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Effort and Achievement

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 June 2016

Ryerson University – Ted Rogers School of


Achievements have recently begun to attract increased attention from value theorists. One recurring idea in this budding literature is that one important factor determining the magnitude or value of an achievement is the amount of effort the achiever invested. The aim of this article is to present the most plausible version of this idea. This advances the current state of debate where authors are invoking substantially different notions of effort and are thus talking past each other. While the concept of effort has been invoked in the philosophical analysis of a number of important concepts such as desert, attention, competence, and distributive justice, it has hardly ever been analysed itself. This article makes headway in this regard by discussing three ambiguities in the everyday notion of effort. It continues to develop two accounts of effort and shows how both of them are achievement-enhancing.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 Griffin, James, Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance, (Oxford, 1986)Google Scholar; Griffin, On Human Rights (Oxford, 2008); Arneson, Richard, ‘Human Flourishing versus Desire Satisfaction’, Social Philosophy and Policy 16 (1999), pp. 113–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Keller, Simon, ‘Welfare and the Achievement of Goals’, Philosophical Studies 121 (2004), pp. 2741 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Keller, ‘Welfare as Success’, Noûs 43 (2009), pp. 656–83; Portmore, Douglas, ‘Welfare, Achievement, and Self-Sacrifice’, Philosophy Compass 4 (2007), pp. 128 Google Scholar.

2 James, Laurence, ‘Achievement and the Meaningfulness of Life’, Philosophical Papers 34 (2005), pp. 429–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Hurka, Thomas, Perfectionism (Oxford, 1993)Google Scholar; Hurka, ‘Games and the Good’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 80 (2006), pp. 217–35; Hurka, The Best Things in Life (Oxford, 2011); Bradford, Gwen, ‘Evil Achievements’, The Philosophers’ Magazine 59 (2012), pp. 51–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bradford, ‘The Value of Achievements’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 94 (2013), pp. 204–24; Bradford, ‘Evil Achievements and the Principle of Recursion’, Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, vol. 3, ed. M. Timmons (Oxford, 2013), pp.79–97; Bradford, Achievement (Oxford, 2015).

4 Note also that the notion of achievement has been invoked in the discussion of more encompassing accounts of the good life – Dworkin, Ronald, ‘Foundations of Liberal Equality’, Equal Freedom: Selected Tanner Lectures of Human Values, ed. Darwall, S.(Ann Arbor, 1995), pp. 190306 Google Scholar; as well as in the context of giving an account of the value of knowledge (which is sometimes taken to be a kind of achievement) – Greco, John, Achieving Knowledge (New York, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pritchard, Duncan, ‘Knowledge and Understanding’, The Nature and Value of Knowledge, ed. Pritchard, D., Millar, A. and Haddock, A. (Oxford, 2010), pp. 188 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sosa, Ernest, Knowing Full-Well (Princeton, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Similar themes are discussed in Suits, Bernhard, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (Peterborough, 2005)Google Scholar. It is further worth pointing out that a hedonist like Roger Crisp seems to take the claim that achievements have intrinsic value as one of the principal challenges to hedonism; see Crisp, Roger, ‘Utilitarianism and Accomplishment’, Analysis 60 (2000), pp. 264–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Crisp, ‘Utilitarianism and Accomplishment Revisited’, Analysis 61 (2001), 162–4; Crisp, ‘Hedonism Reconsidered’; Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 73 (2006), pp. 619–45.

5 The most popular views here are forms of axiological perfectionism, e.g. Hurka, Perfectionism; Bradford, ‘Value’; Bradford, Achievement. For non-perfectionist accounts of the value of achievements see Arneson, ‘Flourishing’; Keller, ‘Achievement’; Keller, ‘Success’; Portmore, ‘Welfare’.

6 There is a difference between the value of an achievement and the magnitude of an achievement (how much of an achievement a given event is). However, I think that in so far as events are valuable in virtue of being achievements (have value qua achievement) this value is going to be a function of their magnitude as achievements. Thus, for the rest of this article, I will speak indiscriminately about the magnitude or the value of achievements.

