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Should Striving Ever Stop?

When the best thing to do is to settle for good enough

Here is my nominee for the worst phrase in the English language: “it is what it is.” The phrase combines resignation, even despair, with self-congratulatory smugness. It is a fatal combination, because one really should not be self-congratulatory about despair.

The phrase is always awful, but it is especially despicable when used by someone in a position of authority, who invokes it to dash the hopes of someone who is in a position of supplication. Imagine, for example, an employer telling a job applicant that she isn’t going to be hired, or a bank officer telling a would-be homeowner that he isn’t getting a loan, or a criminal lawyer telling a client that he’s going to have to go to jail, all of them explaining that “it is what it is.” In such contexts, the phrase is no explanation at all, and its use is a denial of both responsibility and empathy.

But there is something differently bad, and in some cases despicable too, when people use the phrase to rationalize their own disappointment. Sure, it is what it is, and it is usually better to recognize reality, and to move on, than to rage and to gnash one’s teeth. Still, some realities can be changed. The phrase is a formula for settling, and sometimes we shouldn’t settle—or if we do, we should do so without thinking the unforgivable and un-American thought that the world is intractable. I know, we don’t need another “ism,” and we certainly don’t need another Committee on Un-American Activities, but if we had to have one, it should investigate it-is-what-it-is-ism.

Robert Goodin is one of our most interesting social theorists, and while he does not use the awful phrase, he seeks not only to understand but also to defend the practice of settling. The value of settling, he asserts, is fixity. When we settle, we hold something—a job, a relationship, a place, an activity—as fixed. He contrasts settling with “striving.” But his most striking claim is that settling is not an alternative to striving, but its complement. The reason is that human beings cannot strive unless they keep a number of aspects of their life fixed. In that sense, settling is a precondition for striving.

To appreciate this claim, and its limits, we need to step back a bit. Goodin is aware that the word “settling” is used in diverse ways, and he begins with an instructive account of that diversity. We speak of “settling down,” often in the context of choosing a permanent location or home. Wanderers may decide to settle down. Marriage, and having children, can themselves be described as a way of doing so. There is also the matter of “settling in.” Having chosen a location, people take a period of time in which to adjust and to adapt. When people make amends for wrongdoing, they are said to “settle up.” Restitution is a standard way to achieve that goal.

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But the most common use of the term may well be “settling for,” as in the idea of “making do.” As Goodin explains, there is often a difference between “all that you want” and “all that you deserve”—and when you settle, you may fall short of both goals. In an international negotiation (especially if lives are on the line), officials might settle for far less than they want and deserve, simply because the alternative is so bad. They might give up a lot in order to avoid a greater evil. This example shows that in thinking about settling, we need to pay careful attention to the default, that is, to what happens if settlement does not occur. The pressure to settle for a less-than-ideal outcome—one that is short of what people want or deserve—may be hard to resist if the default is terrible.

Goodin suggests that the master notion, for the varying uses of the term, is “settling on,” understood as an end to striving, a matter of putting one’s mind to rest. “Settling for” is thus a form of “settling on.” When we settle on certain arrangements, we do so in the belief that they are not worse, and are probably better, than the reasonable alternatives, and that settlement as such is desirable. Of course few settlements are necessarily permanent. You may settle for a job, hopeful that you will do better in the future. You may settle on a home, knowing that a better one will probably become available in a few years. Fixity is not forever.

Goodin contends that settling, understood in terms of fixity, has a number of virtues. First, it helps to promote planning and agency. One advantage of a proper settlement is that it produces not merely an end but also a secure one. If we are in the midst of a fight, we might well hope to settle, because fights are ugly and potentially dangerous. Being “unsettled” is “worse than merely being “uncertain”—it is a sort of stultifying uncertainty,” one that “stymies your planning.”

As the extreme case, Goodin offers the testimony of a psychologist before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, speaking of the mental state of men and children who lost male relatives in the Srebrenica massacre: “The fact that they do not know the truth—even the worst truth, would be better for them than this uncertainty, this constant, perpetual uncertainty as to what happened to their loved ones, because they keep waiting, they’re waiting for something. They cannot begin life, they cannot face up with the reality of the death of a missing person.”

