The Link Between Competence and Character

Tiger Woods’s recent “comeback kid” storyline and the ongoing accusations against Judge Kavanaugh remind me that America has an obsession with linking competence to character.

Americans understand competence in two ways. The first is as a minimum. Competent means you mean the minimum requirements for your job or role or sport. You can use it as a pejorative – “He’s just competent,” or as a compliment, “I think you’re competent,” signaling that we ourselves don’t quite know what to make of the concept.

The second way, which is much more insidious and worthy of analysis, is that competence signals good character; a competent person is a good person. When Woods was struggling on the links, it was far easier to link that struggle to personal failings of will, talent, or ethics. But when he’s winning, those concerns are forgotten and replaced by their opposites. He is “mentally tough” and “brilliant” and “disciplined” now, an object of celebration and adoration, a victim of his injuries rather than ruled by them, if he was still losing.

Kavanaugh, too, is a litmus test for how competence is viewed. On one hand, Republicans tend to point to his long career as evidence of competence, and this is extended, by the second definition, to his character. He could not possibly be an attempted rapist because he is competent professionally, the reasoning goes. On the other hand, Democrats reverse this – because he is competent in Republican eyes, they reason, his sterling resume is just the mask of a sexual offender. Either way, it’s a logical mistake. Kavanaugh’s competence as a judge does not cause better personal behavior, or the reverse, that an ethical life leads to competence.

Think over your life, of the many people you’ve known, and you’ll recognize many other examples. The selfless saint that can’t hold down a job, the crack businessman that made his fortune cheating customers, the immature star athlete, the idealistic employee passed over for promotion yet again. And yet we insist to ourselves that there must be a link between behavior and competence. There must be. But there isn’t.

All Trump voters in 2016 knew this very well, even though they might not admit such in public. Trump was rich and famous, with all the trappings of success, and a reputation, at least, of business acumen, but no one is seriously going to point to him as a paragon of moral character. And yet, even with his glaring, obvious example, this doesn’t change how we view Woods or Kavanaugh in the slightest.

Disengagement from this kind of thinking is difficult. Among the professoriate of which I am a member, the professors who publish often are seen as hardworking and industrious, and many sins are forgiven. The ones that don’t get as much in print are viewed as lazy, goldbricking deadwood. This happens despite the inherent randomness of the academic publishing process and despite all the other things professors do, like teaching and administrative work. We’re supposed to be the smart ones, but we can’t easily escape the fallacy either.

Curiously, when it comes time to fire someone, the two concepts of competence and character separate a little. Either can be used to fire you without recourse to the other, but there is always an implication that you failed in both areas. Many positions are apparently supposed to be better than the average Joe, character-wise, given employment clauses detailing the requirements of proper behavior. Behind this is the assumption that you can’t really do your job competently if people don’t view you as competent because your behavior suggests otherwise… even though your behavior has no necessary logical connection to your job performance. It is the appearance or performance of competence, then, that matters.

With Woods and Kavanaugh, we can see one figure ascendant, with his competence and character simultaneously restored; with the other man, both concepts are crashing rapidly because they are so closely linked. I am not suggesting that we do away with linking competence to character, or even if we could, given how hardwired it seemingly is to the American mindset, but we might want to start thinking about applying it more carefully and questioning whether the claims it makes are really warranted.

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