Tag: Philosophy

Courageous Quitting

Courageous Quitting

I have been a quitter many times. So many times. In high school, I was a quitter of basketball because I’m just not athletic in any way. I was also a quitter of the trombone because not only am I not athletic, I’m also not musical. Those are just a couple notable examples from around that same period of time. I have been a quitter of jobs many times. I won’t even mention all the hobbies in which I’ve branded myself a quitter. That would certainly explain why I never prospered at basketball or music or some jobs or even soap making.

“Quitters never prosper.” One of my high school teachers dropped this sticky nugget of knowledge to a group of us when we were struggling with a project and were talking about just starting over with something else. It was followed by a lecture about the merits of keeping focused, staying the course, seeing projects through to the end, the value of commitment and I’m sure many other things that passed right through my teenage brain. Nearly everyone has probably heard a variation of this adage at some point, but this particular phrase has stuck with me for almost thirty years.

A recent mark in the quitter column has rattled around in my thoughts and it occurred to me that I’ve never actually looked up the formal definition of quitter. I decided to do some quick research because this is the information age, after all. I consulted the gospel of Google for the definition of “quitter” and learned that a quitter is “a person who gives up easily or does not have the courage or determination to finish a task.” (Google, 2017)

Another fun trick Google can do is provide synonyms if you tack on the word “synonym” to the end of the search term. I clicked on suggestions from thesauraus.com  that are so bold as to toss out the words “deserter, goof-off, wimp, slacker”, among others, as synonyms for the word quitter. Scrolling down only added insult to injury. A few words that are apparently related to quitter are “chicken, coward” and my personal favorites, “milksop” and “namby-pamby.” Ouch.

After reading that definition and assorted synonyms, I understand why some people believe that quitters are, well, bad. It also explains some of the conversations I’ve had with coworkers about the moral implications of a decision to quit a job or a marriage or even a fitness membership.

Once upon a time I aspired to be a philosopher, but I am a quitter of the formal study of philosophy. Still, some of that reading and studying stuck with me. In particular are Immanuel Kant’s ideas of universalizability. Johnson and Cureton summarize Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” nicely in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Kant characterized the CI as an objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow despite any natural desires or inclinations we may have to the contrary.” (2016)

It’s a fancy way of saying that ethical decisions must pass this universal application test. We’ll take something simple: killing another human. If we agree that it’s wrong for a human to kill another human, then that must be universal if it were to be ethical. If we universalize a belief like this, then we can’t hold the truth that killing someone is wrong and advocate the death penalty at the same time. The same principle can be used to consider the moral implications about lying under oath, cheating on your taxes, or eating grapes at the supermarket before paying for them. If lying or cheating or stealing is wrong in one instance, it should be wrong in all instances. It’s simple and at the same time sometimes very complex. Long story short, I like the simplicity and complexity of Kant’s ethics as a test for big moral decisions.

Now, philosophy is great for pondering the big whys of life and reasoning out solutions to theoretical problems, but I like to take that show on the road and see if it can work in the real world. To me good vs. bad is the very heart of ethics, so Kant’s test seems like an adequate tool for the job. Operating with the premise that being a quitter is bad, then it should always be bad. Or vice versa. Universalizability.

To explore further, being a quitter in high school sports would indicate that I was “a person who gives up easily.” No argument there. In fact, that could have been the tagline under my name in my high school yearbook. Using the other part of that definition, I also did not “have the courage or determination to finish a task.” The only word I take issue with there is courage. I didn’t lack courage; I just didn’t want to do it. So, it’s not that I was afraid of sports, I just hated every minute of participating. I’ll concede the determination point though; it was lacking.

The question remains: is “giving up easily” or “lacking courage or determination to finish a task” always a bad thing? I suppose that depends on the task. Let’s say I decided to break the windows out of every car parked along the street in my neighborhood with a stick. I whacked the first one and the window shattered. I whacked the next one and my stick cracked, so I had to whack it several times until both the stick and the window finally broke. Without a tool to continue my glass breaking rampage, I decided to go home instead. Yes, I suppose I gave up easily, what with the abundance of sticks or other tools of destruction I could have found to continue my smashing. Yes, I probably lacked the courage and determination if car alarms started blaring and people started chasing after me with threats of bodily harm. But was being a quitter a bad decision?

Let’s test it with a more realistic example. Let’s say a person had a job where he was gone from his family for days on end, his boss was a tyrant, and the company’s mission was to extract as much work as they could before that person eventually flamed out. For argument’s sake, let’s also say that the company paid well. In fact, one could argue that the employees were downright prosperous. Would being a quitter in that situation be a bad thing?

The overall issue with the definition of quitter is that it’s inaccurate, at least in its negative portrayal of quitters. The definition leaves the reader to believe that being a quitter is really just as bad as that high school teacher made it sound so many years ago even though it’s easy to argue the merits of quitting in many self-destructive circumstances. In fact, often being a quitter requires a significant amount of courage or determination to carry out. Consider quitting the abuse of prescription painkillers, or quitting an abusive relationship, or quitting a job to go back to school and start over; it’s easy to think of positive outcomes of quitting.

The notion of “staying the course” or taking a task through to completion are worthwhile goals. If I look at how I live my own life on a day-to-day basis, that’s how I generallyapproach most everything. It’s not that I’m advocating for quitting everything or giving up easily on things like earning a living, doing the dishes, nurturing children, or even raking up leaves. I would argue just the opposite: we need to complete most tasks in our daily life and not just quit only because they are difficult or challenging.

What I’m suggesting is a new attitude about wearing the label of quitter when it comes to preserving one’s own health or sanity. The notion that being a quitter is bad seems to fall apart after a little critical thinking and reasoning. If a job or relationship or other situation damages self-esteem or jeopardizes physical health, I would propose looking past that definition and negative connotation of the word quitter. Likewise, if someone or something is a toxic influence in your life, perhaps a quitter is exactly what you need to become, definitions be damned.


Google Search. Accessed November 16, 2017. https://www.google.com/search?q=Dictionary#dobs=quitter.


“I found great synonyms for ‘quitter’ on the new Thesaurus.com!” www.thesaurus.com. Accessed November 16, 2017. http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/quitter.


Johnson, Robert, and Adam Cureton. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. July 07, 2016. Accessed November 16, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/.


Mailing List

Get updates, writings and other useful information delivered right to your inbox.

* indicates required


© Erik Hilton, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Erik Hilton and erikhilton.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.