The totalitarian “I”

Licensing changes to our future selves

Posted Jan 09, 2011

In the previous posts "on free choice and our future selves parts I and II" we considered the question of whether we could ever have reason to prevent our current selves from engaging in certain actions, namely the sorts of actions that we might expect to undermine the autonomy of our future selves. Whether there are such actions, and if so which sorts of actions those might be, was left unclear.

Any number of actions our current selves might choose will have myriad effects on our future selves. Many of those choices change the values held by our future selves, and some change the way in which our future selves reason and make decisions.  Yet not all of the choices that our current selves might make that have such radical effects on our future selves seem to be the sorts of choices that we ought to be concerned about. But some of those choices do seem to be the kinds of choices that will radically undermine the autonomy of our future selves and thus the sorts of choices that no current self ought, rationally, to make. But how to determine which sort of decisions fall into which camp?

The person to ask, I suggest, is our current self. By this I don't mean that we should ask our current self whether some particular action is going to undermine the autonomy of our future self. If we knew the answer to that, there would be little point in asking the question since in general, well functioning current selves are unlikely to freely choose actions that they believe will undermine the autonomy of their future selves. Instead, what I mean is that the sorts of beliefs, desires and values that our current selves have, ought to be the features of the world that determine whether a particular action is one that will undermine the autonomy of that current self's future self. That is why I call the current self the totalitarian I, because as we'll see, the current "I" dictates which actions are the kinds of action that undermine the autonomy of the future self, and which are not.

In what respect do the beliefs and values of the current self determine which of its actions are deleterious with respect to its future self? I suggest that the current beliefs and values play this role because they determine whether the future self that would likely result from a decision of the current self, is the kind of future self that the current self endorses. What does it mean for the current self to endorse a particular future self? Well it does not mean that the current self shares the same beliefs, values, or reasoning capacities as the future self in question.

Consider. Having children can quite radically change the beliefs, priorities and character of the persons who make that choice. So the actions of the current self - deciding to have children and then acting to bring that decision about - has serious consequences for the future self. It changes the values of the future self, and it constrains the choices of that future self. But no doubt you are disinclined to say that that choice undermines the autonomy of the future self despite these quite radical changes. Why is that?

Well suppose one were to tell the current self, the self who is in the process of making the decision to have children, all about the future self just described. The current self would likely report that the values of the future self are not her values, and that the choices that future self makes are not the choices the current self would make. That is what makes it true that the having of children changes the future self in various ways. Now let us suppose that we ask the current self whether she takes the choice, values and beliefs of that future self to be acceptable or desirable choices, values and beliefs. And let us say that if she does find those choices and values acceptable or desirable, then she endorses them. To say that she endorses them is really just to say that she finds them morally permissible. Since there are any number of beliefs, values and choices that are different but equally morally permissible, it is perfectly sensible for someone to recognise that some other self has different values and beliefs than one's current self, while at the same time endorsing those values and beliefs (without also ceasing to endorse one's current values and beliefs).

Now let us add something into the mix.  Let us say that a current self licenses a set of beliefs and values (and reasoning capacities) if she not only endorses them, but in addition, she endorses them as potentially her own. That is, she would be happy to attribute those beliefs and values to her self. How is licensing a set of values and beliefs different from endorsing them? Suppose I am a ruthless business man, and I consider that it is core to me being the person that I am, that I am such a ruthless business man. I might endorse the values and beliefs of mother Theresa, insofar as I might think that they are permissible values and beliefs. But I might not license such values and beliefs in any future self of mind, since I might well think that were I to come to have such beliefs and values I would not, in some very robust sense, any longer be me. That would be such a change in my character that I would cease to exist, and replacing me would be someone with the character of mother Theresa. Thus I would not license any such change to my future self.

So here is the first part of my proposal. Those choices that a current self can make that are likely to lead to the sorts of changes in values, beliefs and reasoning capacity in the future self that the current self does not license, are choices that it is not rationally permissible for the current self to make. Only those actions that will create a future self that the current self licenses, are the sorts of actions that it is permissible for the current self to undertake.

Insofar as it is the current self or 'I' whose values determine what future selves it licenses, the "I" is, as it were, the sole determiner of which sorts of actions it is rational for it to choose. It is in this sense that the "I" is totalitarian.

