Issue #27 December 2019

How to Drive a Car: A Defense of Achievement as Competence

Think of two people. Person A buys a lottery ticket and by chance wins a hundred dollars in the lottery. Person B, however, spends the day hard at work making something in order to be paid a hundred dollars for it. Whilst they both have the same end product, Person A, being honest about how he got the money, would be hard-pressed to claim the hundred dollars as an achievement in the same way as Person B. Philosophers have two different explanations as to why Person A cannot call their win, purely by chance, an achievement like Person B.

For someone like a teacher, what counts as an achievement is important. A student selects the correct answer in a multiple choice quiz, is this an achievement? If it was a guess, or happened by accident (the student wanted to select a different answer but circled the other, correct one), then we would want to say not. We might want something more to conclude it is an achievement. The teacher might get the student to explain why they selected that answer and show it was intentional. Philosophers are interested in what explains our intuition that a student who did something intentionally has achieved something where a student who selected the answer by chance or accident did not, comparatively.

Gwen Bradford argues that in order to claim something an achievement, one needs to be sufficiently competent and “know what you’re doing…[and have] the right sort of understanding about the final product” (Bradford, 2015, p. 64). A competent causation account of achievement gives us the ability to distinguish luck from achievement and explain the intuition that Person B having that hundred-dollar note is more of an achievement than Person A. After all, Person A did not cause himself to win the lottery in the same way as Person B who worked hard and was paid a hundred dollars.

But not everyone agrees with this explanation. Hasko von Kriegstein, in a recent piece in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, responds to Bradford’s account of achievement. He does so arguing that “competency and knowledge come apart” in cases where explicit knowledge is irrelevant (von Kriegstein, 2019, p. 398). Achievement doesn’t always mean having explicit knowledge like Bradford suggests and therefore, competency and achievement come apart. In particular, when one drives a car. It is here where I think interesting considerations come into play, including those relevant to moral achievements.

What I want to do here is defend Bradford’s original account of achievement and show that von Kriegstein has overlooked the importance of competence for achievement. In particular, when it comes to tasks like driving a car from A to B. Having provided some important lessons on how to drive a car, I will present a problem for von Kriegstein and his account of achievement. Cases where one seems to act with moral worth by chance, fit the criteria von Kriegstein puts forward about what is an achievement. I have a particular example in mind here involving a truck driver.

I argue that knowledge has an important connection to acts that are morally praiseworthy. Using the example of a truck driver, I will show that the knowledge of an actor has a more important connection to achievement than von Kriegstein admits. I go on to argue that Bradford’s account of achievement is better suited to explain moral achievements like acting with moral worth, where von Kriegstein’s own account of achievement is lacking.

Bradford uses the example of Rudy, a driver with some level of competence with driving, to strengthen her argument of achievement as competence. Lacking justified, and true beliefs into the workings of Rudy’s choice of car, for example, has implications in how competent of a driver Rudy is.

Not so according to von Kriegstein. Rudy knowing how a car works may well have implications on his ability to do a job like being a mechanic. However, von Kriegstein points out that “ it would not make him drive from A to B more competently” as “knowledge about engines is irrelevant to that” (von Kriegstein, 2019, p. 397).

I think that von Kriegstein is wrong here. This is where that lesson about how to drive a car comes in. For example, knowing when to change the oil of one’s car and how to do so or knowing that your car is four-wheel drive will change how you drive. You might realize prior to your trip that you need to change your oil and do so, entailing that you get to your intended destination.

Not knowing that your car is only two-wheel drive might make you inclined to take risks with it that will entail you don’t make it to your final destination (and perhaps get stuck in that mud track). If Rudy knew his car wasn’t four-wheel drive or when his car needs oil, he wouldn’t get stuck on the way to B. Von Kriegstein’s response to Bradford does not hold up, but Bradford is not completely ‘out of the woods’ just yet.

Von Kriegstein’s response also states that Bradford has not provided an accurate measure of competence with justified true beliefs. In his own words, he states that the “problem with Bradford’s view [is that] no set of justified true beliefs is sufficient for competence” (von Kriegstein, 2019, p. 397). I think a closer reading of Bradford’s original work does answer this problem though.

Bradford has been clear that we should look at the percentage of justified true beliefs. Bradford explains that the knowledge “required in any instance of competence causation is a percentage of the possible weighted beliefs that one might have about the activity” (Bradford, 2015, p. 69). Bradford makes it clear that people who have different knowledge about cars will have different competence. But we can also see that some knowledge can be ruled out as not relevant.

Bradford makes this clear with the example of tying shoelaces in a world where new species of jellyfish have been discovered. Bradford argues that “how many species of jellyfish there are is totally irrelevant for tying one’s shoes” (Bradford, 2015, p. 70). If the performer doesn’t need it to do the task, it cannot be considered relevant.

