Type Book
Date 1984
Pages 543
Tags nonfiction, philosophy

Reasons and Persons

Part One: Self-Defeating Theories

Chapter 1: Theories that are Indirectly Self-Defeating

§1: The Self-interest Theory

I shall first discuss the Self-interest Theory, or S. This is a theory about rationality. S gives to each person this aim: the outcomes that would be best for himself, and that would make his life go, for him, as well as possible.

There are three 'plausible' theories, or types of theory, that tell one what is best: the Hedonistic Theory tells me that the greatest (personal) happiness is best; the Desire-Fulfilment Theory (or Success Theory) tells me to fulfil my desires, whatever they may be; and the Objective List Theory prescribes a list of good things to be sought, and bad things to be avoided.

Of note is that these theories assign weights independent of time, so events that happen later do not count for less just because they did happen later than other events.

Pafit distinguishes between ultimate and instrumental aims: the latter are only desired as a means of achieving the former.

§2: How S can be Indirectly Self-defeating

A theory is indirectly individually self-defeating if, when I attempt to achieve its aims, those aims are worse achieved.

A person who is purely self-interested, or never self-denying, never does what he believes will be worse for him.

Parfit gives the example of Kate, a writer, who works so hard on her books that she makes herself miserable. She would be happier if she worked less hard, but she would only work less hard if she cared less about the quality of her books, and in that case, she would find her work boring and be less happy overall.

Kate is a Hedonist, so she believes she should do what will make her happiest. However, aiming to be happier by changing her motivation so that she will work less hard would in fact make her less happy, i.e. it is better for her to be self-denying (accepting misery from overwork) than to be 'never self-denying' (aiming for happiness but ending up bored).

👎 I don't like this example. Parfit presents a false choice to Kate: she cannot actually be happier by working less, since she cannot achieve this with her present desire to write well, and she will not be happier if she changes her desire to be less strong. So, she is not, in my view, being self-denying by continuing to work very hard--she does not have the option of being happy while working less, even if, had she the option, she might do better to take it. One is not self-denying by failing to take an option that is not available.

Then, Parfit gives the following:

Suppose that I am driving at midnight through some desert. My car breaks down. You are a stranger, and the only other driver near. I manage to stop you, and I offer you a great reward if you rescue me. I cannot reward you now, but I promise to do so when we reach my home. Suppose next that I am transparent, unable to deceive others. I cannot lie convincingly. Either a blush, or my tone of voice, always gives me away. Suppose, finally, that I know myself to be never self-denying. If you drive me to my home, it would be worse for me if I gave you the promised reward. Since I know that I never do what will be worse for me, I know that I shall break my promise. Given my inability to lie convincingly, you know this too. You do not believe my promise, and therefore leave me stranded in the desert. This happens to me because I am never self-denying. It would have been better for me if I had been trustworthy, disposed to keep my promises even when doing so would be worse for me. You would then have rescued me.

This is much more convincing. It is the disposition of being never self-denying that is the source of the problem, and within the boundaries of the example, there's no way around it. Notice that the real, practical problem here is the inability to keep a commitment--being never self-denying means never keeping any promises that make one worse off, going forward. I know that I will change my mind later, and I can't convincingly lie, so I am worse off now.

Of course, that assumes that there is no cost to breaking a promise. If I made a promise in order to gain a benefit equal to B, and it would make me lose benefit in an amount greater than B to break that promise, then I could be trusted to keep the promise, and being never self-denying would not present a problem. Naturally, it'd be even better to gain the ability to lie convincingly--or to deceive myself!--if there were no further consequences.

In some sense, this operates as though my future breaking of the promise is retroactively causing me harm. Taken that way, being never self-denying does not prevent me from keeping a promise--but that's going a little far.

§3: Does S Tell Us to be Never Self-denying?

In short, no. If it'd be worse for me to be never self-denying, then I shouldn't be never self-denying.

§4: Why S does not Fail in Its Own Terms

S might tell you to change your beliefs, so as to believe in a theory other than S, or to change your disposition. And check back after sections 6-8 and 18.

§5: Could it be Rational to Cause Oneself to Act Irrationally?

