[Photo credit: Simon Cabulea May]
Gwen Bradford is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rice University. She earned her PhD at Yale in 2010, and has been a Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Public Affairs at Tulane University. She works in value theory and normative ethics, and has work on well-being, achievement, pain, responsibility, epistemic value, and her newest project is about the role of uniqueness in value. In 2015, Oxford University Press published her book, Achievement, which is the topic of this post.
Many thanks to Meena Krishnamurthy for hosting this excellent series and for inviting me to contribute. It’s a real pleasure to be among such esteemed company.
Running a marathon, writing a novel, winning at chess, baking a perfect soufflé, cultivating a bonsai tree, publishing a philosophy article…
All of these achievements are impressive in one way or another, and all more or less important. Indeed, in many cases we sacrifice a great deal for the sake of our achievements. But we might well wonder: why is achievement worth the effort? Or, more fundamentally still: what makes something an achievement at all? What do all these diverse activities have in common, if anything, that characterizes them as achievements?
It’s a relatively uncontroversial observation that achievement is one of the central goods in life, and as you might expect it appears on many philosopher’s lists of such goods. Yet for all this, there has been relatively little discussion about the nature of achievement or its value in the philosophical literature until recently. In this post, I will present the starter-kit version of the view that I develop in my book Achievement (OUP, 2015), and a few implications.
First, let’s separate a descriptive question and a value-theoretic question – (1) what is achievement? And (2) why is it valuable? – and look at them each in turn.
Starting with the descriptive question, one observation is that achievements are characterized by a certain structure, namely a process that culminates in a product. But not every process that culminates in a product is an achievement, of course – an acorn grows into an oak tree, but this is not an achievement.
We might begin our account with the prima facie plausible thought that achievements characteristically result in an important impact on the world; that is, that achievements have valuable products. Developing the cure for cancer might be a paradigmatic example. But it doesn’t take much reflection to see that there are many great achievements that have products of no value whatsoever. Paula Radcliffe running a marathon in record-breaking time, or Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzin Norgay climbing Mt Everest for the first time are great achievements even though they don’t result in any great life-saving good. Crossing a finish line or being on top of a mountain have no value in themselves at all. So having a valuable product is not essential to achievement.
What else? Consider this: if I tie my shoelaces, it does not constitute an achievement for me, whereas for Jim, who has only one arm, tying his shoes presents a unique challenge and it is an achievement. What’s the difference? It’s very difficult for Jim. A mundane and ordinary activity can be an achievement if it is sufficiently difficult. This is why, for example, learning how to drive is an achievement, but once you know how, just driving around on an ordinary day is not; or why winning at chess is an achievement, but winning the lottery is not.
Difficulty, I argue, is a central feature of achievement. Reaching the summit of Mount Everest is an achievement only if it is difficult. We could accomplish the same result by taking a helicopter, but surely the getting to the summit by helicopter is hardly an achievement, whereas reaching the top at the end of a challenging climb is. Writing a dissertation, running a marathon, or even smaller scale achievements, such as winning a game of chess, baking a soufflé, or cultivating a bonsai—all of these achievements are difficult to do. If they were easy, they wouldn’t be achievements. So there is reason to believe that difficulty is necessary for achievement.
But is it sufficient? Not just any difficult process is an achievement. Consider, for example, a very difficult but hopelessly misguided process. If you engage in some process toward a goal, but with a genuinely confused understanding of what you’re doing, it doesn’t seem that you are in the running for an achievement. Conditions of non-accidentality are notoriously difficult to pin down. A natural thought is that the process needs to be the sort of thing that would reliably produce the product, that is, that in relevant nearby possible worlds, the process brings about the product. But this is not, in the end, a viable approach for achievement. Many bona fide achievements do involve a healthy dose of luck, and yet are still genuinely creditable to the achiever, such as the development of penicillin, or winning a race against a large number of very skilled competitors.
Rather, what makes the difference for achievement is competence: the process involves a sufficient amount of competence in order for the achievement to be genuinely creditable. Appealing to competence allows us to capture that something can be an achievement even if success was extremely unlikely, such as a close race, and cases with very serendipitous circumstances.
As an aside, there is an interesting twist for epistemology: some epistemologists, such as Greco and Sosa, have argued that knowledge is an achievement – the difference between mere justified true belief and knowledge is that for knowledge, the truth of the belief is brought about by the successful exercise of cognitive ability. Yet achievement requires knowledge in the form of competence and so knowledge can’t be achievement on pain of requiring itself and hence circularity.
