What Makes Something Worth Doing?
Rick Garlikov

 I have a question that l am not confident I have fully formed in my mind, and so I am going to ask it a few different ways, though there may be significant enough differences in those ways to make them each somewhat different questions with somewhat different answers.  I am also going to explain what I am not asking and which answers do not address correctly what I am trying to ask.

The question is what makes something that one doesn’t really have to do worth doing when it has both negative and positive consequences for you and would not be wrong to do for any other reason (such as harming others or being unfair to others).  What makes ‘the light be worth the candle’?  What makes something be worth the trouble (or the hassle)?  In particular, the most significant form, but not the only form or application of the question is what makes life worth being conceived for?  Is what makes life be better or good while you are alive ever the same as what makes life worth having in the first place?  Can something make you glad to do while you are alive while not making you be glad to be alive in order to do?  Can something be a great way to spend your time you have to spend doing something, but not great, or even good enough, to have had the time to have to spend?  What makes life worth having in the first place if you would never have known about it one way or the other if you were never conceived?  While many people say that life is a wonderful and great thing and one of God’s greatest gifts, few people conceive all the children they possibly could, and few people lament the ‘lost’ lives of the children they did not conceive in the same way they lament the loss of a baby’s life who miscarries or a child who dies relatively young.  I do understand that couples who want to conceive children (or another child) that they cannot, lament their inability to do so, but that is more for them and what they think they will miss or did miss than it is for what the unconceived child will miss or did miss. Would there be any reason to feel sorry for children, or a child, that is unconceived, as opposed to a child who died?

 As to less significant forms and applications of the question, actor/comedian Kevin Nealon has said that he has a roving eye for attractive women, but that he also has a lazy eye, and whenever his roving eye sees someone he might want to try to become involved with, his lazy eye says “That could be a lot of work or trouble.”  And that talks him out of pursuing it.  So the question is what is it that makes something worth doing, particularly something that could be a lot of trouble?  Every year at Christmas and New Year’s time millions of people make travel plans that will take them either by car or plane through often the worst severe winter storm travel conditions (multiple highway accidents, 2 hour to all night traffic jams, cancelled flights at crowded airports with people sleeping on chairs and coats on the floor, sometimes for a couple of days, etc.)  Many of them are trying to get home to family for the holidays, even though they might be perfectly content staying put at their own home.  Why not throw in the towel and tell your family there are no flights and you are going back to your house and will see them at some other time?  Many of them, and the ones I understand the least, are traveling through Chicago (one of the busiest airports and one shut down quite often by blizzard and icy conditions at the busiest time of the year) to go to Times Square in New York City on New Year's Eve to stand in freezing conditions with a million strangers for hours and hours with no public facilities available.   I am missing whatever gene makes anyone want to do any of that.  But it seems there is more involved than just wanting to be in Times Square at midnight, though I have to admit I don’t even understand that, just as I don’t understand wanting to go to a football game, particularly an expensive one that you could watch much better (in terms of seeing the football action) from the comfort of your home or the home of friends.

 But here are some things apparently related to this that I do understand, so they are not what I am asking about:

  •   1) I understand wanting to do something so much that the effort required and/or the likely obstacles or pitfalls don’t matter enough to deter you.  And I understand that is what can make a half empty glass be what you view as half full, or even a 90% empty glass be what you view as still having 10% of its contents or being 10% full.  But it seems to me that usually when you want to do something like that, you can give the specific traits about it for you that makes it worthwhile.  E.g., I like hitting tennis balls but not hitting golf balls because a tennis swing just feels really good and really natural to me, even when I don’t do it as well as I would like to, whereas a golf swing has never felt either good or natural to me, even when I hit the occasional decent shot.  Or like people that want to go to Mardi Gras because there are particular things about it they like so much that the few problems they encounter, if anything even seems problematic to them, are not that big a deal to them, not deal breakers.  Or, in my case, I will often work harder to find a shortcut to doing work than if I had done the work itself, but that is generally because it is like a puzzle or challenge to me and because if you can find a shortcut, it will make doing the thing in the future much easier or more efficient, thus actually saving you time in the long run though it costs you more initial time and effort.  Seeking the shortcut is an investment of your time; but I wouldn’t do it if it were not also simply a stimulating challenge to me.

