Is It Wrong to Do a Half-Assed Job? (Part 2)

A few days ago, I asked, “Is It Wrong To Do a Half-Assed Job?” I concluded that “if you have the enormous privilege of being a professional writer… you also have the obligation to actually write original material,” and founded this conclusion on the fact that you’re crowding out other writers if you sign a book deal. Wasting an opportunity that someone else would not have wasted is wrong.

There’s a lot that I didn’t pin down in here – what does it mean to “waste” an opportunity? Is it alright to put in a lower amount of effort if you know that your competitors, even at full effort, still wouldn’t produce something as good as you did? What if you’re not crowding anyone else out with your work – do you still have an obligation to put in full effort then?

I’ve been thinking about this whole idea more because, as you might know from reading the “About” page of this blog or the first post, I am a PhD student at Harvard who is considering leaving without my PhD. If I’m going to condemn Kroese for doing a shit job that someone else might’ve done better, then I could just as easily condemn myself. There was almost certainly someone I displaced by taking this slot in the PhD program – am I thus obligated to finish my PhD?

My guess is that this relates back to another question that I’ve been bouncing around for a while. (Warning, spoilers ahead for “Saving Private Ryan.”)

At the end of “Saving Private Ryan,” as Tom Hanks’ character, Captain Miller, is dying, he tells Private Ryan to “earn this.” When I was watching this film for the first time a few years ago, I was immediately irritated with Captain Miller’s injunction. It seemed to me like the character of Private Ryan was already set up to be sensitive enough to the sacrifices people were making for him. Would the additional weight of a dying man’s orders make his life any better?

I guess it just seems to me that, if you’re going to save someone, you’d probably prefer that they live their best possible life. And I think telling someone that they have an obligation to do more with their life because people sacrificed for them is counterproductive to that end. Even the movie suggests that this order weighed heavily on Ryan: when he’s an old man, he asks his wife to tell him that he’s led a good life and that he is a good man.

In any case, for me it raised the question: what do we owe to the dead? What promises to the dead are we required to keep? (Thankfully, I’m not the only one who was bothered by this – this article in the Atlantic by John Biguenet has a pretty similar reaction.)

This idea of obligation is further complicated by the fact that Captain Miller’s health is failing – he has a tremor throughout the movie. We can’t be sure that he would’ve made it home to his wife even if he hadn’t been sent to rescue Private Ryan. If he was going to die either way, is Private Ryan still obligated by his death?

(Do Ryan’s grandchildren owe something to Captain Miller, for their lives?)

This series of questions is the most extreme version of “is it wrong to do a half-assed job?” I don’t have an answer to it yet, but my feeling is that:

  1. There’s some kind of statute of limitations on obligation that’s proportional to the size of the sacrifice and the certainty that the sacrifice could’ve been avoided – if someone gives me half of their lunch, I’m obligated to them for a much shorter period of time than I would be if they sacrificed their life. If I knew that that half of their lunch would’ve been wasted if I didn’t eat it, I have an even shorter obligation.
  2. You probably aren’t obligated to put your best effort into exactly what was sacrificed – you aren’t required to “have the best life” because someone sacrificed their life or to really savor a meal that someone else gave you or to write your best book because you’ve taken someone else’s spot.
  3. You probably are required to put that obligated effort in somewhere – if you aren’t going to enjoy the meal you’ve been given, then you’d better take the energy from that meal and do something useful with it. If you aren’t going to have a “good life,” maybe you’re required to help someone else have a good life?

So, in the case of Kroese, maybe it is alright that he copy-and-pasted those three pages, as long as he spent the time he saved well. Maybe it is alright if I leave without a PhD, as long as I leave to do something meaningful?

The Second Post – What Do I Write About, Though?

Alas. It is only day two of this endeavor and the worst has already come to pass – I have no idea what to write. I suspect this is far from the last time this will happen before 365 days are up.

Since I don’t really know what I should write about, let me opine about a t.v. show I watched recently. Behind the times as I am, I only got around to watching Breaking Bad on Netflix in the past three weeks. And I have some feelings that I can’t really air with friends – that’s what you get when you watch a t.v. show four years after its time.

(Side note: I’ve never been the type to watch popular television shows as they’re airing. I think this is because I’ve been in various tertiary and graduate institutions. For some of that time, I didn’t have internet, let alone cable. (That’ll be a piece for another day, I figure.) For the large proportion of years, I’ve had cable, but the ill-defined boundaries of academic life wipe out, for me, the ability to enjoy the normal American past-time of watching a show when it airs. I can barely read for fun without feeling like I ought to be working; devoting an hour per week to a show is out of the question. So instead, I have binging episodes, where I know that I’ve wrapped up whatever obligations for at least a week, and I can figure that that gives me enough time to watch an entire television series. I enjoy it less than I otherwise would, in part because there’s no one to talk about it with, and I am overwhelmed with guilt. But damnit, I have seen some fine t.v. Wallander FTW.)

So, Breaking Bad. Holy toxic masculinity, Batman. Here we see a man who is so wrapped up in the idea of what it means to be “a man” that he can’t see how his actions are hurting the people he’s trying to help. Even at the end, he can’t let the Grey Matter people contribute a cent of their own money. Pride really does goeth before the fall.

That was something else that caught me about Walt. One night, waking up after a binge-inspired drug dealer dream, I found myself sleepily thinking about how many of the Seven Deadly Sins Walt encompasses. Greed, obvs. Pride and Wrath are shoe-ins, as is Envy. I’d argue for Gluttony, as Wikipedia defines it; there’s an element of Walt that pursues trouble for his own sake, placing his interests before his family’s. Even though it isn’t eating, he still displays that selfishness that Gluttony implies. I think you might even be able to make an argument for Lust, if you view it as “desiring too much.” There are certainly times in the series when Walt crosses the line in that respect, most notably the time when he nearly rapes his wife. Sloth is the only sin to which Walt really cannot make any claim.

I wonder whether this is part of what makes Walt so engaging to watch. We start out with a guy who is relatively virtuous, but his descent into violence and evil are multi-faceted.

In any case, I think I’m going to try to do NaNoWriMo this year, so I’d better figure out what makes Walt such a great villain, so that I can emulate it.

(Another side note: Also, I guess maybe from reading blogs and such, Walt wasn’t really considered a villain by the viewing audience at the end? And Skyler was hated? From the perspective of one person, watching alone, neither of these conclusions really makes a ton of sense, and both make me wonder whether the Gamergate trolls aren’t just being noisier than regular people. But maybe you, reader, can convince me.)