Why should I bother?

Henry asked:

Why bother?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

At first glance this looks like one of those silly questions we get from time to time, like, ‘Why?’ or ‘Is this a question?’. Well, not silly, because one can always (as we have on more than one occasion) find a meaningful take on the question which gives us something to write about. But this time, you and I know that the question is deadly serious. Literally.

You will die if you don’t bother to eat. Your bladder will burst if you don’t bother to get out of bed to have a pee. But you could say, ‘Apart from those examples, where less pain is involved in acting rather than not acting.’ Assuming, of course, that you care whether you are in pain or not. Remember this? — ‘The trick, Henry Potter, is not minding that it hurts’ (Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence in the movie ‘Lawrence of Arabia’).

But let’s get serious. One needs a reason. The implication of the question is that the effort of bothering has a cost. It’s easier to not bother than to bother. Lately, I’ve been trying my hand at songwriting (see my previous answer). Let’s say it relieves the boredom. I’m also getting some encouragement from those whose opinion I respect. But why should I bother about that? The only answer to that is that I do care. It’s a fact.

In my book Philosophizer — the first book in the Philosophizer Trilogy — I write about those times when you ‘blink and wake up’. Let’s say, you’re on a good writing streak and then, suddenly, for no reason, from one moment to the next, you wake up from your ‘dream’. What on Earth am I doing? What could I possibly achieve by this? And why should I care? In an instant, the motivation you relied on has evaporated without a trace.

The philosophical point to make here is that is this is one of those occasions when we wrongly assume that a reason is called for. I mean, reason as logic. The problem with that assumption — which I have already illustrated — is that any statement of the form, ‘The reason for doing X is so that Y’, assumes that you care about whether Y happens or not. In recent philosophy, there has been argument over whether all reasons for action are ‘hypothetical imperatives’ to use Kant’s term (you can look up the debate between Phillippa Foot and John McDowell). I’m not taking a stand either way. ‘The reason for telling the lost tourist where to go is that it would be mean to refuse.’ The only individuals who never care whether they are being mean or not are psychopaths. One of the things about being a psychopath is that no amount of ‘reasoning’ will get you out of that state. You need medication.

Which brings us to psychology. It is a fallacy to think that bothering requires a foundational reason, not based on something we care about, but hypothetically might not care about. The fact that you or I do, in fact, care is the answer. But there are circumstances where one doesn’t care. In deep depression, for example. Then you need help. No amount of philosophical argument will get you out of your miserable state. But even if you are not deeply depressed, you can be lazy. I know what that is like! You battle with your lazy impulses by reminding yourself of what things would, or will, be like for you if you bother, or, alternatively, if you don’t bother. And sometimes, that’s enough. If you care.

I didn’t have to answer your question, Henry. It’s taken an effort, not a very great effort in this case. But I’m glad I did. Next time, when I am faced with a similar choice, I might remind myself of ‘how glad I felt’ and that will be enough. Or not. Not all things we can, or could, achieve by our efforts are worth the bother.

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