  •    2) I understand not realizing the obstacles, problems, and disappointments the act involves.   So, therefore I can understand that a young Kevin Nealon probably would not yet have developed his lazy eye, and that every attractive woman might have seemed worth pursuing.  And I can understand that one might take a long road trip or 21 hour flight with great anticipation the first time, but after not liking the tedium vow never to do that again unless there is some really good reason one can’t imagine ahead of time. 

  •      3) I also understand wanting to do something that other people are not interested in, but not something where the risks or potential problems are obvious and, which if they did occur, would make you regret your pursuit of the goal. 

  •    4) I also understand that there are people who think the potential harms will not happen to them, and that they are feeling blessed or lucky.  I think that is irrational, but I can see that people might believe it.

  •    5) I understand doing something you think is a moral or other kind of obligation though you would prefer not to (have to) do it, like going into or staying in a burning building to save people, or paying back a loan or keeping a promise to take your kids to the zoo on a day that turns out to be really hot and you are feeling lazy, or cleaning up their throwing up the zoo food in their bed that night.  Sometimes such cases are described as being torn between two options, but I don’t think that is the best way to think of it because your obligation should override your desire, even if you don’t feel like doing that.  And I think it is false to say that everyone does what they really want to, so that if they meet their obligation it is what they really wanted to do.  I think it is more accurate to say they really wanted not to do meet the obligation but knew they should keep it.  The most you could say about conflicting desires is that they had a desire to, say, keep the money (or cheat on the test, or tell their kids they weren’t taking them to the zoo after all today) but they also had a desire to do the right thing, though the right thing was not itself the act they desired or wanted to do in terms of ‘feeling’ like doing.

  •    6)  I understand choosing the best of bad options, and therefore doing something that is not ‘positively’ pleasing, but is at least not as bad as the other options or alternatives would be. 

  •    7) I understand doing something that is pleasing under certain circumstances, such as scratching poison ivy, but which you wouldn’t court those circumstances for in order to have that pleasure.  While it can feel really wonderful to scratch the itch of poison ivy, people don’t rub themselves with poison ivy leaves to feel the relief of scratching poison ivy or having it go away.  People don’t drive splinters under their fingernails so they can experience the joy of ceasing to do it.

  •    8) And I understand continuing something that might pay off to some extent once you have put time, effort, and money into that you would not have begun in the first place had you known how much time, effort, or money it would have taken to get to that point.  Something worth sticking out is not necessarily something worth starting.

I think 8 is a special case of 6 and also 7, because quitting something you have already put time, money, and effort into makes all those things wasted, whereas continuing what you have started might result in a payoff of at least some sort, if not an actually, positive good one. Therefore quitting would in many cases be the worse option. Hence, if you have gone to a play that turns out to be pretty boring, or if you have got in a line that seems not to be moving, or if you have been waiting for a really good ball game to continue after a long rain delay, I can see sticking it out -- unless you have something likely better to do with the time.

E.g., if you are at a play that has been boring for some two hours and there is another 20 minutes to go that might (or might not) make it worth having stayed for, if the only two options were staying or just going home early.  It might be worth staying for to see whether you can salvage anything from having gone (since at worst you just waste 'only' 20 more minutes) though it would not have been worth going to in the first place if you had known it would be this bad because you could have put the whole evening to better use than you can this last 20 minutes -- unless you know you can put that 20 minutes to better use, such as if someone you find attractive says s/he is finding this play terribly tedious and invites you to go somewhere with them. That would be a potentially more interesting use of the time remaining in the evening. And it might even make going to the play worthwhile and sitting through the first 2 hours in the first place if you knew that it would result in meeting someone you might really like and hit it off with. But apart from meeting someone worthwhile, the order of preference would be a) stay home or do something else with the evening than going to a play that is boring for the first two hours, b) stay at the play rather than going home the last twenty minutes. Staying may make it more pleasant than having left it and is therefore the better of those two options (condition 6), but yet not enough of a good option to make it worth having gone to the play in the first place because even if pleasant under the circumstances, would not have made it worth getting into those circumstances to begin with (condition 7).

