The trouble with deadlines: A conceptual analysis and alternative proposal

Dear Philosophical Friend,

By means of philosophical inquiry, we determined what would be an appropriate deadline for the project you wish to complete. Specifically, we asked three questions that were based on the gift economy worksheet:

1.) Is it a generous deadline and will allow for surprises?
2.) Is it urgent enough to avoid squandering my time?
3.) Will I be able to complete my project in a way that is aligned with certain salient virtues?

Since we came to the conclusion regarding a suitable date (that is, one to which you could answer affirmatively all three questions), you write that some things have changed about this project and some surprisingly good things have happened at the place you work. The first, therefore, is coming along more slowly than you had anticipated, and the second is an unexpectedly timely opportunity that is requiring more of your attention. You conclude that it is no longer possible for you to answer the third question in the affirmative: that is, with a wholehearted Yes.

You have written, then, a beautiful inquiry into the appropriateness of the deadline. The puzzle that concerns you is how it is possible to modify deadline P and at the same time to show that you are the kind of person who can demonstrate that you can consistently meet deadlines. It would seem that one thing–the resetting of the deadline or the dedication to meeting the deadline–would have to give. However, neither conclusion seems palatable. On the one hand, if you meet the deadline in this case, you will have failed to exercise other salient virtues about which we have spoken, thus telling against some other features of your character. On the other hand, if you modify the deadline, then you won’t be able to hold onto the claim that this exercise will be a demonstration of your ability to set an appropriate deadline and stick to it.

In light of this dilemma, you are considering the first possibility–namely, extending the deadline so that it accords with what is appropriate. You ask whether you have reasoned things through well.


I have come to think that perhaps we have made an error from the very beginning. I have been thinking further about the principal assumption we are making. This is that we are setting and meeting deadline. We take it for granted that P is a deadline rather than some other kind of thing, and from here we inquire further into setting and meeting. Let us consider this assumption further by asking what a deadline is and whether it is a requirement to speak and think in these terms.

The starting point of my inquiry into the nature of a deadline was to consult the Oxford English Dictionary.  A deadline, we read, is ‘a line that does not move or run.’ Definition 1a comes from military discourse: ‘a line drawn around a military prison, beyond which a prisoner is liable to be shot down. orig. U.S.’ One example comes from the Civil War: ‘Seventeen feet from the inner stockade was the ‘dead-line’, over which no man could pass and live.’

A deadline is a line that is posited over there beyond a certain safe zone. It is not to be moved or fudged with and not to be crossed over or transgressed. In these respects, it differs from other kinds of lines. There are lines we walk along when we queue up. And there are starting lines and finishing lines. Concerning races, the starting line is the point from which one departs while the finishing line is the point beyond which one aims to pass. One wants to ‘get to’ the finish line. But one has no desire to ‘get to’ a deadline or to ‘stand on’ a deadline. It is rather something to be set beyond the range of one’s activities, undertakings, and tasks. But with what view in mind?

The example included above seems to tell us something further about the motivating force of deadlines. One can imagine activities taking place ‘before’ a deadline: A delivers a package to B under the vigilant eye of the looming deadline. What motivates A to deliver this package to B? Apparently, he does not want to cross the line. Thus ensues a dilemma concerning his motivation:

1.) Either he delivers the package before the deadline, or he does not.

2.) If he succeeds in delivering the package before the deadline, then he is relieved (of a burden).

3.) If he fails, then he is penalized.

 What is assumed in this scenario about human motivation is that, first, qua agent he stands either to fail or to succeed and, second, he believes that he must be motivated by fear. A deadline, then, is not to be approached (as a finish line is) but rather looms in the distance rather like a punitive god. In view of this looming being, he tells himself that he had better…, he must…, he ought…, and so on.

The further assumption is that deadlines are the sorts of things that are set and met. But to set a deadline is to try to say something final about our connection to the future despite the fact that such finality seems impossible. And so to meet a deadline may tell us more about our responsiveness to fear–about how well we respond in the face of fear–than it does about our ability to see something or other through.


We would like to know what a deadline is, and so far we have only examined the dangers associated with the concept of deadline. Let us examine this further.

(a) We wouldn’t say, for instance, that we set a deadline for the same day. Hence, a deadline appears to be something long-term.