In a nutshell, then, achievements amount to a difficult and competent process that culminates in a product.
But how strange that something valuable is characterized by difficulty. By and large we don’t think of difficulty as something that’s good – we generally do what we can to avoid it. How can something that is characterized by difficulty be good?
The account that I develop to answer the value theoretic question draws from perfectionism (which has nothing to do with “perfectionism” in the colloquial sense, namely, a perpetual dissatisfaction with anything less than perfect); rather, it is a theory of value with its roots in Aristotle, according to which the exercise of certain characteristically human capacities is good. There are certain capacities that are deeply characteristic of human beings, such as rationality. The exercise and development of these capacities constitutes our good – our flourishing, as some perfectionists put it. The view is often motivated with a contrast to objective list theory, according to which our good is comprised of a pluralistic list of goods, such as knowledge, friendship, achievement, and pleasure. Perfectionism steps in to give a unifying explanation of the list items. Knowledge, friendship, achievement, and so on are all good because they are manifestations of the excellent exercise of our characteristic human capacities.
But precisely how does perfectionism account for the value of achievement? What I propose is that we acknowledge a previously overlooked and deeply characteristic capacity – the will. We exercise our will almost all the time, and we exercise it extensively when we engage in difficult activity. Since all achievements are characterized by difficulty, and all difficulty involves the exercise of one of the perfectionist capacities, achievement is therefore good for this reason, inter alia. To round out the explanation of achievement’s value, we can also point to the value of the exercise of the rational capacity, which is involved in the other essential feature of achievement, namely competence. And of course many achievements have products that are of great value, making those achievements additionally valuable.
Even from just this rough sketch, we can see that more counts as achievement than we might previously have thought. But perhaps, one might think, too much. Consider housework. Are boring and tedious chores valuable achievements? Washing all your clothes the old fashioned way in a basin with a washboard would be very difficult, and therefore an achievement. But surely you have no reason whatever to start washing all your clothes the old fashioned way.
So it seems, and yet there are many other cases of people doing just this sort of thing –baking their own bread or brewing their own beer (when even better bread or beer is easily obtainable), or taking up carpentry, and so on. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people somewhere getting interested in vintage clothes-washing techniques and making their own laundry detergent. Hobbies are indeed very telling since leisure time is, by definition, spent doing things for no further reason but themselves, so what we think is choiceworthy in our leisure time is an indication of the sorts of activities that we think are worth engaging in strictly for their own sake. Of course, much leisure time is spent enjoying passive pleasures, but many popular and gratifying hobbies are difficult, so the idea that difficulty is valuable for it’s own sake is not so strange after all.
But surely there is still something disagreeable about difficulty – surely we don’t have reason to make our lives more difficult at every opportunity! Indeed, the claim is not that difficulty is the most important or valuable thing. Much of the time there are more important or more pressing things that demand our time, attention, and energy. The obligations to others, to our jobs, or even to ourselves in many cases generate stronger reasons than the reasons generated by the value of achievement.
Yet on closer inspection some of those other things that demand our time and attention are also achievements, such as having a successful career, cultivating flourishing relationships, or raising a family. There may be many other reasons to pursue these things as well, but all these things too are difficult – and therefore achievements. Part of the explanation, then, for why you shouldn’t do laundry the old fashioned way is because there are more valuable achievements that you have more reason to pursue.
So we see that achievement is broader than we might have thought in another sense, too. In American popular culture, a life of achievement is typically thought of as a life of, say, a rich, successful businessperson with fame and influence. But now that we have a more thorough understanding of the nature of achievement, we can see that many life paths that commonly would not be seen as “achievement-oriented,” such as being a subsistence farmer or a “stay-at-home” parent or being an avid carpenter in your spare time, are indeed lives of achievement. Of course, these lives are rich with other values too, but among what makes such lives go well is the value of achievement.
 See, for instance, Guy Fletcher, “A Fresh Start for the Objective List Theory of Well-Being” Utilitas 2013; Christopher Rice, “Defending the Objective List Theory of Well-Being,” Ratio 2013.
 As I argue in Achievement and “Knowledge, Achievement, and Manifestation,” Erkenntnis, 2015.
 Cf. John Greco, Achieveing Knowledge (CUP, 2010) and Ernest Sosa, Knowing Full Well (Princeton University Press, 2011).
 Cf. my “Perfectionism,” in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being. Ed. Guy Fletcher. Routledge, 2016 and Thomas Hurka, Perfectionism (OUP, 1993).