  •   9) I also understand not wanting to do some things because you have had your fill of them or satisfied the urge that prompted them.  E.g., you can only eat so much pizza or so much ice cream at one time before you are no longer hungry enough to eat more or so full that you can't even bear the thought of having any more. 

  •   10) And I understand ‘getting tired’ of doing some things because they cease to be enjoyable, possibly due to some sort of desensitization.  For example, you can only enjoy or even detect the fragrance of a particular perfume or aroma of a roast cooking in the oven for so long when you are continuously surrounded by it or exposed to it.  That may be the same sort of effect of any sort of experience, though I am not sure.  It may be why being at the beach ‘gets old’ after awhile or why sex with the same person does (if it does) or even sex in general if it just becomes empty repetitions even with different people.  There is an old joke that President Calvin Coolidge, a man famous for speaking few words, and his wife being shown around (separately) on a trip to an experimental farm.  When Mrs. Coolidge is taken to the hen house she asks why there is only one rooster, and the answer is that the rooster can have sex a hundred times a day.  She tells the people at the hen house to be sure to tell President Coolidge that when he gets there.  They do.  And the President simply asked “Same hen each time?”  The answer is “No, a different hen each time.”  And he says “Tell Mrs. Coolidge that!”  But the truth is that even people who jump from one night stand to one night stand can get tired of that as being empty instead of any longer exciting.  The sayings “Been there; done that” and “Same stuff; different day” or “Different person; same thing” reflect a possible desensitization to what was once, and even for a long while, an exciting experience.  I don’t know why that happens, but it does about some experiences, at least for some people.

  •   11) I understand that something can seem more exciting to someone unaware of what it is actually like and who imagines it being very different from what the experience will actually be like for them.  For example, you can have all the anticipation of kissing someone only to find out there is ‘no spark’ when you do, even with your heightened anticipation.  While some things are a thrill perhaps just because you finally get to do something you always wanted, not everything you always wanted turns out to be satisfying.  Christmas afternoon for many children is testimony to that; they have already lost interest in what they wanted for so long to get.  Or the anticipation of getting to the ‘toy’ or ‘surprise’ in the cereal box or getting your ‘glow in the dark belt’ or the ‘secret decoder ring’ you sent away for is often not rewarded in the expected way.  Something highly desired can be simply a disappointment without being a bad thing or having attendant problems as in 2 above.  I can even understand wanting to try it twice (especially at a later time), thinking the first time of disappointment was a fluke or that you maybe just weren’t in the right frame of mind or did it wrong in some way that you can adjust now that you have ‘thought about it’ some more or seen how it worked.

  •    12)  I understand being in the mood to get in the mood to do something you partly want to do but not sufficiently to be able to do it.  E.g., you might think it might be fun to go to a Friday night party you know about but you are not really in a partying mood and know that if you don’t get into one, you won’t enjoy the party.  You want to go to the party in some sense, but not in another; but what you really want is to be able to want to go in the important sense -- where you feel like partying, not just feeling like you would like to feel like partying.  Or you might think some good sex would be good, but you are not in a lusty or romantic mood and want to be enticed into that mood or do something that not only arouses your partner but yourself as well.  You may initiate play not because you are interested when you initiate it, but because you want to become interested.  You are interested in becoming interested.

A more serious example of this is needing help overcoming fear you want to overcome, know you can overcome, and know you should overcome.  Maybe you just want someone to say the right thing on their own to show they understand or care; maybe you want them to accompany you to, say, going to the doctor or the hospital -- or at least to sincerely offer to accompany you.  Unfortunately this is the kind of thing you can’t alway achieve, even from a willing person, if you ask for it or have to ask for it, because you want it to be their idea or their desire and their knowledge about what you need.  Or maybe you feel bored and perhaps think that buying something will perk you up and get you out of the doldrums.  But you don’t need or really want anything, so you go to a store or browse online for something that will get you interested in buying it.  Sometimes that might work to do it; other times it will become a time-wasting enterprise that energizes you into doing something more productive and useful, which is probably better and perhaps what you really wanted to be inspired to do in the first place.

