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

by Holly_Elmore8th Feb 20193 comments


Personal Blog

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.

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I'm glad I read this piece. It makes a good point!

Can you expand on the connection to EA? I'm not sure I quite see it.

I guess it depends on how narrowly you define EA. I think of evaluating states of pleasure/suffering, affective forecasting, and decision-making as common EA topics. My argument is related to a hedonistic utilitarian argument against preference utilitarianism, but I don't often hear people taking on shortcomings of the remembering self the way they do preferences. Usually the remembering self is held out as a superior perspective on life because it's out of the moment, when I argue it's just as selfish as the experiencing self. In fact, it's just another kind of experiencing self that wants different things.

Thanks! I don't disagree. Btw the link to the Remembering self is dead.