Back to Prindle Institute

Pandemic Life and Duties of Self-Improvement

image of woman meditating surrounded by distractions

I haven’t really done that much since last March. I mean, I’ve done the minimum number of activities required to keep myself alive, tried to stay connected to friends and family as much as possible, have tried to stay productive at work, and have stretched my legs outside every once in a while. But it feels like I could have done more. I have, for instance, been spending a lot of time doomscrolling, catching up on those shows in my Netflix queue, and losing all sense of time, but I could have been doing things that would have resulted in some degree of self-improvement. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, and I need to improve my Danish (min dansk er forfærdelig!), and there are just a whole bunch of other hobbies and skills that I’ve wanted to pick up or improve that I never seemed to have the time for in the past. But now I’ve had the time, and I haven’t done any of these things.

Does this make me a bad person? I’ve had the opportunity for self-improvement and didn’t really do much with it. Do I have a duty to use my time to try to be better?

These questions only arise in my case because the pandemic has, in fact, presented me with means and opportunity for self-improvement in the form of extra time. A lot of people have not had the luxury of facing this particular problem. Instead of having a lot more free time, many people have found what little free time they had prior to the pandemic disappear: perhaps you have obligations to take care of family members that you didn’t before, or you’ve gotten sick or had to help out with someone else who’s been sick, or work has become much more strenuous, or you’re out of work and have had more pressing matters. If you’ve been in this position, picking up the guitar is probably pretty low down on your list of priorities.

So it’s not as though I think I’m deserving of sympathy. But, if you’re like me and have found yourself with a lot of extra hours that you can’t keep track of, you might find yourself feeling guilty that that last nearly full year could have been spent better. Is this guilt deserved?

There has, as one might suspect, been philosophical debate over whether one has any particular moral obligation towards self-improvement. Kant, for instance, argued that we do possess a certain kind of duty of this sort: it is not that we always, in every circumstance, must work towards improving ourselves, but we should definitely strive to when given the chance. Certainly, then, Kant would consider wasting a lot of time absentmindedly on the internet as something worthy of moral condemnation.

On the other hand, you might wonder if we really have any duties towards self-improvement at all: while I certainly have duties to help other people, we might think that when it comes to ourselves we are pretty much free to do what we want. So if I want to learn a lot of new skills and become a better version of myself, that’s great; but if I want to sit on the couch and do nothing all day, I should be free to do so without facing any kind of negative judgment. Telling me to do otherwise can feel overly moralizing, a kind of self-righteous judgment in which you seem to be saying that you know how I should live my life better than I do.

Something seems wrong about both of these positions. For instance, it’s hard to determine how we’re supposed to adhere to a duty of self-improvement: does this mean that whenever I have free time that I have an obligation to, for instance, practice vocabulary in a language I want to learn? If so, this feels too demanding: I don’t seem to be doing anything wrong if I spend an evening now and then just doing nothing in particular. At the same time, if I spend all my free time doing nothing in particular, that feels like a waste. We sometimes make these kinds of judgments of other people: that it’s a shame they’re wasting their time, or their potential to develop their talents. And while this can sometimes feel moralizing, sometimes it also just feels apt: sometimes people really do waste too much time, and sometimes peoples’ efforts really could be put towards self-improvement.

Being in the midst of a global pandemic also muddies the water a bit. While one might have, on the one hand, a lot more time freed up by not having to commute to work, socialize, or really do anything else outside, one also has to deal with new challenges in the form of a dizzying amount of news, anxiety about the current and future state of the world, and a whole host of extra mental burdens that can quickly drain one’s energy and motivation to be a better version of yourself. If these matters become too distressing then they can quickly become a burden that needs to be dealt with.

It’s not clear how to evaluate the best way to make use of the extra opportunities one is afforded in the form of free time that is the result of a world that feels like it’s falling apart. Maybe, then, when it comes to duties to oneself these days, focusing on self-maintenance is more important than self-improvement: while it’s never a bad thing to work towards improvement, it feels like if you’re managing to check off the mandatory items of your to-do list in month 10 of a pandemic then you’re doing pretty well. Meaningful self-improvement can wait for another day.

