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Doing Valuable Time by Cheshire Calhoun

James Wakefield finds out that meaning need not be monumental.

Is your time well spent? In Doing Valuable Time (2018), the American philosopher Cheshire Calhoun takes apart this familiar yet difficult question, finding that the activities that make our lives meaningful – those activities on which it is worth spending our time – are not always what we expect them to be.

Calhoun contends that the issue of meaningfulness is rooted in two basic features of humans. One is that we are ‘evaluators’: we are disposed to make decisions after weighing up our options and determining what seems to us best. Whether or not a given course of action would be a meaningful use of our time is inextricably tied up with our reasons to pursue it. The other feature is that we are ‘temporally oriented beings’. We persist through time, and through changes to our circumstances and states of mind, all the while conscious that we have only so much time to spend. But we think and act in the knowledge that our interests, beliefs, and preferences have been different before and will be different again later. We feel bound by commitments that we have made in the past, and see it as a lapse if we do not live up to them. We also judge how well or badly our lives are going as a whole, as distinct from the many and various activities included in them.

All of this affects how we make sense of our own lives. Living as the kinds of creatures we are forces us to confront the ‘truly daunting thought’ that what we are doing is a waste of effort. We live in hope of achieving something worthwhile, even while the question of what is worthwhile is not one for which we have a final answer. To determine whether our lives are meaningfully lived, then – that is, whether our time is well spent – we need a clearer view of what we mean when we talk about meaningfulness.

Meaningful Living

A natural way to think about whether our lives are valuable is to compare them with the lives of exemplary people about whom we already have a pretty firm view. Calhoun cites Mother Teresa, whose life, taken as a whole, seems to have been conspicuously about something. Mother Teresa spent most of her adult life as a missionary in India, committed to helping the poorest members of society through education, medical care, and ‘saving the souls’ of the sick by introducing them to Christ.

The worthiness or meaningfulness of Mother Teresa’s life’s work, argues Calhoun, does not depend on whether her overall project was as a matter of fact worthwhile. Mother Teresa dedicated herself to the poorest people in India, rather than to those elsewhere, not because she thought this would do the most good, all things considered, but because she felt compelled by a divine command to do so (p.25). We might think she was mistaken about this, and that the exemplariness of her life depends on something other than this belief. After all, she encouraged people to donate to charity, and eased the suffering of some of the worst-off, even if these were side-effects of her more explicit goal of saving souls in obedience to God’s command.

If we must have true beliefs about what really matters in order for our time to be well spent, we might find scarcely anyone’s life meaningful. “Given how varied people’s metaphysical and evaluative views are,” writes Calhoun, “it seems likely that many of us have… mistaken reasons” (p.31). Yet all of us can make sense of questions about whether our time is well spent, even those without rigorously detailed conceptions of the meaning of life. This is why Calhoun defends a ‘subjectivist’ view of meaningfulness, according to which meaningful living involves “expending your life’s time on ends that in your best judgment you have reason to value and thus reason to use yourself up on” (pp.32-33).

The subjectivist view of meaningfulness allows for the possibility that one person might find meaning in activities that mean nothing to someone else. People have different beliefs, different preferences, and in general different lives. Calhoun knitting woolly mice for her local cat shelter, for instance, is meaningful for her, given her interests (in cats), commitments (to supporting animal welfare programmes in general, and the shelter in particular), and preferences (for knitting). She need not think that knitting mice is the best possible way for her to spend her time, all things considered; nor that people who spend their evenings doing other things are making a mistake. Nonetheless, this is meaningful – and so to that extent a valuable expenditure of time – for Calhoun (p.26).

Doing Valuable Time is replete with examples like this. Calhoun has a keen eye for what is philosophically interesting in everyday experience, as well as in activities that are more obviously virtuous or valued. Finding support for her arguments in passing conversations with a Starbuck’s barista, gardening, an unexpectedly delayed flight, the cases for and against buying advance cinema tickets, and her father’s views on the quality of a restaurant’s pies, she amply shows that questions about meaningful living are not just for the classroom, nor applicable only to the kinds of people about whom history books are written. They are instead an inescapable part of what it is to be a ‘temporally oriented agent’ – a human person trying to make of sense of life in the course of living it. This grounding in ordinary experience goes a great way to compensate for the difficulties readers may face in attending to the technical distinctions used in the book. These distinctions reflect the chapters’ origins in academic articles. Readers not used to this kind of material may find themselves occasionally doubling back to check some of the definitions.