(b) We wouldn’t set a deadline for members of our families or for friends. Hence, a deadline seem to be something concerning certain kinds of strangers: colleagues, business associates, fellow professionals, etc.

(c) We wouldn’t set a deadline on matters of the heart. (The date one gets married is, strictly speaking, not a deadline.) Hence, a deadline would seem to have to do with matters of business, broadly understood.

(d) We wouldn’t set a deadline on having a meeting (that is ‘scheduling’ a ‘date’), on simply having an idea, and so on. Hence, a deadline would seem to have to do with the things that are produced or delivered.

(e) We wouldn’t set a deadline on something that the other would find trivial or valueless. Hence, a deadline would seem to have to do with what is beneficial.

Putting these elements together, we could define a deadline as

  • a mutually agreed upon date secured by parties A and B, where A is to deliver thing X to B for the benefit of both parties.

Person A, seeking not only to secure a certain benefit, is motivated both by fear and by the desire not to appear untrustworthy or unreliable in the eyes of B. For A, things are very urgent (read: fraught). B, in turn, is motivated by the desire to do something with X. Receiving X before the deadline is an urgent (read: fraught) matter. This contractual situation hardly seems like the starting point of friendliness.


In light of these considerations, I believe that we began with an error in understanding, and this led us astray. Now, I am not at all sure that thinking in terms of deadlines is in tune with exercising the salient virtues and with testing one’s character in any appropriate way. But in saying this, it may seem as if we cannot learn how to hold ourselves gently to account. In response to this challenge, I want to say something far simpler and this in a Daoist key.

Let us suppose that A and B are beginning out of a basic sense of friendliness. A wishes to offer something to B; B would like to receive this offering. The offering would be offered in a timely, wholehearted manner. Perhaps, trying again, we can venture three gift economy reformulated questions:

1.) Timeliness 1. What would give A ‘just enough time’ for A to allow thing X to come into being?

2.) Timeliness 2. What would give B ‘just enough time’ to be able to amicably receive X and to do whatever further that B needs to do with X?

3.) Wholehearted Manner. How could A kindly go about allowing X to come into being and offering X to B in a way that it is wholehearted from beginning to end? If this were the case for A, could B receive the offering just as wholeheartedly?

It seems to me that these three questions are cast in a softer as well as more accurate light. Properly formulated, properly understood, and clearly answered, they alleviate the kinds of concerns and dilemmas that flow from thinking in terms of the concept of deadlines.

In philosophical friendship,


(I am grateful to Aleksandra for helping me to think through this puzzle of deadlines.)

Sustaining life is not the good life

I write this post after spending time this morning contemplating the nature of things. This post is not a ‘product’ of that contemplation.


In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor has some remarkable things to say about the disappearance of the higher forms of the good life during the passage to modernity. He argues that the life of contemplation as well as that of civic participation were replaced, for the most part, by the ‘affirmation of ordinary life.’ What is distinctive about modernity is not just that for the first time in human history individuals have come to affirm the spheres of production (work) and reproduction (family) but also that ‘the good’ has come to be regarded as manifesting itself fully through work and family. Once we are alerted to this strangeness, we cannot but feel bewildered.

I do not think this move toward the affirmation of ordinary life is warranted, and the reason is that it seems to me a form of ‘passive nihilism’: it can answer the question, ‘How to go on living?,’ yet it cannot possibly furnish an answer, let alone acknowledge the question, ‘What is a reason for living?’ Sustaining life is not identical with leading a good life.

My negative thesis is that the affirmation of ordinary life amounts to passive nihilism. My positive thesis is that a philosophical version of a gift economy recuperates the proper relationship between life and the good life, the lower and the higher, the material and the intelligible.

Let us see how this two-part argument unfolds.

Continue reading “Sustaining life is not the good life”

Invitation: 3 months, 3 small patrons, 1 life transformed


This post is  an investigation of a perplexing case concerning how a young person and I can work together as well as an invitation to a young person who would like to. If the following scenario applies to you and you’d like to get in touch with me, you can do so through the Contact Form of my main website.

I begin first by setting up the puzzle.

