying that raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment. When phrased properly these statements are apodictically true, but when phrased in a sloppy manner, as they are above, as they are in everyday discourse, empirical data to the contrary, like Harris-Perry’s examples, can seriously damage their credibility

The problem with these statements as they are presented above is that they’re missing the crucial ceteris paribus clause, ‘all else the same,’ an assumption required to establish any cause-and-effect relationship in the natural or social sciences.

Properly stated, a minimum wage causes unemployment to be higher than it would have been without a minimum wage. In the same way, the proper way of explaining the hard work doctrine is that working hard causes an individual to be more successful at achieving his ends than he would have been without working hard.

Therefore, comparing slaves in the field to Ryan in an attempt to show that hard work does not translate into success does not disprove the hard work doctrine. To do so we would have to compare a hardworking Ryan to a non-hardworking Ryan, with all other factors held exactly the same, and show that the latter is more successful than the former, or that both are equally successful. An impossible task, in more ways than one.

Since an actual experiment that would prove or disprove the hard work doctrine cannot be conducted, we must defer to the logic behind it.  The apparent strength of Harris-Perry’s objection is weakened when we realize that she is attacking a straw man. Hard work is a factor in determining success, and although hard work is no guarantee of success, it does improve the likelihood of success and is therefore still a praiseworthy trait in any individual.  


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