Archive for the ‘self interest’ Category

The Illusion of Survival

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

TheIllusion of Survival (small)When people ask what the Phantom Self is about and I have to come up with an elevator speech of a minute or less, I’ve started saying something along the lines of, “There is no fundamental difference between your relationship to your future self and your relationships to other people.” This sometimes strikes a chord, making people want to hear more. It’s better than leading with teleportation, although teleportation is not bad at parties, where people take it as an invitation to play; they light up and start recalling the Hollywood fantasies they enjoyed in their misspent youth, the more outrageous the better. It’s way better than starting off with the idea that we are informational entities, to which people respond as though they’d stepped in something squishy.

There’s no doubt that this material is hard to understand, still harder to explain. It doesn’t help that it’s spread over 60-odd posts written over three and a half years. I can’t distill it all into a one-minute elevator speech. But if I had to pick one key finding—the most important—it would be that personal survival is an illusion. And although support for this claim—which is puzzling and incomprehensible if you come across it cold—is scattered throughout 400 pages or so, no single post addresses this point directly.

So here goes. (more…)

The Dark Doctrine of the Political Right

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Is a viral meme thwarting social progress?

To me Goldstine said, “Kid, don’t listen to him. You live in America. It’s the greatest country in the world and it’s the greatest system in the world. …. He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. …. We know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can  it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.” —Philip Roth, from I Married a Communist

In 2011, the political dialogue became about rampant inequality, framed by the Occupy movement as a struggle between the 99% and the 1%.

If only it were that simple. Even in an imperfect democracy, a genuine class struggle between 1% and 99% should be a foregone conclusion. Yet the status quo persists, because large numbers of the 99% don’t see anything wrong with it. Those who do are frustrated to watch, in election after election, too many people voting against their own economic interests.

Part of the reason may be the Steinbeck effect. As John Steinbeck observed about the difficulty of organizing for change in the Dirty Thirties, “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” [Steinbeck, 1966] This attitude was evident in a letter to the editor beginning, “I do not deride the 1 per cent; I am motivated to join their ranks.” [Globe and Mail, 2011]

But wishful thinking is not the whole story. Plenty of lifetime members of the 99% have no aspiration to join the more exclusive club. They include most of the middle class who voice no objection to their now-endangered status. There is a deeper problem: they have swallowed an idea.

I call this idea “the dark doctrine of the political right.” It is “dark” in two senses: as in “the dark side,” obviously, but also as in “dark matter.” Dark matter neither glows nor reflects light, and is therefore invisible. From its gravitational effects, it is believed to constitute 83% of the matter in the universe. Some ideas are like that too: invisible, because assumed without any conscious weighing of evidence, yet exerting a gravitational pull on behaviour.

The Dark Doctrine is the idea that all human motivation is fundamentally selfish—that we act out of self-interest and nothing else. Although some people may appear to value moral principles, or to be moved by sympathy for others, they only do so because ‘it makes them feel good.’ At bottom, we’re all driven by the desire to feel good. Selfishness drives all. (more…)

Parfit’s Retreat: “We Are Not Human Beings”

Friday, March 30th, 2012

In a new paper, “We Are Not Human Beings,” Derek Parfit argues that persons are identically their conscious, thinking parts, which he identifies as their cerebrums.  This is a significant departure from the position he defended in Reasons and Persons, that personal identity consists in non-branching psychological continuity and connectedness with any cause:

Our identity over time just involves (a) Relation R—psychological connectedness and/or psychological continuity, either with the normal cause or with any cause, provided (b) that there is no different person who is R-related to us as we once were. [Parfit, 1984, p 216]

I call Parfit’s new view a “retreat” because it is a move away from the radical insights about what we are which illuminated Reasons and Persons, to a ‘conservative’ account of persons as physical substances. I find the move puzzling, because I can’t see that Parfit is compelled to make it, and disappointing, because it raises once again the fog of mysteries about persons that looked well on their way to being dispelled.

