Episode 116 – “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville”

There is a particularly American myth, that with grit and determination, hard work, intelligence and cunning, and maybe a touch of luck, anyone can become a successful and wealthy titan of business. This myth discounts the role that other people and circumstances play in rags-to-riches stories, and exaggerates the extent to which the individual himself or herself can be credited for their successes.  Although “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” appears to be another time travel story, its main strength is in the way it explodes the myth of individualism, and introduces themes from the subfield of philosophy called “business ethics.”

The argument of the episode is this: Imagine someone who has attained great wealth and success in business. Now imagine that the could time travel to a period prior to their business success, but armed with the knowledge gained through their successful career,  make a second attempt on attaining wealth and success. One might well think that with the advantage of the knowledge they’ve gained through their first successful attempt, they should be wildly more  successful the second time around. This is not the result on display in this episode. The suggestion that emerges is that such an individual, attempting to leverage his or her own special knowledge of trends, discoveries, and inventions that are known only to him, would fail miserably, and this failure should also lead to our reconsideration of what lead to his or her business success the first time around.

William Feathersmith is bored with his success in business. He no longer gets pleasure from beating opponents in financial dealings. It is noted: “The pleasure is not in the possession but in the desperate struggle to possess.” So Feathersmith makes a deal with the devil to return to the Cliffordville of thirty years ago, when and where he started out, under the condition that he’ll retain his memory of everything that’s transpired since then. He reasons that he will experience the thrill of financial conquest again, aided by his knowledge of the financial, commercial, and scientific trends of the “next” thirty years. It comes as a surprise to him, when things don’t work out he expects. He fails utterly in his attempts to parlay his privileged knowledge of the future into financial gain. He ends up, not as a business titan, but as a janitor working in the very firm where he was the CEO.

This story suffers from the same defect as other episodes which attempt to portray someone going back in time and changing the past.  (See  “No Time Like the Past,” and “Walking Distance” for example.) Featherstone is both CEO before time traveling, and not CEO by merely a janitor after time traveling. The problem is that those two times are the same time. So Featherstone is both CEO and not CEO at the same time, which is a contradiction. The episode presents this contradictory state of affairs, but doesn’t acknowledge its incoherence.

The episode does, however, represent a different kind of incoherence, or better yet, a lack of coherence, in Featherstone’s attempt to use his knowledge of the state of science, technology, and business in 1964 when he is back in 1934 Cliffordville. For one thing, many of his 1964-indexed beliefs, while true in 1964 are not true in 1934. For example, in 1964 it is true that one can successfully drill for oil in the ground at a depth of 5,000 feet. In 1934 that was false. Featherstone fails to realign his beliefs to the time in which he hold them, with catastrophic effects. When he attempts to convince potential collaborators to build a machine in 1934 that he knows will be built years later, he can’t convince anyone that such a machine is even possible. He can’t find any way to convince the folks in 1934 that he has such knowledge. That’s because to convince them requires providing evidence that they already accept. Without connecting to their beliefs, Featherstone’s claims strike them as preposterous. Not only is it not possible to change the past, it is also not possible to win an argument in the past!

Featherstone can’t communicate with the people he meets when time traveling, and so he can’t cut deals with them. The point can easily be made without appealing to time travel. Successful business deals are successful collaborations. They are not accomplished alone, but through agreement reached as the result of making claims, counterclaims, providing arguments and reaching joint conclusions.  These practices take place in a context where there must be at least some shared grounds.

Suppose that Featherstone hadn’t time traveled, but instead had lost his fortune shortly after we encounter him in 1963. Suppose further that he retained a patent for a new technology, and that he attempted to mount a business come-back by interesting investors in the new technology.  He might succeed or he might fail. If he succeeds it will be because he gets others to collaborate with him. His success is not his alone, but the result of a joint venture that includes other investors, engineers, market experts, and many others. Featherstone may be a  business leader, but he’s never the whole show.

If Featherstone has been successful in business for many years, then it follows that his success isn’t something for which he can take the full credit. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he will share the credit or recognize the role of others in his success.  Featherstone and his competition wrongly conceive of business dealings as a winner-take-all game, the point of which is to force one’s opponent to part with her or his assets. Such transactions are capped by the winner laughing at the sorry opponent.  That’s what we find so objectionable, and that’s the devil’s motivation for putting Featherstone in the past where it will become painfully obvious that such behavior is not only morally abhorrent, but misrepresents the nature of those very transactions. This is one case where we are on the same side as the devil.

Further Reading:

Heath, J., 2014, Morality, Competition, and the Firm: The Market Failures Approach to Business Ethics, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, David (1986) – See “The Parallel” for the full reference.

List, C. & P. Pettit, 2011, Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents, New York: Oxford University Press.

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