Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Incompletely Relative Rationality

I previously asked whether the amoralist is irrational in neglecting the concerns of others. A positive case might be made for this via analogy with prudence. We tend to think it irrational for a person to disregard their future interests. As McDowell writes:
It is not clear that we really can make sense of the idea of someone who is otherwise rational but cannot see how facts about his future can, by themselves, constitute reasons for him to act in various ways. (McDowell, 'Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?' in M. Smith (ed.) Meta-ethics, p.107.)

But, as Parfit points out in Reasons and Persons (p.140), there's a strong analogy between 'I' (vs others) and 'now' (vs future). The aprudentialist might argue, "I don't care about my future self - I only care about me now. So why should I take my future self's interests into account?" It seems likely that whatever answer we give will apply, mutatis mutandis, to the amoralist too.

To bring out the analogy, notice that our aim in practical reasoning is always to answer the question, "how should I now act?" -- it is relative to a time just as much as it is relative to an agent. Now, we are tempted to say that the "agent-now" (i.e. present time-slice of the agent) is being irrational in neglecting his future interests, because his future self will suffer as a result. But neglecting other people's interests will likewise expose them to extra suffering. If an agent-now can rationally ignore the suffering of others, parity of reasoning would seem to suggest that he may likewise ignore the suffering of his future time-slices. (Of course, most of us are, as it happens, concerned about our future selves. But then, most of us are at least mildly altruistic too. That doesn't show we must be, or that anyone who fails to share our perhaps idiosyncratic concerns in these respects must necessarily be irrational.)

We might defend prudence by arguing that reasons are 'timeless', so if X will be a reason for you in future, then that very same consideration must be a reason for you now. But if reasons are neutral between time-slices of people, then why are they not likewise neutral between people? This reasoning leads us to rational altruism: if X is a reason for you, then it's also a reason for me.

So the problem, you will notice, is that rational egoism is "incompletely relative". It allows time-neutral reasons, but not agent-neutral ones. Such inconsistency is troubling. We would do better to accept both or neither. If we insist that it is irrational to discount one's future interests, then we should likewise conclude that it is irrational to discount the interests of other people. But we are not forced into rational altruism. We might instead accept that even the aprudentialist need not be irrational.

A (very unusual) person might ignore their future interests without thereby making any logical or empirical mistake. If they genuinely do not care about their future interests, then it is not clear what grounds we have for calling them "irrational". Most of us are committed to the prudential point of view. But it isn't clear what non-question-begging, non-prudential reasons can be given for adopting this view. So, on reflection, we see that it is just as rationally legitimate to work within the framework of present-concerns instead. As with the rival viewpoints of self-interest and morality, these frameworks are simply incommensurable. There are no independent grounds for favouring one over another. Each person (or time-slice of a person!) must simply choose what sorts of considerations they will recognize as reasons, thereby deciding what sort of person they want to be.

Update: I should add that the analogy become especially forceful when coupled with Parfit's reductionist view about personal identity, according to which the persisting ego is an illusion, and there is no further fact beyond the various physical and psychological connections and continuities between time-slices.


  1. Still as the time slices tend towards zero (zero seconds lets say) then the logic tends towards "nothing matters". In fact if it was zero there would not even be any connection between trying to do somthing like move your hand and you actually doing it.
    Unless possibly if there was some enjoyment to be had in the process of forming somthing or the knowledge that it will happen but if that is hte case then it implies some consideration for the future you.

    Anyway the size of the slice influences the logic - however it probably takes a decade or two for an adult to become different enough to equal the difference beteween them and a brother lets say. (although less if they are younger)

  2. there's a strong analogy between 'I' (vs others) and 'now' (vs future).

    I'd call that a weak analogy. Although the structure is similar, there are large enough differences to destroy its use here. I will be my future self, given time. I won't ever be you.

    Contrariwise, I note that vast numbers of people do in fact set their future welfare at zero, like drunks and junkies and reckless thrill seekers. And not just habitual drunks, but you every time you get drunk and you know you'll have a hangover the next day. To claim that they are all behaving irrationally is perhaps to demand too much of rationality. Or too much of humanity.

  3. "I will be my future self, given time. I won't ever be you."

    Sure, but here you are simply repeating the point that in the one case we have a difference between times, and in the other we have a difference between people. You haven't given any grounds for thinking that the latter distinction has any more rational significance than the former. And that's the crux of the matter.

  4. To add a couple more notes from Parfit...

    'Proximus' is an agent who has a bias against the future - the further in the future a benefit or harm is, the less he cares about it. Now, it might be objected that Proximus will later regret having this bias, so it must be irrational. But Parfit responds: "Proximus... will at most regret that he had this bias in the distant past. He acts as he does because of his present bias. And he never regrets this bias." (p.163)

    Next, Parfit notes that one might argue that "A mere difference in when something happens is not a difference in its quality." (p.164) Parfit thinks this is an excellent argument - the best defence of prudence that there is. However, he points out that the same can be said of differences in who the subject of an experience is. So again, the argument for prudence overshoots and ends up supporting altruism instead.

  5. Triessentialism has an explanation for why "I" and "now" are similar. Short answer: both are personal emotional things.

    Long answer: by instinct, we recognize three basic types of things (logic, emotion, the physical), and four composites (science, the animal, wisdom, and people). The physical is roughly analogous to the idea "WHAT", emotion to "WHY", and logic to "HOW" (in terms of methods).

    Emotion (WHY) is based on causality. Why-because-therefore. Because-therefore-and so....

    Time is the physical reflection of the Why; it is difficult to talk about time without discussing causality. Time is a chain of causality; the past decides who I am now, and what I do decides who I will be.

