Every choice we make to do something is also a choice not to do something else.
The time we spend playing with our kids could have been spent visiting an orphanage; in the time spent watching your favourite show you could have called that friend who is going through a rough patch; the list goes on.
Reckoning with the opportunity costs involved in how we spend our time is a good thing to do – it helps us understand whether we’ve got our priorities in order and a reasonable balance in our lives.
That’s why a lot of people experience feelings of regret about things they should or shouldn’t do with most wishing there is a way to be in several places at the same time in order to maximize the living experience.
Unless we dare to ask why things matter, we’ll never get past a superficial understanding of our moral universe.
Consider the dilemma facing a young man who wants to further his education but has to be very far away from an ageing father.
On the one hand, the man gets to study a course of his choosing. This is time spent out of desire – he wants to pursue this knowledge, it keeps him sane and grounded and presumably gives him a sense of fulfilment.
On the other hand, he has his father. It sounds like this time is being spent out of duty – he feels like he owes it to his father, despite a fraught relationship, to help him through a part of his life in which he is incredibly vulnerable and in need of support.
This might be true, though it depends a little bit on the reasons why the man is in a fraught relationship with his father. If there is some history of violence or abuse, that would drastically change what he owes.
If he accepts this distinction, then the German philosopher Immanuel Kant would have some advice for him.
Kant believed our desires are ‘pathological’ – they come from outside us and infect our ability to think clearly about morality. He also thought morally good actions come from a ‘good will’, a will that sought only to fulfill its duty.
Kant also thought we had duties to ourselves – including the duty to improve ourselves through education. This needn’t be a formal study though.
Perhaps the man’s sanity might be preserved by less time-demanding forms of self-improvement, meaning he’d have more time to share with his father.
Of course, Kant would also have a bone to pick with the man if he devoted himself to his father purely out of guilt.
Guilt, like other desires and emotions, is pathological. It’s no guide to morality.
Perhaps you should try thinking about this like a Kantian: don’t choose between your guilt and your sanity; choose between your duty to family and your duty to yourself.