How Should Utilitarians Deal With Boredom?

By Koby Rosen

Never tell a utilitarian that you’re bored and can’t think of anything to do— they won’t respond kindly. That’s because utilitarians believe that you should always act in a way that best benefits the most number of people. Being bored, lounging around “doing nothing,” doesn’t really help anyone.

To better understand utilitarianism, imagine that you have a $10 bill on you. You can ask yourself, “What should I do with this $10 bill?” If you care about only your own self interests  (egoism), you might buy a $10 yo-yo because you really like to yo-yo and, after all, your yo-yo just broke, or $10 worth of your favorite cereal, or $10 of whatever you want. But if you’re a utilitarian and care about how you can best benefit the most number of people with your money, you may donate the $10 to the Against Malaria Fund which can use the $10 to buy 5 Malaria nets to protect 10 people from the lethal disease for 3 years.

But before you decide to donate everything you have and move to an underdeveloped country to dedicate all your waking hours to building infrastructure, consider that perhaps you can make an investment with your time now so that your future actions may be more effective. For instance, you might want to take the time to learn how to be a doctor, which can then enable you to move to that same underdeveloped country but instead have your actions make a much greater impact and save more lives.

For example, on the question of deciding the most effective job for a utilitarian, philosopher Peter Singer suggests becoming an investment banker. While the job of being an investment banker does not directly promote tremendous good in the world, investment bankers do accrue a lot of money. A significant portion of that income can then be used to donate to effective charities, charities that save many lives at low cost, like the Against Malaria Fund. Hundreds of thousands of dollars earned means hundreds of thousands of dollars donated which means millions of lives saved!

With all the lives on the line, boredom seems to stand morally indefensible. But can there be a place for boredom in a utilitarian life?

One reason we don’t upend our lives to spend 24/7/365 building sanitation plants or kill ourselves to donate our organs is because we place a prioritized value on the self. We make sure to look out for ourselves. Prioritizing the self seems completely contrary to utilitarianism because all lives should be treated equally. But, if we were to not value our own lives, it would be doubtful that we would value others’ lives too. Experiencing joy makes it so that we’re “recharged” and thus reminded why it is we’re working so hard to make all that money and save all those lives. Practically, seeking joy requires some prioritized self interest.

Sometimes you’re just burned out and need some relief by “doing nothing.” You allow yourself to be bored. This period of boredom, an awake nap, serves to “recharge” you in the same way that joy does. In order for utilitarians to be motivated to improve the world, they must see the world as something that they desire to improve. Burning out can render you ineffective because you might give up on helping people, or work so hard you lack the energy to perform well at your job and then get fired, or unintentionally induce any other unfortunate situation. Your mindset has the potential to influence your utilitarian effectiveness.

What can determine whether a period of boredom for a utilitarian is ethically permissible may be dependent upon whether that period of boredom was instituted consciously or not. For a utilitarian, every action, including inaction, should have a purpose that serves the higher goal of doing the most good for the most number of people. Living without that higher purpose in mind would be tantamount to shirking your utilitarian responsibilities.

In order to be as effective as possible, utilitarians should commit to investments and practices that are most conducive to effecting as much good as possible. This can include allowing oneself to embrace boredom. That being said, utilitarians also should commit to building up a mental resistance to boredom, because being bored wastes time from promoting good. The inevitable boredom breaks should be taken thoughtfully. Intentional action and inaction make the optimal utilitarian, the optimal lifesaver.

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