7 Keller, ‘Success’, p. 34.

8 Bradford, ‘Value’, p. 208. See also Bradford, ‘Recursion’.

9 E.g. for desert: Sadurski, Wojciech, Giving Desert its Due: Social Theory and Legal Practice, vol. 2 (Dordrecht, 1985)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for attention: Wu, Wayne, ‘What is Conscious Attention?’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 82 (2011), pp. 93120 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for competence: Greco, Knowledge; for distributive justice: Roemer, John, Equality of Opportunity (Cambridge, 2009)Google Scholar.

10 Bernhard Suits makes this point by imagining a Utopia in which opportunity-costs are almost entirely taken out of the equation. Suits, Grasshopper, ch. 15.

11 It is worth noting here that, according to John Nicholls, effortless achievement is valued in competitive contexts – where it makes sense that we would want to be like the people who do not need to put in as much effort. In non-competitive settings, by contrast, satisfaction with success is higher when effort is required. Nicholls, John, The Competitive Ethos and Democratic Education (Cambridge, 1989)Google Scholar, ch. 6.

12 It may be worth noting that one may think that the notion of difficulty is agent-relative and can account for the sense in which the magnitude of achievements is so as well. But the nature of difficulty is itself a contested notion. And it seems reasonable that the ordinary concept of difficulty is ambiguous between an agent-neutral and an agent-relative notion in exactly the same way as the magnitude of achievements is. (It is more difficult for me to prove a mathematical theorem than for John Nash; but John Nash also does more difficult mathematical proofs than me.)

Bradford claims that difficulty is explicable in terms of effort, e.g. Bradford, ‘Value’, pp. 218-21, and Bradford, Achievement, ch. 2, esp. pp. 28-9. If that was right, we could say that the role I reserve for effort is played by difficulty, which in turn is to be analysed in terms of effort. But I think the only thing we would gain from that move is the potential for an unnecessary dispute over the nature of difficulty. Note, for example, that Portmore, while agreeing that difficulty is a measure of achievement, explicitly rejects the idea that difficulty can be reduced to effort; Portmore, ‘Welfare’, p. 10.

13 We can distinguish two different roles luck may play in the scenario under consideration. First, I might just have been lucky to get a correct proof at all. In this case we may wonder whether the proof constitutes an achievement at all, for surely achievements require that the goal was reached somewhat competently. Second, I might have been just as competent as Nash, i.e. we were both overwhelmingly likely to get a solution eventually. It is just that he was likely to get there with little effort, whereas I was likely to need a lot of effort. In that scenario, I have just been lucky to not have to put in as much effort as expected, but this does not diminish my competence and my achievement is thus equal to Nash's.

14 Cf. Bradford, Achievement, pp. 60-3.

15 Cf. Bradford, Achievement, p. 39.

16 Bradford, ‘Value’, p. 219.

17 Keller, ‘Achievement’, p. 34.

18 Portmore, ‘Welfare’, p. 11.

19 As will become evident in the discussion below (section III.3), it is not clear that Bradford always thinks about effort in this way.

20 Bradford, Achievement, p. 42.

21 This is a rough way to put the idea and would need refinement for a full-blown analysis of (physical and mental) effort. To see this, consider that giving blood, for example, fits the model of ‘intentional employment of internal resources’, but the amount of blood given would clearly be a poor measure of effort. I think that the most promising way to rule out cases like this would involve a fine-tuning of the notion of intentional employment. While the details of such an account are beyond the scope of this article, it would have to deliver the intuitive result that blood is a resource that I can intentionally control only when and in so far as I treat it as an external resource. The way that I control my blood is similar to the way that I control my money – I have the right and the means to decide what happens to it (to some degree); it is not at all like the way I control my limbs or my thoughts – I cannot direct my blood at will.

22 From rough ordinal comparisons like that we might be able to work our way up to fairly precise comparisons. Cf. Bradford, Achievement, pp. 40-1. We might find that some amount of physical effort is on a par with some amount of mental effort (that is to say neither is more effortful nor are they equally effortful), but that would still not inhibit our ability to speak meaningfully about quantities of effort in Ruth Chang, general. Cf., ‘Introduction’, Incommensurability, Incomparability, and Practical Reason, ed. Chang, R. (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 134 Google Scholar.

