Monday, February 24, 2014

Is winning a gold medal an action?

Time trial: Intending to win

If a person does something with an intention, we call it an action. That’s the view of most philosophers. For instance, when the director stumbles over a stick on the stage that he hadn’t seen, it is an accident. However, when a player stumbles over the same stick, because his part prescribes it, it is an action. The director stumbled unintentionally, while the player stumbled with an intention since he was acting. Actions do not need to be simple. They can be very complex, like taking the train to a nearby town, which involves looking up when the train departs, planning when to leave home, walking to the station etc. Such complex doings can be called actions if they are done intentionally.
Suppose that a top runner is invited for a regional race. He knows that his opponents are not very good and that he can beat them without much effort. Normally he would not take part, but the prize money is good, so the runner accepts. It’s easily earned and he needs to strain himself hardly more than in an endurance run in a workout. And indeed, the runner wins the race without much effort. Then I think, we can call his winning the race an action: The runner intended to win, and if no unusual events would happen, he would certainly win and he did win.
Take now this case of a speed skater participating in the 5000 m race of the Winter Olympics. Everybody expects that he’ll win. Moreover, he hasn’t been beaten in any 5000 m race since many years, with the exception of one, when he had been ill the week before. Nevertheless, you never know what will happen, so he prepares himself as well as he can, physically and mentally. He even knows what time he probably has to skate in order to win and how fast he must skate every lap. The day before the real race, he skates the whole distance in his mind. And so it happens what everybody had already expected: He wins and the lead on number two in the overall standings is rather big. Also in this case we can say, I think, that this race was an action for our skater: He intended to win and since he had prepared himself as best as he could, nothing could prevent that he would win in normal circumstances. Nevertheless this case is not as clear as case one.
Take now what happened a few days later in the 1500 m race of the Winter Olympics (I have changed the facts a bit for simplifying the story). Let’s look at the winner. Of course, he is a very good skater. He has won already several races with strong opponents, also during this season, but it has also often happened that he didn’t win. It was all but sure that he could win a medal, let alone a gold medal. Anyway, as all participants, he prepares himself as well as a skater can for such a race. Then he goes to the start. His race is the last one of the 1500 m and he skates a very, very good race. When he passes the finish, his time is exactly the same as the time of the leader of the list before he started. There is not one hundredth of a second difference. Does this mean that two skaters have finished joint first? Then happens what happens only in such cases: the thousandths of seconds count, too. Our skater springs in the air: He has won with a difference of only 0.003 sec. My question is then: Has also the winner of this race performed an action by winning his race? I think he hasn’t. For although we can say that our skater tried to win the gold medal and that this try was an action, too many incidents could happen that could prevent that he would win the race, like a little bumpiness in the ice; or that the winner of the silver medal winner had started a fraction of a second faster; or maybe a cry by a spectator that distracted him. All these things might have made that he would have finished second. So, in normal circumstances it would have been all but sure that our gold medallist would win, despite his preparations.
But to what extent are case three and case two different? Maybe there are also good arguments sustaining that the skater in case two did not perform an action by winning. Then his only action would have been trying to win. If so, we should have to ask what the difference is between both cases. Anyway, while we can accept case one as a clear case in which winning is an action, and case two as a dubious case, in case three winning is an event that happens to our skater.
I think that it is difficult to explain what makes these cases different because the distinctions are gradual. Nevertheless, I think the upshot is: The difference between what someone intentionally does and what happens to him or her is not as clear as it might seem at first sight.

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