Parfit’s claim that persons are their cerebrums has as a direct consequence that persons cannot survive information-based teleportation. If  I plan to be teleported to Mars, I should accept that my replica on Mars will not be me, because my replica’s cerebrum is numerically different from my cerebrum. The cerebrum is a body part, which, like any other ordinary material object, ceases to exist when it is destroyed. Its replica on Mars is a different cerebrum—hence, if Parfit is right, a different person.

Parfit has long thought that survival—a person’s continued existence—is different from what matters in survival. His new view on what persons are could perhaps coexist with his earlier position that information-based teleportation preserves everything that matters in survival. But such coexistence, I will argue, is an uneasy truce between fundamentally warring ideas. An alternative account of what persons are—informational entities—is a better fit to Parfit’s intuition (which I endorse) that nothing important need be lost in teleportation of persons.

“Why We Are Not Human Beings” is Parfit’s response to animalism—the view put forward by Eric Olson and others that persons are identical to animals, or biological organisms. (In the animalist literature, “human being” is used as a synonym for “human animal.”) In this review of Parfit’s paper, I raise the following points:

  1. The arguments Parfit brings to bear against animalism rely on an intuition that has equal force against the paper’s conclusion that persons are their cerebrums.
  2. The claim that persons are their brains was strongly rejected in Reasons and Persons for reasons that supported a central argument of that book. If we were identical to our cerebrums, Parfit’s main argument against the Self-Interest Theory would be undercut in the same way that it would be if we were identical to our (whole) brains.
  3. The claim that we are our cerebrums weakens Parfit’s argument in Reasons and Persons that “ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and having a Replica.” If I am my cerebrum, it is hard to believe that destruction of my cerebrum is not especially bad for me, even if a replica of my cerebrum is manufactured in its stead. (more…)

The Unity of Persons

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

A joke that comes down to us from Epicharmas of Kos, a 5th century BC comic playwright, is made topical by Greece’s debt crisis:

Months after lending Yiannis five euros, Giorgos catches Yiannis’ sleeve in the agora and asks for his money back. “Ah,” says Yiannis, and stoops to gather a handful of pebbles. He arranges them in a pile. “See this pile of pebbles?” Giorgos nods. “If I add two more,” Yiannis continues, demonstrating this, “is it the same pile?”

“Of course not,” says Giorgos.

“And if I take a pebble away, is it the same pile, or different?”

“Different,” says Giorgos. “So what?”

“Ah. A man is made of small things, is he not?”

“Yes,” Giorgos agrees (being a thoroughgoing physicalist).

“Well, then!” says Yiannis with a Hellenic shrug. “Many days have passed, during which the man to whom you lent those five euros consumed many small things, and excreted others, and, therefore, no longer exists. I’m not responsible for his debts.”

“I get it,” says Giorgos, and punches Yiannis in the face.

Rubbing his bruised cheek, Yiannis complains,“Why did you do that?”

“Me?” says Giorgos. “That wasn’t me.”

The joke works because we know the criterion of personal identity to which both characters appeal is bogus. A person’s identity is not like that of a collection of pebbles. Being responsible for promises and past actions is part of being the same person over time, despite gains and losses of matter, and other changes. But if we, like Yiannis and Giorgos, deny that being the same person consists in the abiding presence of some sort of immaterial substance, it is incumbent on us to give some account of the sameness of persons over time. What is the unifying principle of personhood which makes it true that, for example, Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States is the same person as the Barack Obama who was born at the Kapi’olani Maternity Hospital in Honolulu on Aug. 4th, 1961, and the Barack Obama who directed the Developing Communities Project in Chicago’s South Side in 1986—and different from everybody else? (more…)

What Does Matter

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons began, “Many of us want to know what we have most reason to do.” He aimed to establish a foundation for ethics, a project which required addressing the conflicts between morality and self-interest. In asking what the claims of self-interest really are, Parfit came to grips with the question of whether or not there is a rational basis for the special concern that persons feel for themselves. Although Reasons and Persons did not answer that question, Parfit tried to show that the Self-Interest Theory—which claims that each person has the “supremely rational ultimate aim: that his life go, for him, as well as possible”—is false.

