On free choices and our future selves

Are you tying up the future you?

Posted Nov 24, 2010

We expect that many of the things our current selves do will impact our future selves - that is, impact who we are in the future. That is often the point of what we do in the present. We diet now, so that our future self will be slender. We save money now, so that our future self will have funds. Some of the things that we do now, bind our future selves in certain ways. That is, some of the things our current selves do, effectively constrain the kinds of things that our future selves can do. Again, this is often by design. My current self chooses to take on a mortgage, this constrains the choices of my future self: she must either continue to pay the mortgage payments, or lose the house and risk substantial losses. If my current self gets a tattoo, then my future self either has to live with it, or spend time and money to have it lasered off.

It is often thought that some sorts of choices my current self might make are not just bad choices, but are also the sorts of choices that a society that values agency and autonomy ought not permit. These are choices that my current self can make, that will undermine the autonomy of my future self and therefore undermine the capacity of my future self to engage in the project of making choices at all.

That current selves make bad choices that future selves have to live with is beyond doubt. Sometimes these are minor: my current self gorges on ice-cream, my future self gets the stomach ache. Some of these choices might not even be irrational: if the pleasure of eating all that ice-cream outweighs the pain of the stomach ache, then perhaps eating the ice cream is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Some cases of causing harm to our future selves are, however, surely irrational, and these are precisely those cases in which the harm to our future selves clearly outweighs any benefits to our current selves. Most people think that smoking is like that. Smoking might be pleasant for our current selves, but it puts our future selves in serious jeopardy of cancer. The pain of lung cancer and emphysema outweigh the pleasures of smoking. So it is irrational for our current selves to take up smoking because of the high risk of this severe harm to our future selves.

Taking up smoking is irrational. But it might not be merely irrational. Some sorts of choices that our current selves can make seem to be more than merely irrational. These are choices that will harm or undermine the autonomy of our future selves by jeopardising our future selves' capacity to reason, deliberate, choose and act on her choices. Let us call any such choices autonomy undermining.

Suppose I really like hitting myself in the head with a hammer and as a result, my current self (and some future selves) each hit themselves on the head once each morning. After a certain period of time there will be a cumulative effect of these blows to the head. Let us suppose that there are three different kinds of effects that such damage can cause (and here this is pure supposition, I am not suggesting that in fact repeated hammer blows have any of these particular effects, though I feel confident they have some deleterious effects on the functioning of the brain). The first kind of effect is where my future self finds herself unable to properly reason. In such a case we are supposing that my future self has largely the same desires and beliefs as my current self, what she lacks is a capacity to reason about how to satisfy the desires she has given the beliefs she has.

This sort of reasoning is something we do all the time. I want ice cream, I know that the ice cream store is up the road, so I reason that I should take my wallet and walk up the road to get ice cream. This sort of means-ends reasoning (reasoning about what means to use, to get the ends one wants) is crucial to us being able to bring about the things we want. Without it we cannot act to get the small things in life, like ice cream up the road, and we certainly cannot engage in long term planning about our futures. This very basic form of reasoning is crucial to a capacity to make choices and act on those choices. Without such a capacity one's autonomy is undermined, and one is no longer a fully functioning reasoning agent who can make choices and act on those choices based on what she wants and believes.

Or consider another way my blows to the head could undermine the autonomy of my future self. Such blows could cause my future self to fail to be appropriately motivated by the means-ends reasoning in which she engages. My future self will have certain desires and beliefs-like the desire for ice cream and the belief that the ice cream store is up the road-and she will be able to reason that given all that, she should walk up the road to the ice cream store. But that reasoning alone will not get her ice cream unless she can motivate herself to walk up the road. My future self might start off with no desire to walk up the road. In the usual course of events she would come to be motivated to walk up the road by noting that this is the way to get ice cream, and noting that she wants ice cream. This then motivates her to walk up the road. But suppose the hammer blows have caused my future self to be unable to attach motivation to the means of getting what she wants. Then even though she is motivated to eat ice cream, she is not thereby motivated to walk up the road.

This failure of motivation can seriously affect the agency of my future self. She will not get her ice cream. In general, the damage inflicted on my future self will prevent her from acting in such a way as to bring about what she desires. Just as in the previous case, autonomy is undermined, but is undermined for a different reason: not a failure of reasoning, but a failure of motivation.

