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Deliberating for Our Far Future Selves

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The temporal period between the moment of deliberation and the execution of the intention varies widely—from opening an umbrella when one feels the first raindrops hit to planning and writing a book. I investigate the distinctive ability that adult human beings have to deliberate for their far future selves exhibited at the latter end of this temporal spectrum, which I term prospective deliberation. What grounds it when it is successful? And, why does it fail in some cases? I shall argue that an agent is warranted in deliberating for a future self when her reasons give her the right kind of cross-temporal authority. I argue that this authority is distinctive and cannot be accounted for by theories of agential authority that take desires, value judgments, or willings as the ground of authority in standard cases of deliberation. According to the theory I propose having the right kind of cross-temporal agential authority is not only a matter of having epistemic access to a future self’s reasons or being the same metaphysical person as a future self, it requires confidence that the agent’s reasons support undertaking such a normative commitment and that that future self will see the normative force of those reasons as the agent sees them. In other words, cross-temporal agential authority requires that the past self and the future self share a normative perspective. I show that this further condition only obtains if the agent sees her reasons in deliberation as having certain features.

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  1. I would like to make it clear that I am not offering a theory of reasons. According to the theory I propose the agent must see her reasons as having certain structural features in order to deliberate prospectively, this does not imply that: there are such reasons, the argument is consistent with skepticism about reasons; or, that if there are reasons, those reasons have the features cited, it might be that the reasons there are only justify making decisions for one’s current self.

  2. I use confidence here as an indicator of the agent’s underlying authority. However, it is the phenomenon of cross-temporal authority that I am interested in. As the theory emerges, it will become clear that there might be cases in which the underlying authority is present though the agent is unjustifiably hesitant, and cases in which the agent is unjustifiably confident though she lacks the right kind of authority. Thank you to David Velleman for asking me to clarify this point.

  3. David Velleman distinguishes issues of personal identity, specifying the conditions that make a person the same over time, from the relationship he terms as ‘selfhood’, the relationship I bear with a self I can think of first-personally. He argues that “whether I can regard a future person as self…doesn’t necessarily depend on whether he will be the same person as me; it depends instead on my access to his point of view” (2006: 173). Selfhood is closer to the phenomenon I have in mind, however, it is not sufficient to guarantee temporally extended agential authority. I can think of a past self first-personally without thereby taking that self’s decisions to have authority over me, as in the case of the child we are examining.

  4. Thanks to an anonymous referee for helping me clarify this point. There might be some exceptional cases in which adults think that their younger self really does understand the force of the relevant reasons and made the correct future-directed intention. Such cases of childhood decision making, which I take to be rare, would follow the standard model I lay out in this paper.

  5. David Velleman makes this point, see fn. 3.

  6. What I say here is true of for many views of personal identity but not all. It would not be true of views of personal identity that explicitly require that a person’s identity be constituted by aspects of cross-temporal agential authority. I am myself inclined to go down this path, but I cannot defend that view here.

  7. Thank you to an anonymous referee for raising this point.

  8. In this paper, I use perspective talk following the visual metaphor closely, but I do not develop a full-fledged account of what makes normative perspectives distinctively perspectival here. For a suggestion of how to think of normative perspectives as distinctively perspectival see (Street 2008).

  9. Thank you to an anonymous referee for suggesting this.

  10. Of course, questions of circularity loom here. A more precise formulation of such a theory would have to be careful in specifying the sameness condition for the particular capacities.

  11. I would like to thank an anonymous referee for helping me clarify this point.

  12. I remain agnostic about the further metaphysical claims one might make on the basis of the theory I develop here.

  13. For a criticism of Frankfurt based on the role of evaluation, see (Watson 1987; 1975)

  14. Frankfurt in later work has appealed to attitudes of caring and love and these bear a complicated and not altogether clear relationship to his earlier work, but since my target is a desire theory I will consider Frankfurt’s hierarchical account as one of the most promising contenders.