Another way people often describe these sort of cases of half-interests is “Part of me wants to …., but part of me doesn’t.”  That is also consistent with Kevin Nealon’s funny way to describe the similar situation of actual conflicting interests (rather than just half-interest)  where ‘the part of him’ that wants to do something is his roving eye and ‘the part’ that doesn’t want to do it is his lazy eye.  [I presume, but don’t know for sure, contemporary neuro-scientists would find and say in these situations, as they seem to tend to, that one part of the brain (a part close to the area that experiences desires) is active in one of the kinds of wants and that another (a part close to the area that involves moral reasoning, or some such) is active in the other kinds of wants and that these two parts of the brain are really the “one part of you that wants…” and “another part of you that doesn’t want….” thus making that description true in an unexpected, accidentally prophetic way.]

 But none of that addresses what makes something worth doing that you are not driven to do or don’t really desire doing and that you have no real specific reason will be better to do than not doing.  And it doesn’t explain, for example, why anyone would want to work to develop a taste for something unnecessary and maybe even problematic or addictive that they are perfectly content to do without before developing the taste.   E.g., why ‘learn’ to like coffee or beer if they taste terrible to you to begin with?  Why work “to acquire a taste’ (or craving) for something you are satisfied now not having?  Why work to develop a habit that will take you work to satisfy and cause you frustration when you can't satisfy it?

And it doesn’t explain why it would be better in general to start something that will be a known mixture of good and bad experiences rather than not going to the effort even though you have nothing better to do but that will not be worse.  Why, for example, isn’t staying home doing ‘nothing’ or ‘nothing special’ preferable to going to something that will bring a certain amount of joy or benefit but at least an equal amount of discomfort or even misery, or even a much lesser amount of discomfort or misery but still too much to want to bother to get the joy or benefit?  Or vice versa; why is going out to do that thing preferable to staying home and not having to ‘bother’ with the problems to get the modicum of enjoyment?   Why work to attain the same or even somewhat less overall level of satisfaction that you can have by not working at it? 

What is the threshold level of the Nealon Effect that divides the dominance of the lazy eye from that of the roving eye, and/or what is the principle that describes where that threshold is or what makes one cross it in either direction?  Or what is it that even in marriage at some point sex becomes too much trouble (as in Wanda Sykes’ line “Okay, but make it quick, I have laundry to fold” or a comment by a guy to the effect “Okay, but we need to make it fast; the game starts in ten minutes”) or where people would rather sleep later in the morning or go to sleep earlier at night than make love?  It is not that making love is less pleasurable later in marriage, when you do it, but that it seems to take more to motivate you to do it than just knowledge of the pleasure.  I don’t mean cases where your partner has upset you or become unattractive or undesirable or where outside stresses or taking care of children or other responsibilities wears you out, but about cases where you would and could be interested, but it (seems like it) would take ‘too much work or effort’ to even make you want to be interested enough to do it.

But all the above are about finding or having something worthwhile enough to do or at least want to do while you are alive and have time to do something.  They are not about what makes it worth being conceived (or conceiving someone else) for.  And conception is not the kind of thing you can ask the person whether they might like or prefer it or not.  You have to decide for them.  There are many things in life where we have to make a decision for someone else, because either we cannot ask them or because asking them would itself be making the decision for them, and because doing nothing determines a known outcome and is thus making the decision. 

