Wednesday, August 1, 2018

"Commitment": Phenomenology at the rock wall

If you watch people rock climbing enough (in my case, only in the gym, as I have seen disturbing outdoor climbing safety numbers, while gym climbing safety numbers are excellent), you will hear a climber get advised to “commit” more. The context is usually a dynamic move for a hold, one where the climber’s momentum is essential to getting into position to secure the hold, with the paradigm example being a literal jump. The main physiological brunt of the advice to “commit” is to put greater focused effort into jumping higher, reaching further, grabbing more strongly, etc. But the phenomenological brunt of the advice is to will more strongly, with greater, well, commitment. And sometimes when one misses a move, one feels the miss as due to a lack of commitment, a failure to will strongly enough.

While once I heard someone at the gym say “Commit like you’re married to it”, the notion of commitment here seems quite different from the ordinary notion tied to relationships and long-term projects. The most obvious difference is that of time. In the ordinary case, a central component of commitment is a willingness to stick to something for an extended period of time. The climber’s “commitment” lasts at most a second or two. This results in what seems to be a qualitatively different phenomenology, but it could still be that the difference is quantitative, much as living through a week and living through a second only feels qualitatively different.

But there seems to be a more obviously qualitative difference. The rock-climbing sense of “commit” is essentially occurrent: there is an actual expending of effort. But the ordinary sense is largely dispositional: one would expend the effort if it were called for. Moreover, the rock-climbing sense of the word is typically tied to near-maximal effort, while in the ordinary sense one counts as committed to a project as long as one is willing to expend a reasonable amount of effort. In other words, when it would be unreasonable to expend a certain degree of effort, in the ordinary sense of the word one is not falling short of commitment: the employee unwilling to sacrifice a marriage to the job is not short on commitment to the job. The rock-climbing sense of commitment is not tied to reasonableness: a climber who holds back on a move out of a reasonable judgment that near-maximal effort would be too likely to result in an injury is failing to commit on the move—and typically is doing the right thing under the circumstances (of course in both sense of the word “commit”, there are times when failure to commit is the right thing to do).

Finally, the ordinary sense of divides into normative and non-normative commitment. Normative commitment is a kind of promise—implicit perhaps—while non-normative commitment is an actual dispositional state. Each can exist without the other (though it is typically vicious when the normative exists without the dispositional). In the climbing case, normally the normative component is missing: one hasn’t done anything promise-like.

Here is a puzzle. Bracket the cases where one holds back to avoid an over-use or impact injury (I would guess, without actually looking up the medical data, that when one is expanding more effort, one is more tense and injury is likely to be worse). One also understands why someone might fail to commit to a job or a relationship, in either the normative or the non-normative sense: a better thing might come one’s way. But when one is in the middle of a strenous climbing move, one typically isn’t thinking that one might have something better one could do with this second of one’s time. So: Why would someone fail to commit?

My phenomenology answers in two ways. First and foremost, fear of failure. This is rationally puzzling. One knows that a failure to commit to a climbing move increases the probability of failure. So at first sight, it seems like someone who goes to a dog show out of a fear of dogs (which is different from the understandable case of someone who goes to a dog show because of a fear of dogs, e.g., in order to fight the fear or in order to have a scary experience). But I think there is actually something potentially rational here. There are two senses of failure. One sense is external: one is failing to meet some outside standard. The second sense is internal to action: one is failing to do what one is trying to do. The two can be at cross-purposes: if I have decided to throw a table tennis match, my gaining a point can be a failure in the action-internal sense but is a success in the external sense.

In climbing, outside of competitive settings, it is the action-internal sense that tends to be more salient: we set our own goals, and what constitutes them as our goals is our willing of them. Is my goal to climb this route, to see how hard it is, or just to get some exercise? It’s all in what I am trying to do.

But in the action-internal sense, generally the badness of a failure increases with the degree to which one is trying. If I am not trying very hard, my failure is not very bad in the action-internal sense. (Of course, in some cases, my failure to try very hard might bad in some external sense, even a moral one—but it might not be.) So by trying less hard, one is minimizing the badness of a failure. There is a complex rational calculus here, whether or not one takes into account risk averseness. It is easy to see how one might decide, correctly or not, that giving significantly less than one’s greatest effort is the best option (and this is true even without risk averseness).

The secondary, but also interesting, reason that my phenomenology gives for a refusal to commit is that effort can be hard and unpleasant.

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