The Puzzle of Proper Generosity

It’s not uncommon for me to speak with a young person who would like to have some philosophical conversations with me but who would not be able to offer much, if anything, in order to meet my material needs. He would like to be more generous if he were so able, yet as things stand being properly generous would prove to be a financial burden for him. Indeed, were he to offer more than he should, it could soon be impossible for him to care for what matters most, to care properly for himself.

Now, proper generosity requires that each see to the other without putting one in another’s (bad) debt. In the scenario above, however, proper generosity is held to be desirable yet appears to be impossible. Either something will have to give, or something novel will have to be introduced.

In what follows, I want to consider the introduction of A Third. What further could be introduced in order to bring about proper generosity?


Let us specify first. This young person (let’s say) would like to speak with me once every two weeks for a season (3 or 4 months).  Let us also say that we are both committed to an immanent aim: namely, putting him or her on the path to transforming his or her life.

Candidate Solutions

How would it be possible for this person to speak with me 6-8 times in order to set forth on that path?

One could look to crowdfunding. Here, two immediate problems arise. The first is that the ‘genre’ of crowdfunding is the project, not the project of self-cultivation. Crowdfunding is about getting something or other done, not about caring for the state of the self.

Secondly, crowdfunding builds into its design the free-rider problem: most will look on, some would be willing to use whatever the project intends to complete, but few will actually chip in. This is to say that most won’t care or care enough that this thing (or person) come into being. Better: most won’t care so much that they would feel impelled to help make it possible for this thing to come into being.

Rule out crowdfunding, then. Another approach would be to find a patron who cares about the project of self-cultivation. The objection, though, is clear: although this patron may care about the project of self-cultivation, he may not care that this person be so transformed. Who is this person to him? the skeptic might ask.

The inadequacies of the first two approaches enjoin us to think more about how we could specify more narrowly what sort of funding model we are after. We can say at least two things:

First, that whoever is to support this young person (call this ‘whoever is to support’ The Third) must not only know him and care about him but also care that he be so transformed.

Second, that The Third must also not feel that supporting this young person’s project of self-cultivation for 3-4 months would be onerous.

A Couple of Clues

1. The reconsideration of the concept of collateral in microfinance provides one clue. Someone who wishes to start a business but who has no collateral may get assistance from a group of community members who would serve as guarantors.

2. Rites of Passage: When someone is going on a journey, he may be paired up with an elder who may (while in the background) hold him to account.

The Answer: Three Small Patrons

The answer to the puzzle lies in the young person’s seeking out and securing (say) three small patrons who already know him, care about him, and care that he transform himself into a more excellent human being. Each patron would provide a small contribution that altogether would count as ‘proper generosity.’ No patron would find himself burdened not least because generosity would be ‘spread over’ the three. (We are imagining a number between The One (the single patron) and the Demos (the crowd).)

To each patron, the young person would have to ‘render an account’ at the end of each month in order to show that he  or she is on the path to becoming a more excellent human being. During our philosophical conversations, the young person and I would go through directed inquiries to ensure that the questions continue to lead to answers he is living by. That is, we would have a clearly laid-out path.

At the end of the 3 or 4 months, the young person would have to show that his practice of living can ‘manifest’ itself in some artistic way. That is, he would have to provide evidence (a self-portrait? a spoken word performance? a night of hosting friends?) that demonstrates that he is transforming his vision of the world.

The Invitation Re-Issued

If you fit this profile and wish to get in touch with me about ‘3 months, 3 small patrons, 1 life transformed,’ you can write to me on my Contact Form.

Fundraising in the Context of a Gift Economy

My friend Jonatan Spejlborg is currently raising funds for the artist residency and school he and his colleagues are creating. Specifically, they need to raise money in order to build the house where participants will live, work, and create. I offered a gift contribution earlier today, and I invite you to do the same.

You can view the Kickstarter campaign as well as make your gift contribution directly on the site:

This occasion also gave me reason to pause and reflect upon how one could do honest, direct fundraising in the context of a gift economy. The dangers evident in most styles of fundraising are either that one approaches potential gift-givers out of a spirit of apology (as if one were harming these others simply by asking them for help), or else one feels bound to participate in the genre of hustling (using these others, uncaringly, as a means for your own ends). In Manners and Mores (2013), I call this dilemma, more generally, the Freelancer’s Dilemma, and I believe it runs rampant these days.