Psychological Vicissitudes

Most of us, most of the time, are not engaged in conspicuously worthy activities like Mother Teresa’s. Even if we try to live up to our highest standards whenever we can, we will nevertheless use up substantial parts of our lives on humdrum activities like buying groceries, waiting for buses, or attending admin meetings. The activities that seem worth doing for their own sakes constitute the ‘primary spending’ of time. Other things we have to do in order to realise these aims, but which are not themselves intrinsically meaningful to us (‘entailed spending’). For instance, we keep going to the gym to stay fit when, on any given evening, we might rather stay at home to knit mice. Some other things we do because we feel obligated, even if our preferences would have us do otherwise (‘norm-required spending’) – like carefully ironing our shirts for the sake of looking professional at work. Still others we do simply to use up time between more valuable expenditures (‘filler spending’) – like taking a stroll around the block after arriving early for an appointment.

One worry about Calhoun’s attempt to ground meaningfulness in subjective psychology is that it makes claims about meaningfulness arbitrary, or worse, unintelligible: a life is meaningfully lived – her time is well spent – to the extent that the person living it considers it to be so; but there is no way to ascertain whether the person’s judgment is well-founded.

Happily, Calhoun goes further than this formulation. It is a mistake, she argues, to think of our primary spending as limited to the time spent achieving lofty aims for the betterment of humanity. For someone who loves reading, say, evenings spent at home with a novel are no less primary expenditures – are no less meaningful uses of time – than would be the time someone who cares deeply about the greater good spends managing a charitable foundation. This shows that for Calhoun the issue of meaningfulness or value is not first and foremost a moral one. The right thing to do ethically is not the only thing that matters. Here we see the influence of philosophical forebears such as Susan Wolf and Harry Frankfurt, who insist that the scope of what we ought and have good reason to do extends wider than that of morality.

Calhoun’s subjectivism gives rise to a psychologically rich account of meaningful living. This is developed over the four central chapters of the book. Volitional disabilities, which adversely affect our motivation, such as depression and demoralisation, leave us estranged from our normal values, and so unable to recognise the value of our present actions for our future selves. Hope – even if it is false hope – helps us maintain our sense of self during periods of uncertainty. Commitments bind our present selves and actions to past decisions, thus giving our lives greater continuity than our immediate inclinations allow. But commitments sometimes have deleterious effects on our well-being, if we remain committed to causes we would do better to abandon. Boredom is symptomatic of meaningful living, too: the regularity, stability and orderliness of meaningful, self-conscious lives, result in us having a great deal of time to spend, but limited capacities to imagine and choose between ways of doing so (pp.119, 144).

In the last substantive chapter of the book, Calhoun raises an old ethical question: should we be content with imperfection? She thinks so. But her view is not that we ought to be content in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. The important thing, she argues, is that we recognise what is good enough, and to find meaning and value where we can. This is partly a matter of fixing our expectations at the right levels – setting them neither so high as to be constantly dissatisfied with our imperfection, nor so low as to lose our motivation to improve. We cannot choose our desires, preferences, or inclinations, and very often we cannot do much to alter our circumstances; but we can go some way in moderating attitudes that are bad for us and which prevent us from engaging in the business of meaningful living.

Doing Valuable Time is first and foremost a book for professional philosophers and their students. It will be discussed at length in university seminars on agency, personal identity, even metaethics. Yet at its heart are some critical questions – ‘What makes life meaningful?’, ‘Why does it sometimes cease to seem so?’, and ‘On what kinds of activities is it worth spending our time?’ – about which most of us, philosophers or not, will have opinions. It is to Calhoun’s great credit that she brings these topics to life without losing sight of the universal quality of the particular experiences she describes. Her case in favour of a subjective account of meaningfulness is compelling and remarkably subtle. Rather than systematically dismantling the arguments of those who favour objective views of meaningfulness, she shows, through pointed and sympathetic treatments of examples, that what makes life meaningful is at once more personal, more familiar, and more profound than we usually recognise.

© Dr James Wakefield 2020

James Wakefield teaches political theory at Cardiff University and formerly taught philosophy at Swansea University.

Doing Valuable Time: The Present, The Future, and Meaningful Living, Cheshire Calhoun, OUP, 2018, $78 hb, 200 pages, ISBN: 9780190851866

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