Why we shouldn’t label people as a ‘success’ or ‘failure’


Is it possible to attach a value to people? I don’t think so. Let us take the following example: there are two children – one who graduated from Harvard and another who graduated from ITE. Imagine that both die in a tragic accident. Knowing nothing else about them, most people would intuitively object to the idea of the Harvard child being superior, or being worth more to the ITE child such that the ITE child’s death was less of a tragedy, or to put in another way, that the ITE child’s death was less expensive to society as a whole.

The reasons that underpin such a response are simple – human beings are of incommensurable worth; there are intangible aspects of human beings and human society that we cannot measure in terms of money, or some other metric.

Yet, in our daily lives, we do put a value on people. For example, when we talk about someone being a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’.

What is success? Is success going to Harvard? Having a well-paying job? Being happy? What about a person with a kind and charitable heart? Is he less or more successful than an uncharitable and selfish Harvard graduate? How about a person who worked hard, got very rich, and died young – is he more of a success than someone with a low-paying job but led a happy life?

There is no objective way of answering these questions – a lot of what we consider good or desirable either cannot be measured, or cannot be compared to one another.

Ultimately, the definition of success is a question is best answered by the individual themselves. In non-person cases, success is a matter of aim and outcome: if we both aim to kick a football into a goal, and if we do so, we can say that we succeeded. However, when it comes to people, success is a subjective concept. This is because, not everybody has the same characteristics or the same goals. We often care too much about labeling others based on our own standards, rather than asking them for their own conception of what they see for themselves as a happy or good life.

Even if what they achieved in life does not match our conception of success, and even if their conception of success differs from ours, what basis do we have to deride them?

This understanding is subconsciously accepted by many of us in the personal sphere. Parents in general love their children unconditionally; they automatically place a great deal of value on their children despite their flaws, because they know there is a certain intrinsic good in their children and perhaps even the smallest modicum of that goodness outweighs all of one’s shortcomings. The same applies to other people that we love: our partners, family and friends. We are aware of their many flaws and merits, but we do not put a value on them. I imagine few children would care about whether their parents are a ‘successes’ or ‘failures’, and good friends will not calculate the merits of a person and subtract their flaws to decide whether that person is a friend worth having.

Yet somehow, when it comes to strangers and society at large, we lose sight of this perspective. Somehow it becomes acceptable to write off someone based on the school, wealth or something we would ordinarily consider a terrible reason to love someone less.

I think to build a better society, we need to stop putting a value on others. We can’t just talk about loving our wider community – we must actually do it; and that includes doing away with labeling people as ‘successes’ and ‘failures’, and starting to appreciate one another as equal human beings.


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Photo credit: TODAY online

2 thoughts

  1. “This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a retreat into radical subjectivism.”

    – TS Eliot, probably (idk, I didn’t go to Harvard)


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