Parfit went on to write On What Matters, following an honoured tradition of searching for a kind of Unified Field Theory of ethics—one law, from the correct application of which all moral precepts can be derived. Reasons and Persons famously argued that personal identity is not what matters in survival; and it is surely not coincidental that the phrase “what matters” recurred in the title of Parfit’s new book.  Normative ethics consists of giving reasons for action; and reasons for action matter. Because the survival of persons is very important, what matters in survival can be presumed to be a significant part of what matters.

On What Matters says little about personal identity. Parfit’s primary interest is in discovering reasons for action—a rational basis for decision-making. My primary interest is in gaining a better understanding of human nature—of what we are. Parfit’s work is driven by prescriptive aims, mine by descriptive ones. Parfit and I would probably agree that reasons for action are rooted in values. But where he asks what has value, I ask what people actually value, and—a more interesting question—why they value what they do. (more…)

Anticipation and the Extreme Claim

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

The Apparent Rationality of Prudential Concern

Consider the following apparently straightforward inference:

I do not expect to die soon. Therefore I expect to be alive in the future. I expect I will have experiences in the future. I anticipate having experiences in the future. Because experiences can be pleasant or unpleasant, I have reason to care about the quality of those experiences.

Notice the flow of argument: from a straightforward prediction of fact—that my death is not imminent—and the seemingly innocuous observations that persons persist through time, that persons have experiences, and that experiences vary in quality, to the conclusion that I have a reason to care about the quality of my future experiences. The steps in the argument seem innocent and deeply familiar. These ideas are so closely linked as to seem inseparable.

I suggest they seem inseparable because the core concept of a person is that of a subject of experience that persists through time. Because experiences can be pleasant or unpleasant, we think a subject has reason to care about their quality in the future.

By “subject of experience” I just mean whatever has experiences. I am not claiming that the concept of a person is that of a Cartesian ego, or a spiritual substance, or a biological organism, or its brain, or any sort of psychological entity. I claim only that the concept of a person is of something that has experiences. This claim is uncontroversial.

The above argument illustrates how a motivational idea—having a reason to care about something—can be embedded in what appears to be a straightforward factual description. (more…)

Open Individualism – Being Everyone

Friday, October 14th, 2011

The term “Open Individualism” has a positive ring. If Daniel Kolak hadn’t adopted it, I might have used the word “open” for my own theory of what persons are. I haven’t yet hit upon a term ending in “ism” to represent the idea that persons are informational entities, or (to say the same thing differently) bundles of attributes, as opposed to substances. Like rivers whose constitutive substance (water) is always changing, persons constantly gain and lose attributes. And attributes are easily shared, readily copied from one individual to another. When you learn something from another person, you absorb part of himself. He is a collection of attributes, just as a book (the intellectual work, not the bound volume made of paper) is a sequence of sentences. To learn from another person is like incorporating a quotation from someone else’s book into one’s own composition. In learning from him, we take on part of what he is. The fact that attributes (or information, if you prefer) flow so freely between persons, makes the word “open” appropriate. We are open vessels, not closed ones. (more…)

Jihad of the Heart – episode 4

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

This is the final episode of the story.  If you haven’t read episode 1, start here.

Javeed’s lawyer confronts him at the break.  “You didn’t shave this morning!”  Javeed doesn’t bother to answer.  He didn’t shave yesterday either.

