Temporal Asymmetry and the Self/Person Split
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As philosophers have noted since Lucretius, humans are temporally asymmetric in the way they value goods. Not only are we generally biased towards near pleasures and pains at the expense of distant ones, but it also appears to be a deep fact about us that we tend to discount past pleasures relative to future ones, and are more worried by future pains than those that are already behind us. Such asymmetrical attitudes are only a problem, of course, if there are in fact no relevant differences between the past and future that might justify them – and the attempt to find such justifying differences hasn’t been entirely successful. Moreover, as Derek Parfit memorably demonstrated, this bias towards the future can lead us to form preferences that, counterintuitively, entail a lower overall welfare for a given life.1 We find ourselves caught between two apparently contradictory imperatives: a bias towards the future, and a concern for the overall quality of our lives.
There have been various...