People make these kinds of distinctions all the time, and no one is stuck trying to figure out whether jellyfish have anything to do with tying shoes. The same can be said about driving a car. People have strong intuitions about what knowledge is and is not relevant to be competent in particular tasks. Bradford can appeal to the fact that people can clearly see what knowledge is needed for competence. Contrary to what von Kriegstein suggests, relevance is not a problem for Bradford and her account of achievement as competence.

Another one of von Kriegstein’s big problems with what Bradford has argued is that “competence and knowledge come apart” (von Kriegstein, 2019, p. 398). One of the ways he does this is with the use of the example of Ben, also a driver, who knows all there is to know about cars, including how to drive, follow the road rules, and get to an intended destination. But that doesn’t make Ben a competent driver as Ben has never been in a car before, according to von Kriegstein.

But this is not actually a problem for Bradford. At no point has Bradford argued that justified true beliefs alone, without a willed desired outcome, entails an achievement. Bradford has been very clear that “the agent causes the outcome competently to the extent that he has justified, true beliefs about his actions causing the outcomes” (Bradford, 2015, p. 65). If Bradford was arguing that justified true beliefs alone meant achievement, then von Kriegstein’s objection would present a problem.

Ben and Rudy having the same knowledge but different competence is not a problem as von Kriegstein implies that Ben doesn’t have the ability to get to B in his car as Ben has never been in a car. Bradford is not concerned with beliefs alone, but beliefs as they express intentionality and relate to achievement.

A driver who cannot explain why he did what he did lacks knowledge and competence relating to driving, and cannot call getting to B an achievement in the same way as a driver with the ability to explain ‘why’ he did what he did when he was driving. Correct use of the handbrake, for example, will be competent if the driver can explain the use of the handbrake, even if that explanation just calls on past experiences. Being able to explain your actions is particularly important when it comes to judging their moral worth, as I will later discuss. First, I want to make clear von Kriegstein’s account of achievement.

Von Kriegstein favors an alternative account of achievement, where actions are the focal point rather than the knowledge of the performer. His account of achievement comes with two clauses, the first being that “actions taken must increase the likelihood of success” (von Kriegstein, 2019, p. 413). Actions are also performed, under von Kriegstein’s second clause, with increasing the likelihood of success in mind. The action has to be done for the reason that it will increase the likelihood of success to be counted as an achievement. If we focus on von Kriegstein’s first clause and look at it with relation to achievements with moral worth, problems become apparent.

Let me explain with another driving example. Having collected a trail of cars behind them, truck drivers have a habit of flicking their indicators to tell drivers behind them that it is safe to overtake. The act is one of moral worth because the truck driver is helping other motorists and easing congestion on the road. Consider similar actions like holding a door open for a stranger or giving consent to take an unwanted lawnmower by leaving it in the driveway with a sign. The act comes at a benefit to others. But what if these actions and the indicating of our truck driver are done by accident? Cody, in a car stuck behind a truck, used that signal as in indication that it was safe for him to overtake the truck and considered it an act of moral worth and achievement for the truck driver.

After all, the truck drivers act increased the likelihood of success for the driver, Cody, on this particular instance. But we shouldn’t consider what the truck driver did an achievement and act of moral worth if the driver had done it by accident. We might instead call it negligence. Bradford can provide an easy solution to this problem, and note that the truck driver lacks the justified true beliefs that entail he acted with competence. We cannot call what the truck driver did an achievement as a result.

But von Kriegstein does not have such an easy escape. For Cody, it seemed as though the truck driver acted with moral worth and increased the likelihood of him safely getting around the truck. For Cody, what the truck driver did is an achievement and morally praiseworthy. This is the case because like von Kriegstein, Cody is looking at the action rather than the competence and knowledge that came with doing that action using his first clause. I will discuss the ramifications of his second clause shortly.

Jacob Dhein — “Morning on Kearny Street”

Jessica Isserow, in a recent paper for the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, explains further with a similar example. In this case, Cara decided to donate to a famine relief fund by flipping a coin. Although Cara flipping a coin gives her a result of donating to the fund which is an act of moral worth, Isserow points out that Cara seems to lack the knowledge of why her action has moral worth. This presents a problem for an account of moral worth focused on action.

Isserow points out that “[s]he would seem to have little if any insight into what makes her action right…[as she thinks that] the verdict of a coin to be more reliable than her own” (Isserow, 2019, p. 260). Isserow goes on to point out that Cara donating to the relief fund having flipped a coin is also not something that deserves to be characterized as an achievement.

Our accidentally indicating truck driver also lacks knowledge in the same way as Cara does, as the truck driver would not see himself having done anything of moral worth. This presents a problem for von Kriegstein since it is the knowledge and competence that dictates an action is an achievement of moral worth.

