Monday, January 9, 2012

What's worth doing?

I think we must have evolved for crisis living, not reflection. Reflection bogs us down and causes us to question everything, whereas, in our normal state (lives more or less out of control), we act to deal with this crisis or solve that urgent problem, and often manage to remain cheerful and show courage and all sorts of virtues. Life-in-action brings out the best in us. Leisure and bounty often bring out the worst.

For example, we might start to ask questions like, "What should I do?" or, worse, "What human activities are intrinsically worthwhile?"

This last question in particular is problematic as each of us is situated in a specific social context. Simply asking what human activities are worthwhile is perhaps too abstract an approach. But so long as one is aware that one is dealing with abstractions and provisional generalizations the exercise may not be entirely useless.

And it can streamline discussion and simplify things. For example, I might be at a point in my life where I have to make a choice of direction but don't want to be distracted by a lot of boring details. (My specific situational details are very boring, as it happens.)

So - what sorts of activities are worthwhile, intrinsically or not?

1. Having fun - partying and that sort of thing - will be high on many people's lists. However, not really being dans le vent (to use a dated but expressive French locution), I have little to say about this.

2. Having children and raising them is considered life's purpose by many. Certainly it appears to be the fulfilment of a basic biological function, but what is significant about it has more to do with passing on values of various kinds in a particular cultural context.

3. Charitable and humanitarian work is often worthwhile, but its value is entirely extrinsic, i.e. in terms of the good it does. This is an area where well-intentioned people can do great harm. Good intentions and warm feelings are no substitute for thinking through the (possible) consequences.

4. Political activism. As for 3. Except that the intentions are not always good and the feelings are often far from warm.

5. Art and self-expression are often put forward as intrinsically valuable activities. Though it all depends on the quality of what is being made or said.

6. Enjoying good art or literature is a worthy thing to do, I suppose, but I wouldn't make too much of it. One important thing good taste does indirectly - and on a very modest scale - is to reward good quality art and writing and to limit the audience for (and so discourage) poor quality work.

7. Playing sports and competitive games is great for some. H.G. Wells used to invite friends to his country house for the weekend and he always organized lots of games. But he was inclined to tire quickly of one game after another. "Let's play something I can win," he would say.

8. Hobbies are worthwhile too, blurring the distinction between work and play. They can be a sort of compensation for the unsatisfactory nature of the greater part of one's life.

9. Ordinary social interaction? Well, this is an essential part of being human. (So is sitting alone under a shady tree.)

10. Learning is intrinsically valuable, especially (I am speaking personally here) the sort of learning that helps one understand important things - and things in general. I think the privileged person is the one sitting in the auditorium, not the lecturer. Likewise, scientific researchers (even successful ones) are less privileged than non-researchers who have more time and leisure to understand and appreciate what researchers discover.

After all, lecturers must be paid or they will not lecture (the ones who don't insist on payment you don't want to hear!); and researchers have to be paid and lured on by prizes and awards. But curious people don't have to be motivated by material rewards to learn, to read, to expand their understanding.

Of course, I am being slightly disingenuous here. Though I mentioned (artistic) self-expression, I am underplaying that basic human motivation, the desire for the spotlight, the desire for status, the desire to be taken seriously, to be listened to. And I am also ignoring the fact that most of us have to earn a living and that paid work not only fills a disproportionate amount of the typical day and so determines to a large extent the nature and quality of our lives, but also forms the basis of our identity, of how other people define or categorize us and of how we define and categorize ourselves.

I'll deal with the topic of remuneration in another post, but let me just say here that I don't see any necessary connection between the worthwhileness of an activity and whether or not someone should be paid for doing it.


  1. You forgot to mention No. 11. Bird-watching.

    As I see it, for most people No. 2 outranks the others by a long way. Especially if it is broadened to mean all sorts of family relationships. On the one hand people often grumble about their family. On the other, they report these relationships as more important to them than anything else.

    Intellectuals, artists, and academics tend to find this problematic. They want something a bit more ambitious. Which is OK, but (I think) no reason to denigrate others' preferences. For myself, I think one can have both.

    The Gaugin story is the classic instance of the tension.

  2. My views on the family are not at all settled. Social change and new reproductive technologies have altered the picture significantly. Relatedness and shared cultural values used to go together in a way they no longer do. If I had to choose between the two I would certainly choose the shared cultural values, but I still feel family and 'tribal' loyalties and I recognize that they often play an important role - not always positive - in human behavior.