Thursday, March 24, 2022

The good of competent achievement

One of the ways we flourish is by achievement: by successfully fulfilling a plan of action and getting the intended end. But it seems that there is a further thing here of some philosophical interest: we can distinguish achievement from competent achievement.

For me, the phenomenon shows up most clearly when I engage in (indoor) rock climbing. In the case of a difficult route, I first have to try multiple times before I can “send” the route, i.e., climb it correctly with no falls. That is an achievement. But often that first send is pretty sketchy in that it includes moves where it was a matter of chance whether I would get the move or fall. I happened to get it, but next time I do it, I might not. There is something unsatisfying about the randomness here, even though technically speaking I have achieved the goal.

There is then a further step in mastery where with further practice, I not only happened to get the moves right, but do so competently and reliably. And while there is an intense jolt of pleasure at the initial sketchy achievement, there is a kind of less intense but steadier pleasure at competent achievement. Similar things show up in other physical pursuits: there is the first time one can do n pull-ups, and that’s delightful, but there is there time when one can do n pull-ups whenever one wants to, and that has a different kind of pleasure. Video games can afford a similar kind of pleasure.

That said, eventually the joy of competent achievement fades, too, when one’s skill level rises far enough above it. I can with competence and reliability run a 15 minute mile, but there is no joy in that, because it is too easy. It seems that what we enjoy here has a tension to it: competent achievement of something that is still fairly hard for us. There is also a kind of enjoyment of competent achievement of something that is hard for others but easy for us, but that doesn’t feel quite so virtuous.

There is a pleasure for others in watching an athlete doing something effortlessly (which is quite different from “they make it look effortless”, when in fact we may know that there is quite a bit of effort in it), but I think the hedonic sweet spot for the athlete does not lie in the effortless performance, but in a competent but still challenging performance.

And here is a puzzle. God’s omnipotence not only makes God capable of everything, but makes God capable of doing everything easily. Insofar as we are in the image and likeness of God, it would seem that the completely effortless should be the greater good for us than the challenging. Maybe, though, the fact that our achievements are infinitely below God’s activity imposes on our lives a temporal structure of striving for greater achievements that makes the completely effortless a sign that we haven’t pushed ourselves enough.

All this stuff, of course, mirrors familiar debates between Kantians and virtue ethicists about moral worth.

1 comment:

Wesley C. said...

About the kind of enjoyment of competent achievement that's hard for others but easy for us, isn't that kinda similar to being proud of one's own country, nationality or culture? Or simply being proud in having a talent unique to you in the sense you take satisfaction in being uniquely good at something? Not necessarily as something devaluing or in tension with others, that is.

What do you think?