On Free Choice and our Future Selves (Part 2)

Are you rolling the dice on your future self?

Posted Nov 29, 2010

Our present selves can and do act in ways that affect our future selves. But are there some sorts of choices that we simply ought not let our (and other's) present selves make? I suggested in the first instalment of "on free choice and our future selves" that maybe there are some decisions that are like that. In that instalment I outlined three quite general ways that decisions I take now, affect the person I will be in the future in a way that one might think undermines the autonomy of my future self. One of these ways radically changes the values that my future self will have, from the values of my current self. One radically changes the motivational capacities of my future self, and one radically changes my future self's ability to reason about how to get the things she wants.

Some people suggest that taking drugs of addiction is one example of the sort of thing we ought not let present selves do. The reasons for that seem to be that it is thought (whether true or not) that once a person's future becomes addicted to such drugs, that self's autonomy is undermined in or more of the three ways just listed.

For instance, one often hears it said that being addicted to drugs radically changes the things one values, so that for instance ones come to highly value the drug, and to value the things that one once valued, less highly. One also often hears it said that those addicted to drugs experience certain motivational failures: there comes a point at which many such persons want to stop taking the drug, but they find themselves unable to do so. The link between their motivation state (wanting to stop taking the drug) and their behaviour (stopping taking the drug) losing some vital connection such that having the motivational state does not cause the relevant behaviour. One rarely, however, hears it said that addiction affects one's capacity to reason about how to get what one wants. Addicts tend to have true beliefs about where the object of their addiction is located, and about where the resources needed to obtain those objects are located. They also seem able to reason about how to get access to those resources, and how to use those resources to in turn get access to the object of their addiction.

So at most two of the three ways in which the autonomy of my future self can be undermined are relevant in considering whether there are reasons to prevent our present selves from engaging in certain sorts of addiction-causing behaviours. For we have some reason to think that addiction does change the values and the motivational capacities of future selves and thus reason to suspect that it undermines our future selves' autonomy.

But do we have good reasons to protect future selves against the decisions of present selves by making it, say, illegal to take drugs or to gamble or generally engage in behaviours that could lead to addiction.

On the face of it, you might think that the answer is "no". After all, lots of behaviours change what our future selves value, and some change those values quite radically. Choosing to have children can dramatically change what our future selves value, but no one would suggest that we ought to outlaw the choice to have children on the grounds that it is autonomy undermining since our future selves come to have values that we, ourselves, do not share. Other examples are legion. Many people send their present selves off to therapy precisely in order to change the values of their future selves, but no one supposes that this undermines their future autonomy.

Likewise, lots of behaviours our present selves choose alter the motivational capacities of our future selves. I might be a terrible procrastinator, and find that despite wanting to get work done, knowing that it will lead to a promotion, better finances and generally higher self esteem, my wanting to do so does not bring it about that I do my work. I might try and change that by enlisting a personal coach, who eventually brings it about that my being motivated to work, causes me to work. But neither my coach nor I would consider that we are undermining the autonomy of my future self.

That appears to be a case in which instead, I grant my future self greater autonomy by changing its motivational profile. Perhaps then, merely changing the way my motivational states cause my behaviour is not what is at issue, but rather, what matters is bringing it about that my motivational states fail to cause relevant behaviour. That is, after all, what we suspect happens in cases of addiction. But now suppose that I frequently find myself draw to throw ice cream over by recalcitrant boss, and often my being motivated in this way brings it about that I do throw ice cream over my boss. This turns out not to be good for my career, so I head back to my personal coach in an attempt to change the way my motivations cause me to act. Though I remain motivated to throw ice cream at my boss, I gradually bring it about that I no longer act on those motivations. Yet although I change my motivational profile, and change it in a way in which my motivational states fail to cause me to act in certain ways, this too, does not seem like an instance of undermining my future self's autonomy.

So it cannot be that changing my future values, or changing my future motivational profile, in itself constitutes something that is autonomy undermining with respect to my future self. And it certainly cannot be that we should in general prevent our present selves from engaging in activities that change our future selves' motivational profiles or values, lest we prevent people from having children, going to therapy, or taking on personal coaches.

Is there, then, any reason to prevent our future selves engaging in drug taking, or gambling, or other behaviours that, intuitively, we feel might undermine the autonomy of our future selves? I say there might well be, but we need to think carefully about what sorts of behaviours we should worry about our present selves engaging in. In particular, we should worry about whether the downstream effects of those decisions on our future selves is something that our present self is inclined to endorse, and we should worry about the way in which the changes to our future self come about: we should worry about what causes those changes and whether those causes are of the right kind. More on this shortly in "The totalitarian "I"".