  15. For example, a desire theorist might appeal to rational desires (as in Michael Smith’s account) or give an independent notion of weight that is unrelated to the desire’s strength (as in Mark Schroeder’s account). However, both of those theories are not aiming to explain how things look to the agent while deliberating but rather to ground a more objective notion of reasons. However, if we were use those theories to attempt to explain prospective deliberation, they would be subject to this challenge I present for the value judgment theory, rather than the ones I raise for a desire theory. See (Schroeder 2007; Smith 1994) .

  16. Watson’s view has moved away from values understood in the way that Raz understands them to a notion of valuing that appears to carve a middle ground between values and desires. I will not be addressing it here, since we first need to get clear on how values, when these are sharply distinguished from desires, manage to fail to account for prospective deliberation. The view I endorse is a caring view that has some similarities to Watson’s notion of valuing, though important differences, but I cannot defend that view here.

  17. A referee points out that identity issues might creep back in at this point. However, by personal here I don’t mean to suggest the perspective of a person whose identity is stable over time, but rather the subjective and idiosyncratic perspective of an agent. It is conceivable that this personal perspective could change and the metaphysical person stay the same.

  18. A referee suggests that my argument appears similar in some respect to Jackson’s famous Mary argument for qualia, see (Jackson 1986) for the original argument. Jackson later changed his mind about what the Mary argument shows, see his “The knowledge argument, diaphanousness, representationalism” (2006). In so far as I’m arguing that the agent’s subjective perspective on her reasons is idiosyncratic and not readily available to others, there are similarities between my argument and the Mary argument. However, I am not arguing that this perspective is not, in principal, available to others with the same history, relationships, and experiences as our agent. That is, my argument here is compatible with the possibility that someone else could have the same subjective perspective on the agent’s reasons, though this is highly unlikely. (I say more about this in the last section.) What matters for my argument here is that the agent’s subjective perspective cannot be cached out by intersubjective value judgments about what all people have reason to do. Intersubjective value judgments, by their nature, are judgments about reasons that can be shared by people who have different experiences, relationships, and histories. Even if another agent shares our agent’s perspective on reasons that does not entail that there is some intersubjective value judgment about what all people have reason to do. A final important difference is that I do not think this argument shows anything, as it stands, about the irreducibility of mental states to physicalism.

  19. Frankfurt various writings on caring are suggestive but sketchy at best, see (Frankfurt 1999b).

  20. For the sake of this argument, I will be arguing as if the decision generated an additional reason, but according to some theories the decision generates additional normative force in light of its connection to certain rationality constraints. See (Bratman 2009; 2007; 1999b; 1999c; 1987).

  21. For a different formulation see his (2003a).

  22. An initial problem is that a self-governing policy invokes the concept of justification itself; it is a policy to treat a desire as a justifying end in practical reasoning. Bratman is aware of the problem, “A self-governing policy appeals in its contents to processes involving the thought of E as justifying. But what is it to think of E as justifying? Without an answer have we really made progress with the problem of subjective normative authority?” (2001: 323)

  23. See Bernard Williams, “If I could acquire a belief at will, I could acquire it whether it was true or not’ moreover, I would know I could acquire it whether it was true or not. If in full consciousness, I could will to acquire a ‘belief’ irrespective of its truth, it is unclear that before the event I could seriously think of it as a belief” (1973: 148).

  24. Faced with the metaethical issues, we might be tempted to go the non-cognitivist route. In reducing taking something as a reason to self-governing policies, we might require that the agent see her self-governing policies as subject to intersubjectivity constraints and thus not entirely optional. That is, we might try to make self-governing policies more like value judgments and less like intentions. By going down this route, however, the theory would end up suffering from the same problems that a value judgment theory suffered in giving an account of prospective deliberation. The closer we tie the policies to intersubjective considerations, the less personal they are. For an attempt at this non-cognitivist approach see (Gibbard 1990).