Parfit gives the example of Schelling's Answer to Armed Robbery: a robber will torture me, and kill my children, in order to induce me to give him my gold. Even if I give him the gold, he'll probably kill us all, anyway. So, I take a drug which will cause me to be "very irrational" for a long enough time that the police will arrive. Now I am not susceptible to any threats (though, being irrational, I may cause harm to myself or my family), so the robber should simply leave to get the best chance of escaping the police.

Now Parfit says:

On any plausible theory about rationality, it would be rational for me, in this case, to cause myself to become for a period irrational. This answers the question that I asked above. S might tell us to cause ourselves to be disposed to act in ways that S claims to be irrational. This is no objection to S. As the case just given shows, an acceptable theory about rationality can tell us to cause ourselves to do what, in its own terms, is irrational. Consider next a general claim that is sometimes made:

(G1) If there is some motive that it would be both (a) rational for someone to cause himself to have, and (b) irrational for him to cause himself to lose, then (c) it cannot be irrational for this person to act upon this motive.

In the case just described, while this man is still in my house, it would be irrational for me to cause myself to cease to be irrational. During this period, I have a set of motives of which both (a) and (b) are true. But (c) is false. During this period, my acts are irrational. We should therefore reject (G1). We can claim instead that, since it was rational for me to cause myself to be like this, this is a case of rational irrationality.

👎 I'm not so sure about this hair-splitting about rational irrationality. I have two objections here.

First, I am not at all sure it's reasonable to analyze my behavior while under the influence of the drug as being rational or irrational.

What does the drug do? There are two reasonable interpretations of the drug causing me to become very irrational. One, it may cause me to do the opposite of what I should, rationally, do. This aligns somewhat with the described behavior, e.g. "I say to the man: 'Go ahead. I love my children. So please kill them.'", but it's not satisfying. A good degree of insight is ascribed to the robber, so he would simply use 'reverse psychology' and beat me that way, in this case.

An alternative interpretation seems better: the drug causes my actions to be totally disconnected from my objectives. Now I really am immune to persuasion. But is it sensible to consider my actions as irrational in that case? My state is caused by the drug, and I have no freedom to choose otherwise. As with Kate in §2, Parfit is claiming irrationality because I am not taking an alternative that does not exist. In fact, for the duration of the drug's effect, I am, effectively, making no choices whatsoever, at least with respect to S, and I am not capable of doing otherwise. This is my first objection.

Second, if we consider my actions while under the influence of the drug from the perspective of S as either working for or against my self-interest, then I do not agree with the characterization of the actions as irrational: they are, overall, acting for my self-interest. Parfit admits as much! It would be irrational for me to cause myself to lose this 'motive' precisely because it is working in my interest. It is, as Parfit says, a rational 'motive' to have. My actions, therefore, are only irrational by definition--but this is not convincing. It's not specific enough to reason about. This is my second objection.

What if the drug caused me to fall into an uninterruptable sleep for fifteen minutes, and might cause me to die. This drug is pretty well analogous to the one presented by Parfit, but it clearly isn't an example of irrationality--at worst, it is a cessation of rational action. The drugs are identical in terms of my voluntary decisions (which, in my view, are the only things properly described as rational or irrational): none are being made.

The robber presents too strong a constraint on my actions, and the drug exerts too great a control over them.

§6: How S Implies That We Cannot Avoid Acting Irrationally

A person can be rational, or at worst only very weakly irrational, even while acting irrationally, and that's okay.

§7: An Argument for Rejecting S when It Conflicts with Morality

S might tell us to acquire a belief that for example, one should be never self-denying, except when keeping promises. Acquiring this belief might be better for us, but does that mean that this belief is, in fact, rational?

§8: Why This Argument Fails

A threat-ignorer might suffer by ignoring a threat-fulfiller who, for some reason, makes a threat. Then it would be rational not to ignore that threat. So, just because S told us to believe that it is rational to be threat-ignorers, it does not necessarily follow that it is in fact rational to ignore threats.

§9: How S Might Be Self-Effacing

Name Role
Clarendon Press Publisher
Derek Parfit Author


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