    We never experience "now", because nerve impulses are not instantaneous, and neither is the functioning of the sense organs. We experience a few milliseconds of the past. However, we have a conceptual "now" that is roughly analogous to the physical.

    Instead of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc, the heart feels in terms of distinct moments (the time of one emotional reaction). Depending on the impact of that emotional reaction (Oh, my shoe is untied, vs. my house just burned down, vs. my drunk uncle is coming into my room...), that emotional moment may last mere seconds, hours, weeks, or in the case of emotional abuse, that moment may never end.

    "I" is a person; logic and the physical are both impersonal, but when an emotion is added, the composite of all three makes a person. "I was" and "I will be" have far less personal attachment than "I am" in the same way that "there" is far less personal than "here": it will have less impact on me.

  6. To continue:

    Rationality can explain why "I, here, now" is more important to us than "other, there, then", but rationality can never experience the difference.

    However, it can come closer to an explanation than I have previously stated.

    According to Triessentialism, the physical is about existence, the logical (rational) is about explanation, and the emotional is about experience.

    One can have a moral stance that nobody harm anyone else, and if someone needs assistance, that it be provided. This is not purely "rational", because there is an unstated want, wish, desire, or need (for nobody to be harmed). These imperatives are a type of emotions; they are reasons for action (or in some cases, inaction).

    Given this imperative, however, a whole moral system can be built (do not steal, do not lie, do not covet, etc.) that logically reflects the enactment of that imperative in the context of the real world. The degree to which it consistently achieves this goal is how rational we think it is.

    Given all of this, we can recognize that everyone has a list of imperatives (priorities), against which we measure our choices and others' choices. "Now" is the only time we can make a choice, and so "now" is the only time to affect the real world to make it match our idea of how it should look. "I" is the only person we can control directly to affect "here" and "now".

    There are tools and extensions. Remote Controls (what an apt name!) extend "here" (my hand) to "there" (the TV controls). Alarm clocks extend my decision to wake up at 7am from "now" (11pm) to "then" (7am) when I am unable to otherwise fulfill that task.

    Servants, workers, friends, slaves, and codependents are people through whom we can enact our choices, from "me" to "you". For example, my friend without a car wants to drive to the other side of town. I drive him. He has extended his choice from "him" to "us".

    The degree and context of direct control is how we define "I, now, here" and "not I, not now, not here".

  7. So the problem, you will notice, is that rational egoism is "incompletely relative". It allows time-neutral reasons, but not agent-neutral ones. Such inconsistency is troubling.

    I don't see how this is "inconsistent". The asymmetry is simply the result of the inherent division of moral agency, not some artificial constraint we've assumed. Each moral agent follows its own timeline (past self becomes future self), but each moral agent cannot become some other moral agent (I cannot become you).

    Whether the ego is ultimately an illusion is irrelevant. The point is that at the level of abstraction of moral agency, an individual has continuity of identity.

    This again returns to what I wrote in another post: this is a divide and conquer strategy. You don't solve a large complicated problem all at once, you reduce it to solvable sub-problems. In this case, identity and moral agency are abstractions which allow us to divide the problem of universal, collective moral good into sub-problems of individual moral good.

    Rational egoism takes us into altruism as well, since game theory has taught us when altruism is rational.

  8. Just noticed your comment replying to a similar point I just made:

    Sure, but here you are simply repeating the point that in the one case we have a difference between times, and in the other we have a difference between people. You haven't given any grounds for thinking that the latter distinction has any more rational significance than the former. And that's the crux of the matter.

    I hope my last post explained why, but to clarify, the rational significance is that you only control your own actions, not the actions of others. The asymmetry between time/people is fundamental to identity and moral agency, and so the former intrinsically has more significance as a result.

    1. Your current time-slice only controls your current actions, not your future actions -- it's a different time-slice that will be in control then. It's question-begging to just assert that your conception of moral agency is one that applies to temporally-extended persons. For the issue at hand is precisely why one is forced to that view, rather than having a momentary conception of moral agency, whereby the moral agent, or rational decision-maker, is just the time-slice that exists at the moment of decision, to soon be replaced by a different (though closely related, in various respects) time-slice or momentary agent.

      Of course, we think that the momentary agent should identify itself more broadly, and so care about the future momentary agents that it is so closely related to. But then there doesn't seem any principled barrier to thinking that the agent should also care in the same way about other agents that are related to it in various other ways (perhaps having similar goals, capacities, or even that most basic similarity of both being sentient creatures with welfare interests -- to avoid pain and suffering, etc.).

    2. Morality presupposes temporally extended moral agency. Without it, our present selves have no compunction to care about our or any agent's experience. What possible justification could you provide your moral agents to agree to your premises and act according to your moral prescriptions? Every moral framework presupposing identity/temporally extended moral agents appeals to some purported aspect of that agent's nature. If you deny identity itself, you cannot use this technique, so how do you justify your premises?

  9. Hi, I am reading this bit now and am confused about a few things and then I found this post. Hope I could find some help here.

    First, why do we have to address analogical problems? Just because they are both differentiaters (time and agency) doesn't seem to me lead to the urge to provide same treatment to them both. If we can appeal to common human sense for our elementary moral preferences (such as suffering is good and pain is bad), can't we appeal to some other human qualities which likely include being highly eclectic?

    Second, Parfit and others had this argument built on a presumption of the nature of time, which is like a discrete substance that is composed of constituting parts. Time-slices as you mentioned look like atoms of time. But this seems an obsolete view of the nature of time and reality based on classical physics. Is this presumption plausible to be taken into account is thus put to question.

    I may have other problems with his arguments but I am not able to bring them all in now. I'd like to see if I could get some reply here. Thank you and sorry for the bothering.


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