  25. Frankfurt writes that, “while what is antecedently important to the person may be alterable, it must not be subject to his own immediate voluntary control. If it is to provide him with a genuine basis for evaluation of importance, the fact that he cares about it cannot be dependent simply upon his decisions or choice. For suppose he were actually in a position to change the fact in that way—i.e. by the exercise of a mere act of will…On what reasonable basis, without arbitrariness, could he make the necessary choice? He would have to ask himself the following question: “Is it more important to me to keep my will fixed as it is, or is it more important to me to alter it?” But clearly he would be in no position to answer this question. For by the very act of raising the question, and asking what his will should be, he suspends the authority of any antecedent volitional state that could have provided the basis to answer it.” (1999d: 93-94).

  26. This line of argument raises questions for constructivist theories of practical reasons as well, which I will not be able to fully address here, though I will touch on that strategy in the next section.

  27. This view is a kind of moderate existentialism; once a policy is in place, it creates reasons for the agent to maintain it. In deliberating, the agent would thereby be limited to policies that are compatible with her existing policies. However, notice that any consistent set of self-governing policies is as good as any other at playing this role and the option of revising policies that are in place is always open to the agent. This view is subject to a kind of underdetermination worry. Whereas in the case of value judgments, the incommensurability of value and intersubjectivity constraints led to a gap between what the agents saw as valuable and her concerns in deliberation. In the case of the view we are considering, self-governing policies are not subject to this gap once they are in place. However, since any consistent set of policies is as suitable as any other in playing this role, we have no account as to how the agent chooses or ends up with one set of policies over another.

  28. Thank you to Luca Ferrero for raising a version of this response.

  29. Of course, some agents can have a commitment to following through on their decisions and see it as a source of reasons itself, but attributing this commitment as a fundamental commitment of all agents that deliberate prospectively would not allow us to explain how prospective deliberation is possible, it would presume it.

  30. Thanks to an anonymous referee for asking me to clarify this point.

  31. I think that this is unlikely to ever happen because one important element in constituting the agent’s normative perspective are the unique relationships and cares the agent has to her particular family and friends, and her relationship to herself.

  32. Thanks to an anonymous referee for asking me to consider this point.

  33. We could construct a case in which there is a third-party that would know what will strike my future self as reasonable, but then we wouldn’t have prudential reason to cede decision making to that third-party.

  34. Valdman might suggest that my future self’s irrationality in ignoring the committee’s decision gives her prudential reason to cede final decision making authority to the committee. I cannot address this further claim here; the target of my paper is a different phenomenon than that Valdman addresses. In prospective deliberation, the future self takes her past self’s decision as authoritative but she does not blindly cede decision making to her past self.

  35. Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this objection.

  36. Compare this to a case of belief. Suppose that when I was 12 years old I formed the belief that Pluto was not a planet. I misheard my Earth Science teacher and thought he said that Pluto was a star. When the recent debate about Pluto’s status raged in the media, I discover that I had been mistaken about Pluto. However, I learn about the debate and the different reasons offered and conclude that Pluto is not a planet. I believed that Pluto was not a planet 12 years ago and I, now, also believe that Pluto is not a planet, but I, nonetheless, reject my 12-year-old self’s formation of that belief.

  37. Accounts of caring and valuing seem to offer a characterization of reasons of this sort (Frankfurt 1999c; Jaworska 2007; Shoemaker 2003).


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I benefitted from comments by Lanier Anderson, Nadeem Hussain, Tamar Schapiro, Ken Taylor, participants of the Time and Agency Conference at George Washington University, and members of the Social Ethics and Normative Theory Workshop and the Graduate Student Dissertation Development workshop at Stanford on a very early version of this paper. Some of the final stages of this paper were completed while I was on sabbatical thanks to a grant from the Spencer Foundation. Special thanks go to Michael Bratman, Luca Ferrero, and anonymous referees for this journal for their invaluable feedback throughout.

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Correspondence to Jennifer M. Morton.

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Morton, J.M. Deliberating for Our Far Future Selves. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 16, 809–828 (2013).

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