At some point in your life, you were almost certainly told to “make the most of” your talents. Perhaps it was your mother or father, or a teacher or wise elder — or an actor who played one on TV. And at some point in your life, you almost certainly judged someone who, in your estimation, was not “making the most of” her talents, and was therefore “wasting” her time.
This conventional wisdom chimes with the grander visions of human perfection offered by some philosophers. They tell us that we have a moral duty to realize our talents. We owe it to ourselves to maximize our capacities for doing things. We also have a duty to bring those capacities to wider society. Given these duties to ourselves and to others, we cannot — according to the moralists — stay idle. Doing little with our lives and simply getting by with as little effort as possible is an offense against our humanity.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant, for instance, famously argued that any intelligent pleasure-seeking wastrel can be convinced that he has a duty to improve his “fortunate natural predispositions.” Think about how strong that claim is: It means the call of duty to self-improvement can grab us in ways that the prospect of pleasure cannot.
Does a born public speaker have a moral obligation to become a politician? We should think not.
Kant insists that we simply can’t defend idleness to ourselves. Even if we could live well in idleness, we are rational enough to accept it would be beneath us. And we cannot morally recommend it to others. We want our capacities to be developed “since they serve” us and are given to us “for all sorts of possible purposes.”
This argument wraps conventional wisdom within a fancy-sounding moral defense. But it doesn’t add up.
That’s in part because the very meaning of “natural predisposition” is by no means clear. It can’t mean whatever we’d like to do with our lives. Too often we must admit to not being terribly good at the things that enthuse us. (“I love to paint, but I don’t have an eye for color.”) Nor can “natural predisposition” refer simply to an activity we’re good at, because we have lots of abilities that don’t count for much. (“I can say and spell words backwards.”)
When a parent, teacher or philosopher insists that we “make the most of” our talents, what they’re really saying is: Do something you’re good at that is also considered socially worthy.
We can see a few problems with this line of thinking.
It’s not easy to identify what we’re good at. Many of us took high school aptitude tests that are little better than junk psychology.
If we do succeed in pinpointing our talents — the socially worthy skills we could develop — we may not take pleasure in them. Does a born public speaker have a moral obligation to become a politician? We should think not.
And while we’re at it, what counts as socially worthy? There may be widespread regard for the talented public defender, nurse or artist. Yet even these professions might seem wasteful to a certain kind of parent who thinks his gifted child should have used her talents to become instead a wealthy corporate lawyer, doctor or screenwriter.
Too often, the allure of affluence and visible social prestige pushes people to misapply their talents in stressful and unfulfilling careers.
Some philosophers see advantages in developing talents that are disconnected from making ourselves immediately useful. One example is Bertrand Russell. In his essay “In Praise of Idleness,” he claimed we should reduce the working week to the minimum and use the rest of our time for leisure. But, he warned, we need “to use leisure intelligently.” It would not be right to idle around, with no particular skill or developed tastes. He is not alone among philosophers in failing to explain what is so very bad about that condition.
Russell, like so many others, distrusts our abilities to live well when we are not using our time in some obviously “intelligent” way. But that point of view rules out so much of what’s agreeable about idleness. There is pleasure in pointless conversation, or in quietly enjoying the companionship of friends and family. Wandering around alone doesn’t look like the kind of leisure some would consider time “well spent.” Yet it is time most of us would defend as valuable. It is valuable for its own sake, not because it prepares us for more important tasks. And it requires no special skill other than an openness to enjoy things as they arise.
The question of whether we should develop our talents, then, turns out to be a bit more complicated than it seems. We should consider if the talents we are said to have are really anything more than career aptitudes or prestige opportunities. And we might speculate on the cost of realizing those talents: all that effort, all those opportunities for more pleasant experiences lost.
Brian O’Connor is professor of philosophy at University College Dublin and author of “Idleness: A Philosophical Essay.”