What we call good or bad speak to something that lies beyond human experience. Of course, it's natural to use these terms in everyday life, but if we take the Platonic view, we have to understand them as borrowing somehow from transcendent realities we don't fully understand.
Instead, I often like to think of things in terms of being praiseworthy or not praiseworthy. To praise is fully human. Anyone can praise. And the least praiseworthy among us can still praise those who have accomplished the most praiseworthy things. It requires only the ability to listen and observe.
There are a number of ways to determine if something is praiseworthy: in a former age we listened to prophets and poets. "They that forsake the law praise the wicked." But is there some more neutral, more human way? Well, we often seem to do it through competition.
The idea is quite logical. If two people both seem to be praiseworthy in some respect, then the best way to determine which one is more praiseworthy is go make them fight it out. Barring some fluke or unfairness in the competition, those who are more praiseworthy will naturally prevail.
At some point, though, we decided that competition doesn't just help us determine what is praiseworthy, it can also lead to praiseworthy outcomes. A contest between two athletes, after all, doesn't just determine who is better. It encourages athletes to train and become better than what they were before.
Competition, under this way of thinking, no longer serves simply to educate us as to what is praiseworthy, but it acts as a kind of algorithm to actually create excellence. It no longer even seems meaningful to talk about praise at all, since no longer do spectators or other third parties matter in these determinations of value. What we're really talking about is something more objective. We start using terms like merit instead.
As a society, we've largely adopted this perspective — along with the belief that the best way to motivate people to do things is to appeal to their self-interest.
In a recent discussion, Nicholas Gruen and I discussed the limits of this approach, as well as possible alternatives — institutions that support human flourishing by limiting competition, rather than nudging people forward through self-interest.
While we don't abandon the idea of merit, we imagine how it might be distributed in more cooperative or institutions where competition is limited — in Nicholas' term de-competitive institutions and environments.
Meritocracies don't always function very well. Traditionally, the most successful ones seem to be hierarchical ones – like the military or corporations that are governed by idiosyncratic chief executives who always insist on getting their way. A "higher power" mediates the forces of competition and gets people to work together to achieve great things.
In a discussion from a couple weeks ago Nicholas and I also spoke about certain modern 'online' institutions, like Wikipedia, that establish meritocracy through the structure of collaboration.
What seems clear, though, is that we can't always rely on competition alone to help humanity flourish. Instead, properly structuring speech, establishing deliberative bodies, and finding a balance between public and private are crucial in building a better society.
In the end, competition is a limited tool in determining what is meritorious, what is good. Finding what is praiseworthy always required an audience — and a way of listening to the odes of others.