- Good Enough
No matter how well things go for us, we tend to dream of ways in which they could go better. Our love affair with the perfect may be an expression of Western restlessness or, more generally, the result of human desires in overdrive, but it unquestionably structures much of what we hope for and work to achieve. We want not only more of everything but also more perfect versions of the goods we have and the experiences we enjoy. We seem to think that the world falls short of the ideal and that therefore everything needs to be improved.
This belief has become the grotesque mantra of the manufacturers of commercial goods, who advertise their products as “new and improved.” But it is also embraced in cooking where we seek surprising ways to enhance the taste of meals, in human relations where we try to find the perfect friends, and in raising children where they can never quite meet our expectations. It is not that we fail to know what is good; we just believe that nothing is good enough.
A particularly harmful version of the view that nothing is good enough hides in the claim that our duties are unending. Such diverse philosophers as Fichte, Royce, and Levinas maintain that no matter how much we do, we cannot fulfill our obligations: our efforts remain forever inadequate. The reason may be that what we are supposed to do is intrinsically impossible to achieve, that it exceeds our powers, or that we have simply too many obligations; in any case, the best we can offer in moral exertion is not good enough. This reveals more clearly perhaps than anything else what is at stake. The demands on us are infinite even though our resources are clearly finite.
The perverse desire to heap infinite obligations on finite individuals guarantees moral failure. Similarly, demanding perfection of our experiences and relationships is a certain way of making life miserable. We do much better if we heed the counsels of finitude and refuse to seek what cannot be obtained. This involves both judgment and resolve: we must be able to decide what is good enough and willing to embrace it as sufficient for our purposes, that is, adequate to satisfy our desires. The romantic quest for the perfect destroys human relationships and converts what could be happy lives into the misery of endless seeking and striving.
The first task in exploring the geography of the good enough is to distinguish it from what merely will do. There is actually a double distinction [End Page 1] here, encapsulated in the ideas of that which will do and that with which, in the absence of better instruments and experiences, we can make do. The latter clearly announces compromise: when we do not have what we need or want, we satisfy ourselves with something less that may serve as a substitute. As a child, my grandfather lacked Band-Aids and so had to put spider webs on cuts and bleeding bruises. Knives are plausible stand-ins for screwdrivers, and we settle for CDs when a live performance is unavailable. After a grand but failed love affair, people make do with whatever partner happens to be on hand, just as the threat of hunger inclines them to accept jobs for which they are overqualified.
To say that something will do, by contrast, is to endorse it as adequate. This judgment can express a broad range of attitudes, from finding something barely satisfactory to thinking of it as fine. The variety is reflected in the many ways in which we say, “This will do,” sometimes conveying resignation, and at others, delighted surprise. The adequacy asserted means that some object or experience reaches at least a minimum level of acceptability, though in some cases it may be significantly better.
At the low end, for example, looking for cherry pie in the refrigerator but finding only a cookie, we might well decide that that will do: it may not be what we wanted, but it will still the desire for something sweet. At the other end, when searching the Internet gives us five million web pages on a...