A major virtue of settling, Goodin insists, is that it provides people with fixed points, enabling them to organize their lives. It can be costly to make decisions, and if we have to make decisions about everything, those costs will quickly spiral out of control. Goodin adds that people have limited cognitive capacities, and therefore we must “take some things as given” so that we can decide “what to do about some other things.”

Beyond reducing cognitive burdens and promoting planning, Goodin contends that settling is indispensable to commitment, trust, and confidence. Our characters are defined by our commitments to certain projects, principles, and values; unless those commitments are settled, they are not commitments at all. Put constantly up for grabs, they cannot have an appropriate place in your life. Trust itself requires fixity. If you are not fixed in certain relationships and practices, people cannot trust you. And confidence—with respect to ourselves, others, and states of the world—will not exist without a lot of settlements.

Goodin also emphasizes that settlement can be exceedingly important from the social point of view. Properly understood, the rule of law is itself a form of settlement insofar as it provides a clear, general background against which people can live their lives. For all the talk about economic dynamism, settlement has a crucial place in a well-functioning economy as well, which requires stable background arrangements. “Just as it is good personal advice not to divorce come the first argument, so too is it good economic advice not to divest come the first downturn.” Or consider the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a form of “settling up,” designed to repair a fractured social fabric. When grievances are settled, people are able to start anew.

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Goodin is careful to distinguish settling from three closely related concepts with which it might be confused. First, settling is not merely a matter of compromising. When you make restitution to someone you have wronged, and thus “settle up,” you are not compromising at all. Second, settling is not necessarily conservative. Burkeans do not much like abstract theories, and they certainly do not favor radical departures from the status quo. But you might settle on an abstract theory, and work hard to implement it, and it might involve radical reform. You might settle on a plan of life that requires you to help bring about dramatic social change. More subtly, Goodin notes that conservatism is about keeping things as they are once they are fixed, while settling is designed to fix them in the first place. “The act of settling is itself an intervention designed to change things as they have previously existed.” Third, settling need not be a form of resignation (or it-is-what-it-is-ism). One reason to settle is that you cannot decide everything at once, and settling frees you up to pursue other matters. You settle on X in order to pursue Y, and in pursuing Y you are anything but resigned.

I have noted Goodin’s insistence that settling can work in aid of striving. He offers a purely logical point here, which is that we need to settle on our goals in order to know what to strive for. He also offers a practical point, which is that we need “to settle some things, precisely in order better to strive for others.” Goodin acknowledges the complexity here with a scene from Goodfellas. A mother asks her romantically restless son, “Why don't you get yourself a nice girl?” The son responds, I get a nice one almost every night.” The mother responds, “But get yourself a girl so you could settle down.” The son answers, “I settle down almost every night.” 

Goodin takes the scene to suggest that to be worthy of the name, settling requires some kind of temporal extension. A one-day—or one-night—settlement is not a settlement at all. For striving to count as such, we have to settle on its object, and in a way that is relatively enduring. We also need to settle in order “to clear the decks and free up resources.” Striving requires settling.

True, it sometimes makes sense to switch from settling to striving. You might decide to re-open a matter that you had thought fixed. Perhaps you have won the lottery, and it is time to consider a new place to live. Perhaps nothing dramatic has happened or changed, but a set of small developments, taken cumulatively, suggest that you really should consider a new job in Boston. This last point suggests a problem, or maybe even a paradox, which is that settlements are not really rational unless people are prepared to update their commitments in light of what they learn—in which case they might not be counted as settlements at all. On this problem, Goodin offers some wise counsel. In his view, we should “keep a ‘running tally’ in the back of our minds of anomalies,” which sit there “as mere niggles.” One of them, or even a few, will not suffice to unsettle. But if the running list gets long, “those niggles turn into real worries, and it is time to go back and rethink things afresh.”