 E.g., a doctor can ask a couple if they want to know the sex of their baby before it is born, because that doesn’t give anything away if they say ‘no’ and s/he doesn’t tell them.  But a doctor cannot keep someone from worrying by lying about a bad condition s/he discovers if s/he ask patients whether they want to know any bad news or not.  First, the question at the wrong time implies there is bad news, so the doctor is not hiding the fact there is; just hiding what it is.   It doesn’t even ease a patient’s mind for them to tell the doctor ahead of time to withhold any bad news because they don’t want to know about it -- since then they will always wonder whether the doctor has no bad news or is simply withholding it as directed.  If you tell your doctor to withhold or lie about bad news, you cannot know when you are told good news that it is even likely true or honest.

The best the doctor or patient can do about keeping patients from worrying about certain kinds of diagnoses is not to run tests that would give the diagnosis or even the suspicion of the condition.  E.g., I have instructed my doctor not to test for anything fatal that is asymptomatic at the time and which they cannot cure anyway.  I have given her a written waiver of any responsibility or culpability for not running diagnostic tests for things I don’t want to know about, even if that goes against standard practice.   I am content to wait for bad news at a time when I am feeling bad enough to want to know.  My serious joke is that for some things, I can wait for the autopsy to know about them.  I do that because my ‘affairs are already in order’, and because I have come to an understanding and acceptance of the meaning of life and death that I am content with and that I don’t need to have to develop suddenly at the end.  But I don’t want knowledge of the particular time to impinge on how I live otherwise or to make me fret in ways I don’t think I really need or want to fret about.  Unfortunately tests for treatable conditions can often yield signs or diagnoses of untreatable ones.   So even my telling my doctor not to run tests for untreatable conditions is not foolproof in keeping me from knowing that my doctor might know something she is not telling me.

But there are lots of such situations in life where you have to make a decision about what someone else needs or would want, because there is no way not to make that decision.  The decision is unavoidable because choosing not to decide yields some particular result you already know or likely know, and thus is deciding.  E.g.,  suppose you think your spouse is accidentally oversleeping and needs to be awakened, but you are not sure.  And suppose you know that if you wake them to find out whether they need to get up or not that they won’t be able to go back to sleep.  Choosing to do nothing is choosing to let them sleep.  And they might be upset later that you didn’t wake them.  Similarly having to decide whether your boss should be interrupted from an important meeting to be told news s/he might want to know immediately or might be angry that you interrupted the meeting instead of waiting to tell him/her.

Or suppose you find out that your best friend’s spouse is cheating.  Should you tell your friend or not.  Would they want to know or not?  Should they know or not? If you choose not to decide, that is deciding not to tell them.  You cannot even just flip a coin, because you then have to decide whether to do what the coin flip ‘says’.  And you can’t very well ask them whether  they would like to know whether their mate is cheating or not.  Stephen Colbert’s joking response to “How are you?” as a standard greeting is “Why, what have you heard?”  But under many conditions, asking a question does imply or give away what the question is meant to allow you to withhold, so you cannot ask the other person the question in order to find out what to decide.

Or suppose friends of your parents or your spouse want to throw a surprise birthday party for them, but you think that one or both parents or your spouse might not really like that.  You have to decide whether to give the go ahead or not.  Or the people with the idea themselves have to decide whether it is a good idea or not.  Neither you nor they can very well ask the intended recipient if they would like a surprise party.   And it is not normally subtle enough (or even definitive enough) to mention some surprise party that was thrown for someone else to see whether they say “Oh, how nice” or “You better not ever do anything like that to me.”   Even wondering what present to give someone for their birthday or Christmas has to be your decision most of the time, because it is not particularly nice nor helpful to ask someone if they would like a particular thing for a present.  In some cases it is basically asking someone to tell you how to please them when what would please them most is not having to tell you what they want but having you know it or figure it out or try to figure it out correctly yourself.  And in many cases, even your failing to get it right is better to them than if they have to tell you.