There is a third way in which autonomy can be compromised. Suppose my future self has a set of beliefs and desires, and that she is able to reason about how to get her desires fulfilled, and she is able to motivate herself toward acting on the means necessary to fulfil her desires. So far she is a model of rationality and autonomy. But suppose that the hammer blows have caused her to have radically different and foreign desires (and perhaps beliefs). Suppose my future self comes to desire, above all else, strawberry jelly babies. Then she will find herself able to reason about how best to get such jelly babies, and she will be motivated to act in a way that will get those jelly babies. Yet if her sole care is strawberry jelly babies, we can expect to find my future self acting in what my current self would consider very peculiar ways. My future self might be motivated to rob a bank, push over a little old lady and steal her wallet or other such egregious acts, in order to get funds to purchase jelly babies. My future self reasons perfectly adequately, and her motivational states are perfectly fine, but what she is motivated towards is rather peculiar. In fact, I might not recognise her as being me in the future at all, given that all she cares about is jelly babies.

It is these sorts of autonomy undermining features of some choices that some argue are so deleterious to agency, that no one ought to be permitted to make such choices. One purported example of such a choice is the use of drugs of addiction. Persons ought not be allowed to choose to take such drugs, the thought goes, because they will undermine the autonomy of their future selves, and that is not permissible.

Drugs of addiction do not usually cause people to be unable to reason. But they are certainly thought by many to cause problems in the way in which people are motivated. A person, the thought goes, initially desires the drug, reasons about how to get the drug, and thus takes the drug. But after a while the person no longer desires the drug at all, yet because of certain physiological responses of addiction they crave the drug. They are therefore highly motivated to purchase more of the drug, even while at the same time not desiring to take the drug, and indeed, desiring to cease taking the drug. Thus their motivation is no longer in the service of what the addict really wants, but has been hijacked by a craving that the addict cannot control. Thus while she is capable of reasoning about means and ends, she cannot bring her motivations in line with the ends that she desires, and thus she frequently fails to give up the drug despite wanting to. Since addicts often express this as feeling a lack of control, it is not surprising that addiction is often thought of as autonomy undermining: the agent is no longer capable of motivating herself in a way that will bring about the ends she desires.

Another way that drug addiction could be autonomy undermining is by radically changing the agent's preferences. While previously a person might have desires for many things in life - music, good food, theatre, a job, charity, and so forth, there is a popular conception, at least, that those addicted to drugs desire those drugs to the detriment of all else. The thought is that the addictive force of a drug can be so strong as to almost eliminate the other desires that the addict once had, and, moreover, that such addiction renders the addict inclined to use almost any means necessary to get access to the drug.

Thus, not only is the addict extremely motivated towards the drug, but the value she places in purchasing the drug is so high, that a range of means that she would not usually employ become acceptable means. Thus it is a commonplace in popular culture to portray addicts as being perfectly prepared to steal from their nearest and dearest to service their addiction. The families of addicts are also often portrayed as claiming that these actions are indicative of the fact that the addict is "not herself" - that she has radically different desires and motivational states than the she did prior to becoming addicted to the drug.

Whether this is an accurate characterisation of drug addiction, and whether even if it is, this means that we ought to prevent person's current selves from taking drug of addiction are important questions that I will not consider here. The first ought to be answered by psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience, and the latter by political philosophy, ethics, and philosophy of law. This conception of drug addiction, however, whether true or not, raises other interesting questions. For instance, if this were an accurate characterisation of drug addiction, and in virtue of that we held that no person ought to be able to freely bring it about that their future selves become addicted to drugs, what makes the choice to start taking such drugs so different from other free choices that our current selves make that have effects on our future selves? Lots of choices you and I make now, have effects on the ways in which we are motivated in the future, and lots of choices we make now can change what we value in the future. If those sorts of choices are therefore autonomy undermining and ought not be permitted, what other sorts of choices are we ruling out? And if such choices are to be permitted, what is so special about drugs of addiction that they should be singled out for special treatment?

These are questions that I consider in the next instalment of "on free choice and our future selves".


With thanks to Jessica Birkett (MA candidate, the University of Sydney) whose work on drug policy in Australia prompted me to think about these issues.