Dry January

photograph of New Year's Resolutions list

The beginning of the year is often the time when people start thinking about the changes they want to make in their lives. While traditionally this has come in the form of New Year’s resolutions, it has become more popular recently to see January in particular as a time to abstain. Two of the more recent popular forms of January abstinence are “Dry January” – in which one does not drink any alcohol for the month – and “Veganuary” – in which one eats only a vegan diet for the month. There is, of course, nothing special about January that makes it a particularly good month from which to remove alcohol or animal products from one’s diet, but it is no doubt the feeling of a fresh beginning that comes with the new year, combined with potential regrets from overindulgence from the holidays, that explain how these trends have caught on.

There seems to be something virtuous about abstaining from things that you like but are bad for you. So should you be joining in and cutting out alcohol and animal products for the month? Is this really what the virtuous life requires?

First things first: there are clear health benefits to drinking less alcohol. While we have no doubt all come across articles of varying degrees of clickbait-ness proclaiming the health benefits of moderate drinking (perhaps “antioxidants” are mentioned), there is little reason to think that alcohol consumption can actively do any good, at least in terms of one’s physical health. That’s not to say that any level of alcohol consumption will necessarily cause a great amount of harm, but rather that it should probably be seen as an indulgence, as opposed to something that’s actually good for you. There is also reason to think that reducing meat consumption (especially red meat) can have many health benefits; additionally, there are persuasive ethical arguments – both in terms of preventing harm to animals and protection of the environment – that should incline us towards eating less meat. So it does seem that we have plenty of reason to cut down on both alcohol and meat.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that complete abstinence is what’s required, though. First, it is not definitive that abstinence months will, in fact, accomplish the results they aim to. On the one hand, there are some concerns that there empirical evidence about the effectiveness of abstinence campaigns like Dry January, and that as a result it’s not clear whether it could actually result in more harm in some portions of the population. Ian Hamilton at York University worries that,

“Although not the intention, people may view their 31 days of abstinence as permission to return to hazardous levels of consumption till next New Year’s day. ‘I’ve had a month off, so now I can drink as much as I did before, ignoring the need for regular breaks from alcohol.’”

On the other hand, however, there are some tentative studies that do suggest that participating in Dry January does, in fact, result in lower alcohol consumption 6 months later, although there are perhaps some limitations to such studies (self-reports of alcohol consumption generally need to be taken with a grain of salt, there are many variations within a population that are difficult to control for, etc.)

With regards to Veganuary, some have worried that the difficulty in changing one’s diet so drastically – especially if one is used to eating a lot of meat – could backfire, resulting in people being less likely to try to adopt such a diet long-term. Some research suggests that campaigns aimed at reducing, as opposed to completing eliminating meat from one’s diet can be effective at reducing meat consumption long-term. There is also the worry that such diets are just not feasible for those who do not have access to good vegan food options, or who are unable to afford them.

So should you participate in Dry January and Veganuary? Well, that depends. As I mentioned above, there is nothing about the month of January that makes it a particularly important time to start being virtuous. If there are moral reasons to drink less and eat fewer animal products, then, these reasons apply just as equally at all other times of year, as well. And just because you’ve done what you ought to for a month does not mean that you’re off the hook until 2021. There is also reason to think that aiming towards moderation as opposed to immediate and complete elimination can be a good way of making long-term positive changes. If not drinking for all of January means that you’ll just drink twice as much in February to make up for it then you’re hardly doing any good.

One undoubtedly positive aspect of these January abstinence campaigns, however, is that they may encourage people to reflect upon habits that might require adjusting. And concerns about rebound effects aside, there seems to be very little harm that could result from taking the month off from drinking alcohol or eating meat. With regards to Dry January in particular, Ian Gilmore from Liverpool University suggests that, “Until we know of something better, let’s support growing grassroots movements like Dry January and Dry July in Australia and take a month off.”

