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Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Cheshire Calhoun’s “On Being Content with Imperfection,” with a critical précis by Glen Pettigrove

Welcome to what we expect will be a very interesting and productive discussion of Cheshire Calhoun’s “On Being Content with Imperfection.” The article was published in the most recent issue of Ethics and is available through open access here. Glen Pettigrove has kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis, and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!

Chike Jeffers

The publication of Cheshire Calhoun’s article, ‘On Being Content with Imperfection,’ could not have been more timely.  Complaining in the tearoom or around the water-cooler has long been a favourite workplace pastime, but in the aftermath of divisive votes in the US and UK, those conversations have turned from unhappy to angry and have spread down corridors to conference rooms and offices.  Facebook is awash and Twitter aflutter with posts detailing the latest outrage or the next catastrophe.  It is the season of our discontent.

Calhoun’s paper was not written with our current political predicaments in mind.  Rather, her attention was directed toward more mundane situations: being served a mediocre piece of pie in a restaurant, having a flight cancelled, buying a home that fails to be all one had hoped, having a lower-paying job than one might like, or being passed over for a more prestigious position.  But as we shall see, it has a clear bearing on the current political climate.

Calhoun’s starting point is ‘the assumption that our present condition is almost always an imperfect one’ (329).  A certain kind of personality might take this imperfection to be grounds for constant discontent.  However, the chronically discontent do a disservice both to others – insofar as they are annoying company – and to themselves by failing to recognize or appreciate the genuine good around them.  It is better to learn to be content even in less than ideal circumstances.

Calhoun identifies a number of conditions that characterize contentment.  While the discontent are disposed to dwell on the counterfactual thought, ‘Things could have been better,’ the content tend to think, ‘Things could have been worse’ (332).  This is partly because of what they expect in the circumstances.  Our expectations frame our reactions and if our expectations are high, we will often be disappointed.  But contentment and discontentment are not only dependent on what one expects.  They also depend on what one thinks one is ‘entitled’ to expect before one will consider the situation acceptable.  The expectations in question are not merely predictive; they are normative.  They are concerned with adequate and inadequate, better and worse, and the like.  And the normative judgments to which these expectations give rise are motivating.  We are inclined toward the adequate/good/better and resist the inadequate/bad/worse.  The contented are both grateful for the good present in their circumstances and, because they take it to be ‘good enough,’ are not inclined to resist the remaining imperfections.

A third of the article spells out in more detail what each of these conditions involves.  The remainder is devoted to arguing that contentment can be a virtue.  The case for contentment being a virtue is built on three key points.  The first is that discontentment is often vicious.  The powerful and privileged routinely adopt inflated expectation frames that are more reflective of their privilege than of what it is reasonable to expect.  The self-absorbed are similarly prone to confuse ‘not getting what I wanted’ with ‘not good enough’.  Discontent stemming from either of these sources is objectionable.  The second step in the case for the virtue of contentment is the observation that being able to recognize and appreciate goodness ‘in all its guises is a kind of excellence’ (345).  If one is inclined to make the best the enemy of the good, one will fail to perceive or appreciate many genuine goods.  The third step borrows Philippa Foot’s idea that ‘virtues … are corrective, each one standing at a point at which there is some temptation to be resisted or deficiency of motivation to be made good’ (Foot, ‘Virtues and Vices,’ Virtues and Vices {Oxford University Press 2002} 1-18, at 8).  Insofar as human beings are prone to grumbling about what we don’t have and to overlooking or discounting goods we already enjoy, there is clearly a temptation to be resisted.  The virtuously contented are equipped to do precisely that.

One might be persuaded by Calhoun’s argument that various kinds of discontent are vicious but still resist her conclusion that contentment is virtuous.  One might think the problem with the viciously discontent is not that they are discontent but rather that they are discontent with the wrong things.  Being discontent because someone else got the promotion one wanted is problematic, but so is the self-satisfied contentment of the person who got the promotion in a world where many fail to enjoy meaningful, well-compensated work.  We should not admire the person who is upset because the pie he ordered does not measure up to his refined tastes, but neither should we admire the person who is content with his mediocre pie in a world where millions lack sufficient food.