If von Kriegstein wants to explain how what the truck driver and Cara have done are not achievements, he needs a good response here. One potential avenue left over for him is that Cara has decided to flip a coin for the case of donating to a charity, but would she do the same given other normal tasks? Cara deciding to flip a coin only when it comes to donating to charity makes it possible that she perhaps needs that money for another morally noteworthy purpose, like supporting an alternative charity.

This is not something that Isserow discusses within her paper. It does present a potential problem for the case of Cara, as it is not clear why exactly Cara has resorted to flipping a coin when it comes to her donation to charity. In a way, Isserow has assumed that this entails a lack of achievement. But Cara may well have done something of moral worth regardless of whether the coin landed on heads or tails. Heads may mean a donation to the famine, tails a donation to breast cancer research.

Therefore, Cara decided to flip a coin because she considered both outcomes of equal consequence. Cara deciding to flip a coin when it comes to donations to charity but not brushing her teeth perhaps shows that she can see the act as unique from others. This presents an interesting challenge for Isserow, as it remains possible to see Cara as an agent with moral discretion regardless of her resorting to flipping a coin. But what about our truck driver case?

Each time one of the drivers behind our truck driver follows the truck drivers accidental signal that it is safe to overtake the truck, they are essentially ‘rolling the dice with their lives’ without knowing it. The truck driver may well seem to have increased the chances of success for some drivers, but for others his accidental act may well be fatal. We do not consider his actions an achievement because he lacks relevant knowledge and competence concerning his actions.

In cases where a potential danger to others exists, actors have a responsibility to have knowledge of it and competence over managing it before their actions can be considered an achievement. This shows us something interesting. In cases where a potential downside exists for others involved, actions alone do not determine whether something is an achievement. Competence is the determining factor instead.

Von Kriegstein has a straight forward response here. His argument comes with two clauses, the first has to do with action whilst the second has to do with reasons. “My account consists of two simple and compelling ideas…[the first being] actions taken must increase the likelihood of success; second, the agent performs these actions for that reason” (von Kriegstein, 2019, p. 413).

This gives von Kriegstein the ability to say that our truck driver and Cara did not act with moral worth. Their actions were not an achievement because they did not perform those actions for moral reasons. But it is here that von Kriegstein seems to have taken on a focus on competence that does not separate his account of achievement from Bradford’s achievement as competence argument.

Von Kriegstein sounds exactly like Bradford who would be able to point out that the causal connection between the agent and the achievement was brought about not just by the action, but by the competence of the agent. The knowledge is what made all the difference. This presents a problem for von Kriegstein since it entails that his account of achievement is left appealing to what Bradford does to explain why accidental cases are not of moral worth and are not achievements.

Von Kriegstein may well appeal to the fact that he has used reasons, whilst Bradford has appealed to knowledge and beliefs. But even if von Kriegstein wants to appeal to reason, knowledge would come along for the ride. Knowledge would be what gives those reasons a connection to the intended achievement. If von Kriegstein was forced to give an explanation of how reasons link to achievement, it would be difficult for von Kriegstein not to appeal to knowledge in some way. He would still sound like Bradford. Creating an example where a knowledgeless agent intends an act that increases success would be a difficult task for von Kriegstein.

Acting with moral worth has an important connection to achievement that von Kriegstein should not overlook. Whether it is a driver on the road, a doctor treating a patient, or an everyday citizen involved in everyday business, mitigating harm whilst engaging in acts of moral worth has an important link to whether actions are considered achievements. Competence and knowledge are the key ways one would go about mitigating harm and know one had acted with moral worth. Although I have focused here on the task of driving a car, it should be noted that moral considerations apply widely.

Bradford clearly has something that von Kriegstein is also forced to appeal to when it comes to explaining that actions, done by chance with repercussions on others, are not an achievement. Particular acts done by accident might increase the chances of success and seem to entail an actor like our truck driver has acted with moral worth. However, the fact that the actor lacks knowledge around what they have done entails that they have not acted with moral worth. What they have done is not an achievement as a result.

Therefore, the thing that makes something a moral achievement is the competence that comes with doing that act, and the fact that the actor has acknowledged the relevance of certain knowledge. This is a problem for von Kriegstein. If von Kriegstein wants his account of achievement to remain useful, he needs to show there are cases where Bradford’s account of achievement as competence fails and von Kriegstein’s account is successful. This is difficult for von Kriegstein. My rebuttals of von Kriegstein’s responses to Bradford early on in this essay show this is something that von Kriegstein is yet to do convincingly.

Christopher Carroll is a postgraduate student at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. He currently teaches primary school students how to read and write. He is also a freelance writer on Medium and for various magazines.


December 2019


Self-Defense, Necessary Force, and the Ethics of Modern Warfare

Daniel Rhodes in conversation with Helen Frowe

Frantz Fanon: Anticolonial Revolutions and Revolutionary Theory

by Timofei Gerber

How to Drive a Car: A Defense of Achievement as Competence

by Christopher Carroll

Why Thoughts Are Not In The Head: Frege on Sense

by John C. Brady