I don’t believe that either path has to be taken, and I think a gift economy worksheet could give us a way out: could provide us with a more decent, considered, and humane way of seeing to each other by seeing each other.

Here’s my first attempt:

Section I. Preliminaries: Caring About What Matters Most

After presenting the idea to the potential gift-giver(s) with a view to getting him/her/them to understand why this matters and whether they care enough about it, one would then ask Q1 and Q2.

Q1. The Question of Significance. Can you see why completing this [house, project, school, entity, etc.] would contribute significantly to what matters most?

Q2. The Question of Caring. If you can see that this [idea, thing, etc.] contributes to what matters most, do you care enough about this [house, project, school, entity, etc.] to help bring it into being?

Remark: One may see that this project matters but not care enough that he help bring it being. Only if it matters and if he cares that he help make it possible would one invite him to continue onto Q3-5 below.

Section II. Cultivating Just Generosity

Q3. The Question of Generosity. How much would you be able to give in order to [e.g., help build this house, create this school, etc.]?

Q4. The Question of Burden. If you were to give this much, would it prove to be a financial burden for you, making it difficult, if not impossible, for you to care about what matters most? If it would, then let’s return to Q3 and try out a different answer. If it wouldn’t, then lovely: we’ve arrived at ‘just generosity.’ You’re offering just enough to me and to us without its calling into question your own way of life.

Section III. Coming to Wholeheartedness

We’d now need to figure out whether you can offer this amount with a Yes! in your heart or only with a pause, with some doubt and hesitation.

Q5. The Question of Wholehearted Assent. Could you give [say amount kindly, clearly, directly] out of a sense of praise for what you care about?

Remark: According to Aristotle, we only praise what is admirable. To praise someone is not just to value this person highly but also, and implicitly, to care that he persist in his excellent way of being. Suppose, then, that the gift-giver could give this much out of wholeheartedness. Then you’d say: ‘Thank you. I accept your gift wholeheartedly.’

If you wish to use the worksheet, it’d be kind to give the author credit: Andrew James Taggart

Gift economy worksheet for philosophical practice

The following is the latest version of the gift economy worksheet I’ve begun going through with new conversation partners. It’s been quite illuminating to go through the process of inquiring with another with the common purpose of reaching mutual understanding.



This worksheet is the result of about 2 years of thinking about how to create a more just small-scale economy that is in tune with leading a philosophical life. The purpose of the worksheet is to help us figure out how we can carry on well together. The reason I call it a worksheet is that it’s intended to take us through a set of procedures in the hope that we’ll arrive at a good enough answer to the question: “How much is it appropriate to give?” That answer may change with time and as a consequence of further considerations, but the first answer, being good enough, gives us a good enough place to begin.


A gift economy is a flow of givings and receivings. The gifts the giver offers are of the kind that they are meant to meet the other’s material needs; the receivings are acts of gratitude to the one in virtue of his having offered the right kind of thing.


There are two main reasons why it would be a good thing to participate in a gift economy. The first is that it seeks to re-educate us so that we come to focus our attention more and more on the social relation (which is held together by genuine human needs) and less and less on the commodity form (which is meant to satisfy narrowly construed self-interests). The second is that it gives us the opportunity to cultivate the virtue of generosity. If forms of giving and receiving shape much of social life, then we’d want to learn how to offer and receive properly: to consider how much is owed to whom and for what reason. In ancient philosophy, this was known as dike, or justice.

Basic Ingredients

1. Generosity
2. Onus
3. Wholeheartedness

Questions and Remarks

Question 1 of Generosity (Q1): How much are you able to give in order to meet some of my material needs?

In answering this question, you’ll need to focus your attention on the social relation holding us together, not on the incorrect thoughts that you’ve purchased some commodity or that you’re being billed for some service rendered. You’re not paying for a conversation, for some insight, or whatever; rather, you’re helping to maintain my philosophical form of life.

Some people offer gift contributions after each conversation; others do so weekly, monthly, or quarterly. If it helps in your considerations, you can invite me to inquire about my own particular material needs. These would include housing, food, energy, travel, health, and communication (notably, Internet). Since January of 2013, I’ve been supporting two of us: my love Alexandra and me.

