Saturday, 12 January 2019

The sense of competence

“What would you call the highest happiness, Lewie?” he asked. 

“The sense of competence,” was the answer, given without hesitation.

“Right. And what do we mean by competence? Not success! God knows it is something very different from success! Any fool may be successful, if the gods wish to hurt him. Competence means that splendid joy in your own powers and the approval of your own heart, which great men feel always and lesser men now and again at favoured intervals. 

John Buchan - The Half-Hearted (1900)

 Not a novel I recommend but within it there is this fascinating variant of an old insight. Via his main character Buchan asserts that happiness arises when individuals are aware of their own competence. This idea runs parallel  to Baruch Spinoza’s dictum that happiness is only to be found in understanding - to understand is to be competent.

If we accept that personal happiness is related to personal competence then a number of things become clear. Firstly there is no value in government efforts to promote happiness unless it also aims to enhance the competence of its citizens. Not collective competence but personal competence. Yet government is predicated on hierarchies of competence - as is Buchan's quote.

Perhaps this gives us a clue to the modern condition. In spite of their imperfections and biases the internet and social media are facilitating competence which is not hierarchical. Anyone can use the internet to enhance their own competence and from what I see many do just that.

Many don’t of course and therein lies a source of modern conflict in that it is relatively easy to become more competent than a government minister, at least in the way ideas are handled.

Other routes one could take with this is the idea that people can be competently stupid and therefore happy in their stupidity. We see this all the time when governments validate stupid activity. Or one could be happy as a competent criminal or happy as a competent benefits scrounger and so on and so on.

What’s the answer? As usual there is no answer although one might suggest a partial answer in that people could aim to be competently moral. Maybe our political class could set an example here. Doesn’t seem likely does it?


Sam Vega said...

Interesting quote. The relationship with government has all sorts of dimensions. Clearly, the government has a vested interest in keeping lots of people incompetent; it derives its raison d'etre from helping them out. There is also the idea that power is somehow linked, not to competence itself, but to the ability to determine which skills are worth becoming competent in. Using IT, for example. Businesses and governments have decided that if you can't relate to them on line, then you are incompetent and will be excluded. And there's a nice little article on the BBC site today about repairing appliances. Easy to get competent, but the big corporations clearly don't want us to get competent at it. Or get competent enough to do without their products.

Demetrius said...

The trouble with advancing years is that the things you were competent at when young are no longer part of your life whilst for the things you do need to be competent at it is too late to learn.

A K Haart said...

Sam - yes the government does have a vested interest in keeping lots of people incompetent. In a sense we all do unless we are right at the bottom of the heap because we all have some kind of competence to sell or display.

Demetrius - that's what I find. Remembering names is a very basic but annoying example.