New Year’s Resolutions and The Problem of Self-Promising

Photograph of an open notebook with a pen on it; written on the notebook is "New Years Resolutions"

For many people, early January provides an opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures of the previous year with an aim to set goals for improving one’s character going forward. Though difficult to trace, the practice of setting ‘New Year’s resolutions’ may have its roots in ancient religious celebrations thanking various gods for their favor and promising continued faithfulness throughout the coming year. Of the many who christen a new calendar with some hopeful ambition, it is estimated that fewer than 10% actually succeed in setting new habits or breaking old ones. I take it for granted that most readers will, in general, agree that promises should be kept – what, then should we think about breaking resolutions? As we look forward to 2019, should we be worried that we might be setting ourselves up for additional moral failures if we similarly neglect the gym, the savings plan, the sleep schedule, or the nicotine patch? In short, is it wrong to break a promise to yourself?

Thomas Hobbes, the English political philosopher (and eponymic inspiration for a certain cartoon stuffed tiger), certainly thought not; in Book II, Chapter 26 of his magisterial 1651 work Leviathan, Hobbes writes, “Nor is it possible for any person to be bound to himselfe [sic]; because he that can bind, can release; and therefore he that is bound to himselfe onely [sic], is not bound.” Because any promise requires both a promise-maker and a promise-receiver – where, in virtue of the promise, the former is bound to act in a particular way with respect to the latter – a case of self-promising is, at best, odd. A promise-receiver is always able to release a promise-maker from their obligation to fulfill the promise, so if the receiver and the maker are one and the same, then promising something to yourself — as in the case of a New Year’s resolution — could never actually be binding. If you (as the maker) no longer wish to fulfill the promise, then you (as the receiver) can automatically release yourself from the obligation.

Consider a promise that Calvin has made to Susie about repaying a debt of two dollars; as the promise-maker, Calvin can only be released from his commitment if Susie, the promise-receiver, chooses to free him. Such is, Hobbes thinks, the function of a promise: it guarantees future action even if the agent desires to do otherwise. If Calvin fails to return the two dollars, then he has committed a moral violation — that is to say, he has done something wrong. But what if Calvin has only made a promise to himself? Say, for example, that Calvin has made a New Year’s resolution to eat a healthy breakfast every day, but finds himself tempted to instead eat a bowl of chocolate cereal sometime during the first week of January. As the promise-receiver, Calvin could simply release himself (as the promise-maker) from the obligation to eat a healthy breakfast and continue on without a moral care. Consequently, the lack of their binding obligation led Hobbes to think that self-promises were simply impossible.

However, several contemporary philosophers aren’t so sure: Derek Parfit has argued that a past version of yourself and a future version of yourself are not exactly the same thing as the present version of yourself, so it is not quite right to say that you are simultaneously promise-maker and promise-receiver — to break a resolution, on this view, is to break a promise made to a historical version of yourself. Connie Rosati contends that self-promises serve as a validation of our sense of personal authority, so to break a resolution is to undermine that which gives us confidence in our general ability to make decisions and exercise our autonomy. Rather than see self-promises as impossible, these views present them as gauges of our sense of self over time.

Most interestingly, in arguing against Hobbes, Allen Habib thinks that the power to release yourself from a reflexive promise actually serves as evidence for the normative power behind promises in general, saying “the possibility of promisee release adds flexibility and power to the practice of promising, and this in turn makes the sorts of arrangements that can be made with promises more subtle and useful.” That is to say: Habib rejects Hobbes’ implicit idea that obligations are only truly obligatory if they are unavoidably binding. What happens if a promise somehow becomes impossible to fulfill (Habib uses the example of a casino burning down on Tuesday after I promise to drive you there on Wednesday)? In such a case, whether the promise-receiver intentionally releases the promise-maker or not, the promise itself has become “orphaned” and, thereby, is no longer binding.

In general, Habib argues that it is actually beneficial to maintain this more flexible view about the contextual features of promises writ large, including in the case of self-promises. So, concerning Calvin’s resolution about healthy breakfasts, his obligation to honor his self-promise might be justifiably jettisoned if the context he finds himself in changes sufficiently (say, if he finds himself trapped inside a chocolate cereal factory with nothing else to eat), but might not justifiably change simply on a whim (at least not without Calvin being guilty of shirking the obligation just as much as he would be guilty towards any other promise-receiver).

So, as we look ahead to 2019, if you are the sort of person who is inclined to commit to a project of self-betterment, then know that you have some philosophical heads supporting you in your quest. And if your resolution involves looking for a few new philosophers to read, then any of the names mentioned in this article would be a good place to start.