Matt Feeney has a great, tart post on Tiger Woods, which I nonetheless want to take in another direction. For Matt,

the prevailing sentiment unleashed over the last few weeks is not, in the most immediate sense, some reflex of racial loathing that we white people have been holding in store in anticipation of this moment. It’s disappointment – disappointment in Tiger Woods as a higher sort of regular guy, disappointment that what he seemed to illustrate about the essential soundness and stability of our most important and worried-about institution, he didn’t illustrate at all, that he was living in the bad old days we’re constantly telling ourselves we’d left behind, and living it up.

Perhaps, but here’s what I think. We’re less disappointed to see Tiger represent evidence that our marriages often fall far short of the ideal than we are chagrined and dismayed to see Tiger represent evidence that putting most of our effort into a life of demonstrated professional expertise will leave us with the sort of meaning deficit that nags in the kind of way that causes us to do reckless, irresponsible, indulgent, and, yes, even depraved things.

UPDATE: I’ve raised a few questions. Rather than linking to the tweets — shudder — I’ll just add a few remarks to the above. First, I don’t mean to imply that there is no meaning to be found in building professional expertise. Matt Crawford’s account of the way manual competence conduces to human flourishing through specifically professional relationships is, to my mind, beyond dispute. Indeed, in comments at a Georgetown panel on the purpose of college, Matt went on to rightly specify that professional expertise supplies people with the necessary conditions of mere life, too: there’s nothing wrong with chasing dollars by accumulating expertise in order to stay solvent — or even in order to build some wealth, necessarily. Certainly chasing dollars as an end in itself is a misunderstanding and evidence of what I called a ‘meaning deficit’ above. But that’s not the problem Tiger illustrates for us.

Tiger has created or unveiled a problem by undermining the whole logic of virtue derived from his professional expertise. It’s that expertise that’s imbued his ‘brand’ with such enormous, unprecedented value. It’s that expertise that’s caused big elite firms like Accenture to rent his identity, promising customers the experience of being ‘a Tiger’. That experience involves extreme confidence under highly structured but complex and changing conditions, and the superlative results that come from routine high performance under those conditions. These capabilities, and the outcomes they produce, are great, celebrated virtues today. Much is invested in them. Although they’re increasingly valued in men and women, they’re more relevant and important to men. The goods associated with Tiger have value primarily as external goods, for the rewards that come to those who demonstrate and display them. But they also have value as internal goods. When the general experience of confidently navigating sophisticated challenge sets so as to competitively produce outstanding solutions can be experienced specifically within a particular challenge set to which one has dedicated one’s life energy, some kind of self-actualization is understood to ensue in which the competitor (and, vicariously, his fans) partake of the fullness of individuality in all its romantic glory.

Not one, then, but two types of meaning. To our great dismay, Tiger was driven to extremes of adultery despite accessing both these kinds of (still particularly male) meaning to an almost utopian degree. To be sure, for some professional athletes, that combo pack of meaning seems to be enough to keep them from slipping into sybaritic dementia. But Tiger is not some athletes. Tiger is the incarnation of our noble ideal. And he calls into question our ability to build lives of adequate meaning around participation in one of the many competitive showcases designed to organize and reward those (especially men) willing to discipline themselves into logging thousands upon thousands of hours of practice. Not only does he cast doubt on the ultimate value of the external goods of professional expertise; he casts doubt on the ultimate value of its internal goods, too.

Articles by James Poulos

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