by Robert Gressis
The following is a research proposal that I’m going to submit for various year-long fellowships. Generally, these fellowships request that you explain what you’re up to in about 1,000 words. I offer it to the EA community for your reactions and advice. Even though it’s already at its limit, any ways in which it might be amplified will also be appreciated.
I also will be submitting each of the four parts to academic conferences.
I propose to study mediocrity, for two reasons. First, philosophers have talked a lot about excellence, but almost not at all about averageness, so exploring it offers the possibility of breaking new ground. Second, most of us are, in many ways, mediocre. Thus, though exploring excellence offers more guidance, exploring mediocrity promises self-understanding.
With regard to mediocrity, I want to pursue four lines of inquiry. First, what is it? Second, what is it like to be mediocre? Third, what is the relationship between mediocrity and meritocracy? Fourth, will everyone be mediocre in the future?
First question: what is mediocrity? It has both an objective and a subjective sense. Mediocrity in the objective sense is mediocrity relative to a class of things, where there are clear, objective criteria of excellence. For example, a basketball player may be mediocre relative to NBA players and excellent relative to college basketball players. He is objectively excellent relative to college basketball players because he is among the best at the things that college basketball players are trying to do: score field goals, block shots, steal, etc.; but he is objectively mediocre because he is only average at the things that NBA players are trying to do.
In contrast, mediocrity in the subjective sense is mediocrity relative to some person’s desires. For instance, my cat Avon is a subjectively mediocre housecat because he only gives me some of what I want from a pet cat: he is cute, he purrs loudly, and he loves affection, but he hates being picked up, drools a lot, and wakes me up in the middle of the night. That said, for an insomniac who thinks a drooling cat is cute, he is subjectively excellent. (See Rescher 2015.)
One issue remaining after the above contrast is that I still haven’t said what it is to be average at something. For instance, is an NBA player who is good at defense but poor at offense average or not? In other words, does his defensive goodness and his offensive badness neutralize each other, such that he is, overall, average? I say no: to be average at something, you must not cross a certain threshold of skill. The NBA player who is excellent at defense but terrible at offense is not a mediocre NBA player, because defensive excellence is so rare that he is very difficult to replace. In other words, part of what makes you mediocre is how fungible your skill-set is.
Second question: what is it like to be mediocre? More precisely, what is it like to be mediocre at something that matters a lot to your self-image, such as your vocation? Many mediocre people will not acknowledge their mediocrity. If Fred is an average accountant, but thinks being a good accountant is extremely important, he may deceive himself into thinking he’s a good accountant, because the realization that he’s nothing special would be too painful to him.
Being mediocre does not always require self-deception. It is possible to be mediocre with regard to something you care about – your job, your hobby, your intelligence – while being fully aware of it. But this realization seems to usually come with a compensating psychological maneuver to protect your self-esteem. For example, even if Amelia realizes that she’s a mediocre saleswoman, she may quickly add, “but I’m a really good mom”.
Alternatively, someone may admit that he’s mediocre and have no compensating psychological maneuver. If this is his case, then he may respond either with despair or a drive to improve himself, so that he can think of himself as better than others.
All told, there seems to be something difficult to have a “so what?” attitude about one’s own mediocrity, at least if it’s in regard to something you value. Self-esteem, or perhaps even happiness, seems to require you to believe not just that you’re average at things, but that you’re better than most other people in at least some important way (see Wood 1999, 241).
To the extent this is true, it raises concerns about egalitarianism. If people must see themselves as better at important things than others in order to have self-esteem, how wholeheartedly can we value or accept egalitarianism? Does trying to see everyone as morally or socially equal just make us care less about whole-person moral evaluations (e.g., “I’m just as morally good at everyone else, but I’m a great professor!”)? Alternatively, might a belief in moral or social equality induce despair, self-deception, or competitive moral self-improvement? And insofar as people have one of these four reactions to egalitarianism, does it show that they have incorrect or, at least, unstable views about morality?
This leads us to the third question, about the relationship between mediocrity and meritocracy. A meritocracy is a society that doles out social and financial rewards according to merit: the more meritorious you are, the greater the rewards you deserve. Arguably many advanced industrialized nations think of themselves as broadly meritocratic (see Sandel 2020). Although meritocracies are obviously at odds with economically egalitarian societies, does living in a meritocracy lead people to think in ways at odds with moral and social egalitarianism too? And if so, is this a bad thing? Assuming the answer to these questions is yes, what kind of society would we have to become to avoid this kind of thinking?
Another question meritocracy raises is how to regard people who have only average merit. According to law professor Daniel Markovits, today’s meritocratic elite is harder-working and more productive than any other elite in history (see Markovits 2019, 4). Consequently, not only does such “superordinate” labor reap increasingly greater rewards than the most skilled laborers of the past, but they’re also responsible for a greater share of technological, managerial, and even humanistic progress than past elites. This means average people make less of an overall contribution to progress than they used to, damaging their self-esteem (see Graeber 2018).
However, if boosters of artificial intelligence (AI) are right, then soon enough we will all be such that we cannot make a contribution – all that work will instead be done by AI. This leads to the fourth question: will everyone in the future be mediocre?
One may object that answering this question is otiose, as it is so speculative and far off that we are in no position to provide anything like a well-justified answer. Maybe so, but only if we think of the question in the wrong way. I offer the question as a thought-experiment, one designed to make us figure out what makes one’s life meaningful right now. To put the question in another way: if you know that any contribution you make will be swamped by the contributions of more capable people, then why try to make a contribution? One possibility is that the contributions that add value to your life are those that count as capital-A Achievements. E.g., climbing Mt. Everest is an Achievement, even though climbing Everest doesn’t make anyone else’s life better, and even if you don’t climb it as well as most others. According to philosopher Gwen Bradford, what makes something an Achievement for you is that it is difficult for you and competently caused by you (see Bradford 2015). Note that to count as an Achievement, something has to be difficult for you. Tying my laces doesn’t count as an Achievement for me, but it would if I were a double amputee.
What these considerations show is that even if AIs could do everything far better than we could – in other words, even if we’re not among the best at what we care about – we can still find satisfaction from pursuing our Achievements. A future in which we are all mediocre does not have to worry us, and nor does a present in which we are mediocre.
Bradford, Gwen (2015). Achievement (New York, NY: Oxford University Press).
Graeber, David (2018). Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster).
Markovits, Daniel (2019). The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (New York, NY: Penguin Press).
Rescher, Nicholas (2015). “Excellence Examined”, Mind and Society, vol. 14, p. 85-97.
Sandel, Michael (2020). The Tyranny of Merit: Can We Find the Common Good? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Wood, Allen (1999). Kant’s Ethical Thought (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press).