23 The general point here is somewhat analogous to a worry that is sometimes expressed in discussions of hedonism, where it is said that, for example, the pleasure of smoking a cigar cannot be compared with the pleasure of hearing a symphony. Brentano, Cf. Franz, Vom Ursprung sittlicher Erkenntnis (Leipzig, 1889)Google Scholar, p. 28; for discussion see Feldman, Fred, Pleasure and the Good Life (Oxford, 2004), pp. 45–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Jackson, Susan A. and Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi, Flow in Sports (Champaign, 1999), p. 122 Google Scholar.

25 Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, p. 75.

26 Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, p. 19; emphasis added.

27 Neither do Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi: ‘In fact a great deal of effort is expended but because the athlete is not forcing her actions, it can seem as though the performance is proceeding spontaneously’ (Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, p. 74; emphasis added).

28 For extensive lay-friendly discussion of this point, see Baumeister, Roy and Tierney, John, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (New York, 2011)Google Scholar.

29 Cf. Bradford, Achievement, pp. 53-4. If you think that this scenario involves a conceptual confusion, hold that thought. I will address this worry below.

30 Bradford, Achievement, p. 52.

31 Sadurski, Desert, p. 134.

32 Cf. Arneson, ‘Flourishing’, pp. 86 and 88.

33 While this is an intuitive thought that captures the idea that for something to be your achievement you have to be able to take credit for its obtaining, it invites a lot of difficult questions. In particular, how are we to make sense of the ‘prior probability’ of an event's obtaining? It cannot just be the probability that the event would come about if the agent had not acted in its pursuit, for then things like crossing the street would be great achievements (unless I had acted in pursuit of reaching the other side, there was a near zero chance that I would end up there; given that I did act in pursuit of this goal, I will reach the other side with near certainty). My favoured solution is to say that the relevant prior probability is the probability that the event would have occurred given that a standardized agent in the position of the actual agent would have pursued it as a goal. But how exactly we should think about a standardized agent is another difficult question; discussing this question is beyond the scope of this article.

34 I think that this may be the best way of making sense of the way that Keller talks about achievement and effort, cited above, when he gives the example of two researchers making differently sized contributions to a scientific breakthrough and claims that the one with the greater contribution has contributed ‘more productive effort’ (Keller, ‘Achievement’, p. 34).

35 If, in the early stages, the agent does not do enough or things go badly the goal might become impossible before the deadline that is dictated by the goal content (or the circumstances) at its conception. Cases like this might be quite difficult to handle for an account that wanted to extend my model to give an account of (valuable) failure. For my current purposes I can ignore such cases, as they are not even in the market for being achievements at all.

36 In so far as this reply fails to convince, it is worth pointing out that the way the scenario is described invites the interpretation that at some point Calvin set himself a new goal of finishing on Thursday (when he did). But this would, of course, change the situation to one in which he exerted just as much percentage-effort as Andreou.

37 Cf. Portmore, ‘Welfare’, pp. 6-9.

38 This is at least the most natural way to think about the scenario. But we could fill in the details in a way in which this was not the case.

39 One may think that a trial and error procedure should not count as achievement enhancing. But I think there are other reasons for thinking that trial and error usually makes for lesser achievements. Most notably trial and error procedures usually involve less difficulty than strategies that were thought out in advance, because the latter involve specific subgoals and thus offer more ways in which the agent may fail. Cf. Hurka, Perfectionism, p. 124.

40 Earlier versions of this article were presented at the meeting of the Canadian Philosophical Association in Victoria BC, at the department of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the department of philosophy at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I thank the members of these audiences for their helpful questions and suggestions. In addition, I would like to thank Daniel Attas, Naama Goldberg, Thomas Hurka, Dominic Martin, Ittay Nissan-Rozen, Andreas Tupac Schmidt, Wayne Sumner, Sergio Tenenbaum, Ariel Zylberman and two anonymous referees for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts.

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