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What matters, and why?

“What matters to you, and why?” is the famous short-essay question we all answered to get into Stanford. But consider this different question: “what matters, and why?”

“What matters to you, and why?” asks what is important to us. But, as philosophers have observed, we intuitively have two different notions of importance. Bernard Williams in “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy” identifies a relative notion and an absolute notion: the relative notion is what we express when we say someone finds a given thing important, or when we say something is important to them. The absolute notion appears when we say something is important period, meaning that it is not just that it is important to a certain person, but that it is just, simply, important.

Williams balks at giving a rigorous definition of these two notions, but he thinks that the intuitive distinction is rather clear. “It may be of the greatest importance to Henry that his stamp collection be completed with a certain stamp,” Williams writes, “but even Henry may see that it is not, simply, important.” Henry’s example expresses the intuitive understanding that something that is important in the relative may not be important in the absolute sense (simply important), and vice versa.

“What matters to you, and why?” asks about the relative notion: it asks the individual not about what she thinks is, simply, important — it asks what is important to her.

“What is important to you?” is a good question, and difficult to answer. But we are apt to overemphasize the relative notion of importance at the expense of the absolute notion. Williams expresses an ideal related to importance: “people should find important a number of things that are, simply, important, as well as many things that are not, and they should be able to tell the difference between them.” In reality, it seems, many people do not find important any things that are, simply, important, and are content living their lives prioritizing those things that are important to them but not, simply, important.

Harry Frankfurt in “The Importance of What We Care About” characterizes the two notions of importance in a way that may give us a helpful angle: “There are two distinct (albeit compatible) ways in which something may be important to a person. First, its importance to him may be due to considerations which are altogether independent of whether or not he cares about the thing in question. Second, the thing may become important to him just because he does care about it.”

Note that in both cases, something is important in the relative sense: it is important to a person. The difference is that sometimes that thing is also important in the absolute sense, and sometimes is important to someone just because he cares about it.

Some things, like fine art, financial security and romantic partners, are only important to us because we care about them. Should we cease to care about them, they would cease to affect us in meaningful ways. Other things, like access to nourishment and shelter, the health of a social institution or the threat of a climate catastrophe, are important in the absolute sense: they are important whether or not we care about them. When they become important to us, it is not because we care about them — rather, it is because we realize that they are important in the absolute sense.

For many of us the majority of the things that are most important to us are important to us not because they are absolutely important, but because we care about them. Job security, earning ability, passion for one’s profession or being happy and content are all things that a person might find important to herself, even though it is not, simply, important for any individual person to be happy or to follow her passion or to be able to earn a lot or to have a secure job. (This is to say, for example, that a society would not make sure a given person is happy, etc. at the expense of all others.)

If a person has decided that the things that are important to her, and thus what she will prioritize, are earning ability or passion for her profession, how does she deal with the fact that her choice to prioritize these things might come at the expense of other things that are simply important?

One way might be to argue that her actions do in fact happen to affect things that are simply important, even if she does not prioritize these things. Consider, for example, a technologist at Google who works there for the job security and earnings, or because she is passionate about technology — because these things are important to her. Suppose that she also thinks that social awareness is simply important. She might convince herself that Google is doing real and necessary social good. I certainly think that choosing one’s employment with such criteria in mind is admirable.

The worry, however, is that regardless of whether she is correct, the real reason she has decided to work for Google is because of the job security and earnings — the considerations important to her. Because Google’s efforts at social good are for her a justification rather than a reason, she is apt to bias her assessments in the direction convenient for her, and think that Google is a more influential and more benevolent actor than it is. This, then, differs from the person who prioritizes social good and asks, all things being equal, what is the best way to enact social good, and concludes that becoming a technologist at Google is the best way. If it turned out there were in fact a better way, she would cease to be a technologist and follow the better way.

There is another way our technologist might address the fact that her choice to prioritize these things might come at the expense of other things that are simply important. She might find a way to fit those simply important things into her life as she has built it. Suppose our technologist does not believe that Google is doing real social good. In this case, she might try to enact social good through other channels, like joining a tech social-good organization. This is also an admirable decision.

But since she has first made the decision, based on what is important to her, to become a technologist, her decision to join the organization is based not on the proposition that it is the best way to effect social good, but rather on the proposition that it does effect some social good. Thus, even if being part of the organization were not the best way to effect social good, she would, prioritizing being a technologist, decide not to find a better means of doing so. This, then, differs from the person who prioritizes social good and judges that, all things being equal, joining a tech social-good organization is the best way to effect it. If it later turned out that there emerged a new and better way to effect social good, she would follow that way.

My view is that many people are quick to prioritize what is important to them but not simply important. As our Google technologist who finds social good important illustrates, we can still accommodate things that are simply important even if we don’t prioritize them. It is certainly better to accommodate these simply important considerations than to ignore them. But things that are simply important get short-changed if they are at best the second-most-important thing for most people.

There are some people who’ve decided that what they should prioritize is what is simply important, and what is important only to them should take a back seat. We might not need everyone to think this way, but we certainly need more people to do so.

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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