Calhoun’s response to this justice-based objection is to put forward alternative expectation frames.  The objector’s dissatisfaction arises from the fact that our workplace, our society, or our world falls well short of being ideally just.  Against this measure the situation is, indeed, disappointing.  However, she points out, there are other ways to evaluate the situation that encourage a different response.  One might, for example, view the situation in light of the statistical norm for work environments, promotions, or pies.  Or one might view it in light of the history of a particular polity (or boss, or baker).  We might use these perspectives to shape our expectations.  And when we do we can find ourselves in a position to appreciate even obviously imperfect goods by recognizing how much better they are than what is typical or than what we used to have.

Calhoun’s case for the virtue of contentment is both engaging and persuasive.  However, I am still left with a number of questions.  One question concerns the relationship between contentment (as Calhoun describes it) and similar psychological states.  As noted above, counterfactual thinking plays an important role in her account of contentment.  However, often our attention is simply captured by the good we are appreciating even when that good is imperfect.  In such cases what explains our contentment is not a thought about something else to which we compare it but rather a thought about the good to which we are responding.  It is not perfect, to be sure.  The pie crust could be flakier (or softer), the filling sweeter (or tarter).  But it is still good – still sweet or tart, soft or flaky – however imperfect, and that goodness is what we notice, first and foremost.  Experientially, such cases of being content with imperfection are nearer to being pleased with a perfect good than they are to the more willful activity Calhoun describes of consciously adjusting our expectations.  But clearly they stand on the same continuum and what distinguishes them from the kind of experience to which Calhoun attends need not be the degree of (im)perfection of the good.  Nor need it be an ignorance of the imperfection of the good in question.  It may, instead, be a matter of the quality to which the agent consciously attends.  One is thinking, ‘It could have been worse,’ and the other, ‘How nice.’  Is there a principled reason for requiring all cases of contentment to involve counterfactual thinking?

A related question has to do with the difference between the character trait of contentment and emotional episodes of contentment.  Is there likely to be a difference between the thoughts and emotions of those who are still developing the virtue and those who are exemplars?  To motivate the thought that there might be, it is worth noting a difference between the account Calhoun has given and that assumed by the 18th century moralists with whom she begins her discussion.  Many of the 18th century writers took their lead from Philippians 4:11, ‘I have learned to be content with whatever I have.’  Calhoun’s contented person, by contrast, would say, ‘I have learned to be content when my lot is better than I expected (but worse than it might have been).’  Now the person who is striving to develop the virtue is likely make a conscious effort to attend to the good in their environment.  Eventually one would expect that to become easier, so that they need to spend less time thinking, ‘It could have been worse,’ and are free to spend more time thinking, ‘How nice.’  Increased experience with the world would also lead them to the realisation that our present condition is almost always imperfect, which will alter their expectations.  They will seldom be expecting perfection, and so will have fewer opportunities for their expectations to be disappointed.  It would seem that these two tendencies working together would move the emotional experiences of the exemplar of contentment nearer to the experience of the author of Philippians, where the counterfactual thought plays a less important role (or perhaps none at all).

Finally, what difference does it make to the virtuous appreciation of a good if someone else is bearing the brunt of the imperfection?  One might think the conditions for making peace with imperfections in one’s own life differ from those that apply to imperfections in others’.

Glen Pettigrove

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4 Responses to Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Cheshire Calhoun’s “On Being Content with Imperfection,” with a critical précis by Glen Pettigrove

  1. Many thanks to Glen Pettigrove for his generous and thoughtful précis!. At the end of his comments, Glen asks, “Is there a principled reason for requiring all cases of contentment to involve counterfactual thinking?” Why mightn’t the attention of the content simply be captured by the good so that she thinks “How nice” rather than “”It could have been worse.”