Does that mean that any action that a current self can take that would result in a future self having features that the current self does not license, are actions that necessarily undermine of the autonomy of that future self? I do not think so. Signing on to work at a big corporation might have the long-term effect of radically changing my values, and it might change my values in a way that my current self does not license. If my current self knows that this will be the outcome of working at said corporation, then it would be irrational for my current self to make the choice to do so (unless every other choice open to that current self would equally result in a future self whose values and choices that self does not license). It reflects some sort of defect of reasoning, or weakness of will, or some other respect in which things have not gone as they should, for a current self to choose an action that it knows will lead to a future self that it does not license. Even so, it does not follow from that, that the decision in question undermines the autonomy of the future self. Having become a part of the big corporation, my future self might prioritise the making of money over other values, and act so at to maximise that goal at the expense of any others. That is not behaviour that my current self values, but that does not make the choices of my future self in any way lacking in autonomy.

So only some choices are not only irrational, because they would result in unlicensed changes to one's future self, but in addition also undermine the autonomy of one's future self. What additional features make a choice not only irrational but autonomy undermining? The sorts of features that suggest themselves centre around the causes of the changes to the future self. Suppose that your current self smokes and loves smoking, but recognises that this is not a good habit to have. The current self might engage in various processes to try and bring it about that the future self does not smoke and does not desire to smoke. Since the current self licenses such a change, this looks like the sort of choice that is a perfectly rational for the current self to make.

Now suppose that one of the ways the current self can bring it about that the future self does not desire to smoke is by signing up for a course of brainwashing from an antismoking cult. This cult will not try to persuade your current self that smoking is a bad thing; they will not try to offer you techniques to rid yourself of the craving for cigarettes; they will not ply you with nicotine patches. Instead, they will use straightforward brainwashing techniques to change certain features of your psychology so that your future self does not desire to smoke, and indeed, so that your future self will find it impossible to choose to smoke.

This brainwashing will constrain the choices of your future self in various ways. But that does not make the brainwashing so very different from lots of other activities that your current self can engage in. So what, if anything, would be wrong with the current self signing up for a spot of brainwashing given that the current self licenses the result of that process? The obvious answer is that what is wrong with this choice is not the resultant change to the future self, but rather, is the method by which this change is brought about.  The current self might license the change to the future self, but it is unclear that the future self will license the method by which this change is wrought.

There are lots of ways in which our values or our reasoning processes can come to change: therapy, age, discussion, brainwashing, argument, travel, education, brain injury, and so on. Only some of these are the sorts of causal mechanism that most of us think are the appropriate kind of mechanism.  Most of us think that if we come to change our view or our values as a result of argument and discussion and learning new facts, then the causal mechanism that brings about such a change is entirely appropriate. Most of us are also liable to say that if our values or reasoning capacities are altered by some dire injury to the brain, or by brain washing, or by an electrode implanted in our skull by a mad scientist, then these are not the right sorts of causal mechanisms and the changes they bring are not, in some good sense, or our own changes.

Exactly what makes something the right sort of causal mechanism is unclear. Our intuitions about which sorts of mechanisms count no doubt owe their origin to a sense that some mechanisms are more likely to give us good results - that is, they are more likely to result in future selves that are well informed and that make good decisions, than are other mechanisms. Reasoning , thinking and learning are generally good ways to get one's future self to have true beliefs, and to make good decisions. Brainwashing and brain injury are not usually considered to be good methods of getting such an outcome. Those mechanisms that are not the "right" kind of causal mechanism for changing our future selves are the sorts of mechanism that we are likely to think undermines the autonomy of any future self that is the result of change through such a mechanism.

So there are two important components in thinking about what sorts of decisions current selves ought to be careful about making. The first of these are decisions that would, after reflection, bring about a future self with features that the current self does not license. The second is that the means by which this change is brought about must be of a particular kind. What kind is that? Well here again, we ought look to the totalitarian 'I'. Which mechanisms are the right kind depends on which mechanisms the current self licenses as being of the right kind. If, as is likely, the current self does not license brainwashing as the kind of mechanism that is appropriate for changing the self, then that mechanism is one that undermines the autonomy of the future self and it would be irrational for the current self to agree to be brainwashed.

Ultimately then, it is not just that our current self is causally responsible for our future self by making choices and decisions that determine the nature of that future self. More than that, which decisions it is rational for the current self to make in determining the nature of the future self, depend on the very values and beliefs of that current self. That is good news, since those are the values and beliefs that each of our current selves are most able to access when making decisions.