There are other cases where you have to make a decision that cannot be avoided by doing nothing, because doing nothing, when you know its outcome is itself deciding what to do.    In philosophy classes, a variation on what is called the train or trolley problem is asked -- you are at a switch and have to determine whether to send a train/trolley in a direction that will kill one person or group or another, where all potential victims are innocent people.  Typically the first version of the question is about running over one person if you switch it one way and running over ten if you switch it a different way.   Many students say they would not decide and would just leave the switch where it is, whichever way that already is.  But that is deciding, since you know what will happen if you don’t change it.   You are deciding to let it kill the person or people it is already set to allow to be run over.  You are still responsible for which way the train goes even though you did nothing.   If, for example, you see a child about to fall into a pool and drown or run into a street and be struck by a car, and you do nothing though you could easily prevent each disaster, you can’t reasonably say you are not responsible or that you didn’t decide to do anything.  You decided to do nothing and you decided to let the child die.  It is as much a wrongful omission as would be an act of commission that ended in a wrong choice.

That brings me around to the issue of conception and deciding whether to intentionally conceive a child or not or even to risk conceiving one.  You cannot ask the potential person you are conceiving what they prefer.  You have to decide whether to create or risk creating the child yourself.  But what criteria can or should you use to determine whether their life would be such that they will be glad to have been conceived and born or not?  This is not about deciding the best of two options but deciding whether one option is worth doing at all or not.  You will be causing or allowing both joy and sorrow, most likely, for any person you conceive, but allowing neither if you don’t conceive them.  And if you don’t conceive them, they will not miss being born nor hold it against you.  If you do conceive them, they may ultimately be grateful or miserable and resentful.  And even if they are neither, you may still feel you did the wrong thing by conceiving them if they end up having a miserable life or even one with just some significant sad event.  

What is it that makes or doesn’t make life worth creating, and how do or should we decide it?  And that is a different question from what makes life worth continuing once created and consciousness and self-awareness has been formed.  The question of continuing or not under adverse conditions is, with one exception, about what the better of two options is, particularly once time and energy have already been invested in (and from) being alive, and hopes or dreams and desires have been formed.  But the question of whether to create life or not is not (just) whether one option is better or not, but worthwhile enough to do or not.  Choosing not to create life will not dash someone’s hopes and desires or end their dreams or in any way cause them harm or more harm than if they had been born.  It will, in a sense, not even cost them the joys they would have had, since there is no ‘them’ to have had those joys.  Not conceiving someone is not even the same as killing someone who is temporarily unconscious, for even though they too will not have known what you did to them or what happened to them, you have ended their hopes and have prevented any of their past efforts from paying off or their dreams or desires from coming to fruition.   But you are not doing that to someone by not conceiving them.  There is no ‘them’, no hopes or desires, no expectations, no investment of their time and effort that deserves fruition.

The exception to whether life is worth continuing or not being about what the best of two options is, brings us back to the original question -- whether the remainder of life, if it is not prematurely terminated is worth continuing or not.  That is different from having to choose between an option such as living with unacceptable suffering and then dying versus the option simply of dying sooner and avoiding the unacceptable suffering.  The standard case in philosophy is the case of helping someone die more mercifully by gunshot or a fast acting painless poison who will otherwise shortly be burned alive by a fire s/he cannot otherwise avoid and who is begging not to be allowed to burn (to death).  And the exception is in fact the important case for deciding about suicide or voluntary euthanasia, for the value of life is not about whether there is more harm or good left to be experienced, but about whether or not there is sufficient or significant enough good, no matter how little, to make it worth enduring the bad that is to come and is also perhaps already upon one.  Is there a principle in general (or a different principle for each of us) for determining what is sufficient or significant enough good?

Most lives are filled with good moments and bad ones, and perhaps, particularly for those who lose friends and loved ones as they grow older and become infirm or frail themselves and/or who suffer other disappointments or failures in life, there are more mediocre and bad moments overall than happy or pleasant ones.  But for most people that is not grounds for suicide because there are things to look forward to that make suffering and misery worth enduring.  But the question we opened with is basically how and why that works that way and what it means or how to determine what is worth enduring or being created for or worth doing or continuing -- whether we are talking about a particular activity in life or life itself.  What makes something that is not wrong to do in the first place and that has a mixture of good and bad, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, benefit and harm, better and worse consequences and components, worth doing at all, and why?