David brings his face down close, nose to nose, so that Javeed smells the lawyer’s sandwich.  “To win this we each have a job to do,” David tells him.  “My job is to argue your case.  Your job—no less critical—is to present yourself as the guy you were before you were arrested.  A professional engineer, a proud Canadian, a young husband looking to build a life for yourself and your wife.  You can’t afford to let this stuff get you down!  Now, I’m going to hoof it to the hotel and beg a free razor; you can shave in the washroom.  Another thing—you fell asleep in court yesterday.  If you won’t eat, at least have an energy drink!”  He hands Javeed a bottle of bright repulsive liquid. (more…)

Jihad of the Heart – episode 3

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

This is episode 3 of a story about life insurance and the law.  If you haven’t read episode 1, start here.

Javeed’s journal: Apr. 1st, 2089.   Federal Corrections Facility Abbotsford.  This morning I was outside with nothing between me and the open sky—the almost-infinite blue across which puffy clouds blew freely from the wire-topped fence on the west side of the yard to the same fence on the east.  Birds fly over the fence, in and out.  The robots on the corner towers pay no attention to them.  We men, who know we are being watched, do not go near the fence.

I got a call from the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, some kind of liberal-minded NGO.  The guy said I shouldn’t give up hope.  I said nothing—but kept listening.  In the CCLU’s opinion my trial was a travesty.  I was incompetently represented.  Instead of hanging up, which I should have done, I said, “Tell me something I don’t know.” That only encouraged him.   He said there are grounds for an appeal.  I told him I’m already in debt, expecting him to back off, but he did not.  He said money was no concern—an important principle of law is at stake, and the CCLU is ready to fight for it.   I’d be represented by a team of top lawyers, CCLU members passionately committed to overthrow the terrible precedent set by my case.  Moreover, I’d qualify for legal aid!  There are several grounds for appeal, including egregious lapses of duty of my former counsel (may he eat flies!), all the way to potential conflicts with the Charter of Rights.  Would I launch an appeal?

“At no cost to me?” I repeated, to be crystal clear.

“No cost whatever.”

It being April Fool’s Day, and being a fool myself, obviously, I agreed to meet their lawyer, Mr. David Ogilvie.

As I just now read in the Qur’an, “Fighting  is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it.”  So I fight. (more…)

Jihad of the Heart – episode 2

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

This is episode 2 of a story about life insurance and the law.  If you haven’t read episode 1, start here.

Javeed’s first day in court lasts all of ten minutes.  The crown prosecutor—Vinod Dasgupta, JD—requests a three-week delay, to March 14.  Justice Mackenzie grants the request.  Javeed is disgusted that Darren doesn’t object.  “Javeed, bud, there’s a simple thing called playing by the rules.”


Rex vs. Amiri. On the morning of March 14, Javeed finds himself at Darren’s elbow listening to the theory of his life according to Mr. Dasgupta.  The Crown will show that although Javeed purchased life insurance for himself as soon as he was married, he did not suggest a policy for his wife.  That the marriage began to deteriorate in the fall of 2086, when the couple came under financial pressure as interest rates rose sharply after they bought their condo.  That an expected year-end bonus from Javeed’s employer failed to materialize, and so did a hoped-for promotion.  That Javeed was chronically over-optimistic about his prospects, and clueless about the financial health of his employer.  That, unlike Javeed, Laila made an astute career move, landing a better-paid and more responsible job in the emergency ward where she worked.  That Javeed urged her not to take the promotion; in fact, implored her to cut her working hours, even leave the workforce entirely, despite the couple’s obvious inability to meet their obligations on his salary alone.  That Naser, the couple’s friend, who worked as a paramedic at the same hospital, helped Laila make her move, and tried his best to help Javeed see that it was in their interests.  Tried in vain.

The Crown will also show that Javeed neglected to go in for a refresher scan on his policy’s anniversary date, although he continued to pay the premium, thereby ensuring his old backup would remain on file.  That there was no plausible motive for this failure to update, other than Javeed’s belief, confirmed in his journal, that it would allow him to evade responsibility for his actions. (more…)