    The quick but not fully responsive answer is that it is a disposition to counterfactual thinking that is part of contentment (and discontentment), not actual counterfactual thinking on particular occasions. That disposition includes a disposition to acknowledge the relevance of counterfactual thoughts to the effect “It could have been worse.” If there’s to be any difference between contentment with imperfection and being pleased, I think one needs something like this counterfactual-thinking component. Suppose the apple pie I get is imperfect. It’s crust could have been flakier and it could have been less overwhelmingly sweet. But I focus on the nice flavor of cinnamon and think “how nice!” Am I just pleased with the cinnamon flavor or am I content with the pie despite its unflakey crust and excessive sweetness? The difference it seems to me lies in whether the “how nice!” is achieved by focusing on the one good thing about this pie and disattending it’s imperfection or whether I’m appreciating what makes the pie nice—and good enough–despite its flaws. As soon as the “good enough” judgment comes into play, the door is opened to thinking “It could have been better”—a thought that will need to be resisted by a disposition to think “well yes, but it could have been worse!”

    Glen raises his question about the necessity of counterfactual thinking for the purpose of raising a different, deeper point about the difference between the person who is striving to develop the virtue of contentment and the person who fully has it. He suggests the nearer to full virtue one gets the less need there is to spend time thinking “It could have been worse” and the more one is free to simply think “How nice.” I like this point a lot and it does seem right. Perhaps it’s that the fully virtuous come to use lower expectation frames than the novice, so that imperfect situations that for the novice are just barely good enough (and require some concerted effort to remind oneself that things could have been worse) are for the virtuous closer to plenty good enough. Or perhaps it’s that the fully virtuous automatically make the good enough judgment while the novice has to struggle to see what’s good in situations that would not be good enough on the higher expectation frame he is tempted to use.

  2. Joe says:

    I have a slightly different comment, since the “discontentment with injustice” objection seems quite powerful to me. In response, Calhoun writes:

    “One option is to adopt an expectation frame based on the standard of ideal social justice: the present is not good enough; one is discontent. Another option is to adopt an expectation frame based on what, statistically, one might expect given the slow pace that social transformation normally takes (after all, it took women one hundred years to get the right to vote!): the present is good enough; one is content with how the temporal unfolding of events has proceeded so far.”

    Perhaps I am missing something, but isn’t it the case that it took 100 years–and not 1,000 years–precisely because women did *not* adopt the attitude that Calhoun recommends they adopt? Certainly, in reading Emmaline Pankhurst’s autobiography one gets the sense that she adopted the attitude: no contentment until the vote, period.

    More straightforwardly: the “temporal unfolding of events” in world history is not a mind-independent natural fact, it is largely determined by our attitudes. So I don’t think that citing the “time it takes” can possibly justify an attitude towards social justice, since it is the attitude that partly determines the time it takes.

  3. Joe. Yes, this is exactly the objection that motivates my discussion in the last part of paper and it is certainly the one that is most difficult for me. It was the reason for distinguishing questions about one’s ends and what needs to be done in order to achieve them from questions about the attitude one should take and for noting that contentment provides only one reason in one’s deliberation (a reason for inaction). It was also a reason for distinguishing perfect contentment (as in “no perfect contentment until the vote”) from contentment with imperfection. I take the thrust of your comment to be that discontent can be highly motivating and thus a motivational resource worth cultivating and drawing on. But mightn’t there be costs to ruling out the option of contentment with imperfect justice? I have in mind the way perpetual discontent interferes with appreciating one’s own and one’s co-activists’ successes, an appreciation that might itself be an important motivational resource. There’s of course more to be said here.

  4. Glen Pettigrove says:

    Another reply to the injustice objection would distinguish between being-content-with-injustice, on the one hand, and being-content-with-other-things-in-the-midst-of-an-unjust-political-situation, on the other. Social and political activism can easily dominate our thoughts and emotions. If unchecked, they can cast a shadow over other goods in our context that we might otherwise enjoy. The virtue of contentment, if possessed by the activist who is working against injustice, may not apply to the aspect of her life that is centrally concerned with the injustice. But it still might enable her to set those concerns to one side (at appropriate times) so that they do not keep her from appreciating other intellectual, relational, and physical goods that can be found in her context.