A number of conversation partners offer gifts in the form of checks or increasingly via PayPal. The gift contribution goes  directly toward meeting our material needs so that we can live simply and in accordance with philosophical life. We seek, above all, to be living examples of this beautiful way of living.

Question 2 of Onus (Q2): Would giving this much make it difficult if not impossible for you to care properly about what matters most?

Early on, this question is not always easy to answer, since it may seem as if you have lots of ongoing expenses and a number of outstanding debts and thus that any amount would be an onus. However, your considerations should be squarely on what truly matters for a life to be good. If you desire the wrong kinds of things or are dissatisfied with certain aspects of your life, then it’s likely that your expenses will be high. You’re spending due to a lack of self-sufficiency or out of an overestimation of the value of certain objects.

If you’re feeling confused about what could be burdensome for you, then I’d encourage you to draw a distinction between desires for the right kinds of things (love, friendship, contemplation, etc.) and desires born out of dissatisfaction and in search of the wrong kinds of things (licentiousness, excessive wealth, fame, social recognition, status, etc.). It’s worth pointing out that the nature of these desires will become clearer over the course of our philosophical conversations.

Question 3 of Wholeheartedness (Q3): Would you be able to give this much without reserve or hesitation, in a fully considered Yes rather than out of half-heartedness?

The term ‘wholeheartedness’ is intended to capture a sense of being properly motivated that is akin to but not the same as (say) being a good parent. The good parent is ‘all in.’ He or she gives out of plenitude, as if by necessity; not out of fear born of scarcity. The good parent does not feel as if he or she is being duped or robbed or is getting a ‘raw deal,’ nor is he or she looking to get the most by offering the least. The good parent offers freely ‘just enough.’


Consider moving from Q1 to Q3 with the goal of arriving at a good conclusion. The process may require that you go through loops before you’re able to come up with a good enough answer.

Q1 helps you to come up with a reasonable candidate offering and to test that offering for generousness. If, given your available means, the offering is too little, then it would not count as being generous or as being generous enough. Consequently, you’d need to ask Q1 again in order to supply a new answer.

Q2 allows you to test the offering arrived at by the end of Q1 to see whether it is too much for you. If offering this much would count as a burden for you, then you may need to reconsider your possible gift by entertaining another candidate answer to Q1. This new candidate would then be tested by asking Q2 again.

After the first two questions have been answered and both tests have been passed, then you should have arrived at a level (for Aristotle: ‘the mean’) of proper generosity. This would be neither too much (onus) nor too little (stinginess) but rather just enough.

Q3 invites you to consider the spirit in which the offering is made. Can you offer this much with open, outgoing hands? If, after hitting upon the mean, you can’t give this much without feeling self-conflicted, without vacillating, or without sensing scarcity (as if the gift were depleting your stores), then we’d need to inquire into what reasons there might be for your feeling this sense of half-heartedness or lingering disquietude.

Mutual Understanding

The aim of this worksheet is to arrive at mutual understanding: one offers a gift wholeheartedly to another and the other is able to accept the gift just as wholeheartedly. The worksheet, accordingly, is an example of seeing to each other by seeing each other. The process is intended to take place in ‘living speech,’ it can be slow-going, we may need to return to earlier questions more than once, and there are bound to be hesitations, pauses, and uneasinesses before there is graceful ease. And yet, the beautiful thing about this process is that it allows us to put words to what often goes unverbalized, to unearth assumptions that often go unnoticed till later on, and to think together in a way that is compassionate and resolute both. Mutual understanding certainly feels like seeing eye-to-eye.

Unfolding of the Gift Economy

The initial wholehearted gift and the wholehearted acceptance of the gift do not constitute a binding contract, promise, or invariant arrangement; the gift, given wholeheartedly, is accepted wholeheartedly. However, the amount of the offering may change over time and with reason. At certain times and due to changing circumstances, it may make sense for you to offer more, less, or something else. We’d want to inquire about your reasons for wishing to explore this change. And yet what needs to be underscored from the outset is that the more your life comes to order, the easier it will be for you to give freely.

Further Reading

Elucidation of Conditions

Philosophical Justification