[blog cross-post] The remembering self needs to get real about the experiencing self.

Link post

Origi­nally pub­lished on my blog on 4-18-17.

The re­mem­ber­ing self needs to get real about the ex­pe­rienc­ing self. Mo­men­tary plea­sures are not bad– what’s bad is not get­ting more of them. It seems to me like be­hav­ioral eco­nomics takes the re­mem­ber­ing self at its word too of­ten, es­pe­cially the re­mem­ber­ing self near death. Very of­ten that view of one’s past and fu­ture is as­pira­tional and warped. Do you re­ally wish you spent less time on face­book? Or is it more that you wish you could think of your­self as the kind of per­son who spent less time on face­book? Or is it the wis­dom to know that you would have been hap­pier spend­ing less time on face­book even though that’s not what you wanted? There are good rea­sons for spend­ing less time on face­book, but the re­mem­ber­ing self doesn’t have good rea­sons solely by virtue of be­ing out of the mo­ment. The re­mem­ber­ing self ex­ists in its own mo­ment, an ex­pe­rienc­ing self that is ex­pe­rienc­ing mem­o­ries, with its own good and bad in­cen­tives. It’s all too easy for the re­mem­ber­ing self to want its own junk food– get­ting the benefits of feel­ing vir­tu­ous or ac­com­plished– when it doesn’t have to do the work.

De­lay­ing grat­ifi­ca­tion is not always the right choice, all selves con­sid­ered. (Though it’s safer to err in that di­rec­tion, given that we tend to be drawn to what­ever is most salient or en­tic­ing in the pre­sent.) From the safety of the rel­a­tive fu­ture, the re­mem­ber­ing self can judge the de­ci­sions of the ex­pe­rienc­ing self with­out re­ally weigh­ing pre­sent grat­ifi­ca­tion against fu­ture grat­ifi­ca­tion. Is the policy that the re­mem­ber­ing self ad­vo­cates re­ally the best from the per­spec­tive of past mo­ments?Fur­ther fu­ture mo­ments? Some ac­com­plish­ments are not worth the effort or sac­ri­fice. (Again, we can ex­pect “quit­ter talk” to tend to be a jus­tifi­ca­tion for aban­don­ing worth­while efforts, but that doesn’t make it au­to­mat­i­cally false.)

A per­son on their deathbed may wish they had lived a life they could be proud of now, but that’s just a wish to feel plea­sure now, of­ten at the ex­pense of ear­lier selves. When peo­ple ex­press re­gret, it’s just an­other ex­pe­rienc­ing self that wants satis­fac­tion in the mo­ment, but blames its dis­satis­fac­tion on past selves. If it’s right for the re­mem­ber­ing self to want the plea­sure/​satis­fac­tion of ex­pe­rienc­ing selves hav­ing made differ­ent choices in the past, then it’s right for the ex­pe­rienc­ing self to have wanted similarly “cheap” plea­sure in a mo­ment past.

The only way you can ar­bi­trate be­tween the de­sires of the ex­pe­rienc­ing and re­mem­ber­ing self is to con­sider what course of ac­tion brings the great­est over­all hap­piness across all mo­ments (both per­cep­tions and re­flec­tions on past per­cep­tions and thoughts).

I’ve moved to­ward this un­der­stand­ing in tan­dem with ap­pre­ci­at­ing the hap­piness and suffer­ing of oth­ers, not as if it was my own, but as if it mat­tered as much as my own. Fu­ture me is not me. Nei­ther is the me who wrote that sen­tence a few sec­onds ago. That self is con­signed to mem­ory. What mat­ters is not that you ex­pe­rience the same thing as an­other self, or that from this mo­ment you an­ti­ci­pate ex­pe­rienc­ing the same thing in the fu­ture, or that know­ing about other selves’ suffer­ing makes you un­com­fortable, though these are all im­por­tant ways in which we mo­ti­vate our­selves to take ac­tion. What mat­ters is that that hap­piness or suffer­ing will be ex­pe­rienced. Your self is priv­ileged, just like the pre­sent, be­cause that’s where you hap­pen to be. Nei­ther your ex­pe­rienc­ing nor re­mem­ber­ing self is past you. Past you is closed to you in much the same way as other peo­ple are. You could in­ter­pret this as a rea­son to feel dis­tant from your past and fu­ture, but I think it’s more ac­cu­rate to in­ter­pret it as a rea­son to feel closer to oth­ers by re­al­iz­ing how cir­cum­scribed any one ex­pe­rience is. Just like it’s not always right to sac­ri­fice your hap­piness for oth­ers, and this policy would be dis­as­trous if no one ever ended up benefit­ting from the sac­ri­fice, it’s not always right to de­lay grat­ifi­ci­a­tion for the plea­sure of a fu­ture self.