Goodin’s gentle little book is brimming with intelligence, sense, and humanity, and he makes a lot of progress toward understanding a concept that has received far too little attention. He is entirely right to oppose settling to striving. He is also right to emphasize that people cannot strive unless they are able to take a lot of things as fixed. Those who are most active and engaged, and who seem in key respects to be least settled, are able to do what they do only because of what they are able to take for granted. Indeed, they may not themselves be responsible for the underlying settlements. Consider the words of Esther Duflo, the co-author of Poor Economics:

We tend to be patronizing about the poor in a very specific sense, which is that we tend to think, “Why don’t they take more responsibility for their lives?” And what we are forgetting is that the richer you are the less responsibility you need to take for your own life because everything is taken care of for you. And the poorer you are the more you have to be responsible for everything about your life. . . . Stop berating people for not being responsible and start to think of ways instead of providing the poor with the luxury that we all have, which is that a lot of decisions are taken for us. If we do nothing, we are on the right track. For most of the poor, if they do nothing, they are on the wrong track.

Duflo is emphasizing that those who are well off, and who strive, can take a lot of the background for granted, even though they are not responsible for it. Goodin’s point is not the same, but it belongs in the same family. If we did not fix large
aspects of our own situations, we would be worse off—less free, and less able to proceed with our projects and plans.

For all his sense and wisdom, I wish that Goodin had said more about an obvious question, one that bears directly on his topic: when should an agent settle? In ordinary life and in politics, some people settle prematurely, without sufficient reason, and with a sense of resignation. But they feel Goodin’s niggles almost immediately, and the niggles accumulate in a hurry. How do we know when the time is right for settling?

Economists would answer that the answer depends on two factors: the costs of decisions and the costs of errors. Suppose that you are looking for a job. You get an offer, and while it is not ideal, it is certainly not bad. If you decline the offer and keep looking, you might be able to do better, but you might also do worse, and end up with nothing at all. If you accept the offer, the costs of decision will fall to zero. The problem is that premature settlement can impose large error costs, in the form of economic and other losses. The same, of course, is true if you decide not to settle. A bird in the hand may not be worth two in the bush, but a bird in the hand is a lot better than no bird at all.

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To decide whether to settle, people should assess the potential outcomes and their various probabilities. If you have an excellent chance of doing a lot better, you probably ought not to settle. And in making these judgments, you will be alert not only to the matter at hand, but to the range of decisions that you are facing, and hence to whether a decision to settle will make it easier to focus on more pressing matters.

In economics, there is an elaborate literature on “search theory,” largely spurred by an essay that George Stigler wrote in 1961, with applications to areas such as information, products, romance, jobs, and many others. For those who are thinking whether to settle, a central question involves the costs and benefits of continuing to search. “Option value” is especially important here. If you do not take a job, or if you decide not to sell your house to the first bidder, you keep your options open, and doing that can be pretty valuable. A discussion of option value—which people frequently ignore in their daily lives—might have led Goodin to explore some of the least fortunate sides of settling.

What the economic literature does not sufficiently investigate are the emotional consequences of settling on the one hand and continued striving on the other. If you settle, you may end up kicking yourself, which is, well, unsettling, and corrosive. You have lost option value, which may be painful, and you might have forfeited a far better outcome, which may be worse. Settling can also produce the phenomenon of “adaptive preferences,” through which people adapt their desires to their situations. Adaptation can reduce or even eliminate distress, but if people are adapting their preferences to a bad situation, it runs into problems of its own. On the other hand, not settling can make people crazy. If you refuse to settle, you may be in a state of some anxiety, which may make it exceedingly difficult to plan and perhaps to do anything else.

Those with different tolerances for risk will of course assess these variables in different ways. In regulatory debates, some people endorse the “precautionary principle,” which is often taken to suggest that we should avoid risks even when they are highly speculative. Settling can be precautionary. Averse to uncertainty, and focused on worst-case scenarios, people decide to cease striving. But this might be a big mistake. Worst-case scenarios can be found on all sides of social situations, and we should not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by them. Risk-averse people may settle prematurely. In public life, those who settle are unlikely to be history’s heroes.

If we take Goodin seriously, my nominee for the worst phrase in the English language—“it is what it is”—isn’t all that bad. By moving on to other concerns, we make striving possible. Goodin rightly says that settling is not always resignation, but he does not deny what is obviously true, which is that it is often exactly that. True, no human life can do without resignation. We have to resign ourselves to that fact. But there’s a matter of when, and how, and with what attitude. Goodin’s wise book doesn’t embrace the awful phrase, but I think that it would have been even better if it had devoted more space to exploring what is dark and dreary, and not on the side of life, about the very idea of settling.