More On Future Self Paternalism

Robin recently wrote a post asking whether it makes any sense for your current self to take actions that "paternalistically" constrain your future self.  Below are some points in response, most of which were already mentioned in one form or another in the comments to Robin’s post.

1. Current you has no choice but to act in some sense paternalistically towards future you simply by virtue of the fact that current you came first.  It is inevitable that current you will make choices that set the stage for future you, which requires current you to make decisions based on what’s good for future you.

2. The standard that must be met for future self paternalism to be rational may not be that current you has to be systematically more rational than future you; the standard may only be that current you has to be more rational than future you at his weakest moment.  And that’s not a very hard standard to meet.

But the specific examples in Robin’s post weren’t about the general merits of future self paternalism, they were about whether it makes sense for a young liberal to constrain himself so that he doesn’t turn into an old conservative.  It is undoubtedly a fact that people tend to become more conservative as they age, so the phenomenon that the young liberal is worried about is real.  The question is whether it can be rational for the young liberal to think that this is a bad thing; that he is currently right but that if he gets on a certain path he’ll become less right as he ages.  To be sure, there are good reasons that cut in the opposite direction;  it naturally seems like people should get wiser as they’ve had more time to learn and reflect, and in very few intellectual fields is top work done by the very young.  But there are some reasons why the young liberal might be right after all.

3. For at least certain kinds of critical thinking, there tends to be a deterioration over time, not because of reduced cognitive functioning, but merely because people leave formal educational frameworks, and so spend less time thinking about the kinds of things that are taught there.  You probably have to continue to do a certain amount of certain kinds of thinking just to stay even, and that is precisely what you are less likely to do (you have less time, there’s no one around to do it with, etc.) if you go into your old man’s business.  So it may be that in some meaningful sense you do simply become less rational.  If study and reflection lead to the conclusion that liberal beliefs are true/good, and if you know that you will be doing less study and reflection, then you can expect a reduction in the truth/goodness of your beliefs unless you think that future you will be smart enough to take this into account and defer to current you’s views, which is a doubtful proposition.

4. But the biggest issue, in my view, is indoctrination.  The standard reason given for the fact that people  that is that older people have seen more of the reality of life, and that it is that confrontation with reality that gives them more conservative views.  The obvious alternative reason is that what happens as you age is that the capitalist system has more time to grind you down.  You spend your days working in an organization whose explicit goal is making money, and which expects and encourages you (both materially and psychologically) to act as if you have bought into that goal.  And you can’t just switch it off at quitting time, and even if you were tempted to try, you wouldn’t have a supportive social framework to do it in; some of your colleagues will never have been on board the liberal program to begin with, and the rest won’t want to be reminded of how badly they’ve sold out to The Man.  And once you’ve started thinking in this way, it gets a lot harder to think about things like social justice, and it gets a lot easier to start lazily indulging your prejudices (and those of your class) against the poor or foreigners or whatever.

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  • David, your being now “more rational than future you at his weakest moment” only works if your action now only limits that particular future you. If you limit future you at many other moments then you should consider a weighted average over such moments. Your two reasons to prefer young liberalism to old conservatism seem to be the same: preferring your “indoctrination,” found in school, over theirs, found at work. This is like someone moving to a foreign country, fearing exposure to propaganda in this second nation, which might overturn the propaganda of the first nation. This is only rational if there is some objective reason to prefer the first propaganda to the second.

  • Carl Shulman


    Could you break out the components of ‘liberalism’ a little bit? While liberal self-identification( increases with intelligence, not all of its components do. A liberal self-identification suggests views on:

    1. Religiosity and religion-related policies (abortion, gay marriage). Here the liberal position is also the consensus position among those with very strong claims to intelligence and accuracy (, with few exceptions (, and there are reasons to suspect increasing pro-religious bias with age, e.g. a stronger sense of mortality, the social functions of religious congregations, etc.

    2. Attitudes on the level of state intervention in the economy (“the capitalist system”). Here, the GSS suggests that high intelligence is associated with more pro-market views ( Experience in the market might produce indoctrination of the type you describe, or it might provide a better understanding of the costs of regulation, as it did for McGovern: “I wish that someone had told me about the problems of running a business. I would have to pay taxes, meet a payroll–I wish I had had a better sense of what it took to do that when I was in Washington.”

    3. Racist/intolerant views, including anti-foreigner and anti-immigrant sentiment. The IQ pattern here resembles that for religion, but it is very difficult to separate out age from aging here. Young whites growing up post-Civil Rights were significantly less racist against blacks than prior generations of youth, just as the youth of today are less homophobic than their predecessors. Continuing social change in this area means that one can maintain exactly the same views from youth to old age, while those views come to constitute the ‘conservative’ end of the distribution of opinion rather than the ‘liberal’ position where they began.

    If you worry about this effect, then you should seek to change your moral views to fit a projected future liberal consensus ( rather than today’s, e.g. you might try vegetarianism (we can project the likely response to the availability of in vitro meat) or Singularitarianism.

  • I don’t think the famous saying has been quoted here yet:

    “If a young man is not a liberal he has no heart;
    If an old man is not a conservative he has no head.”

    A possible explanation is simple economic self-interest. Liberalism tends to benefit the poor at the expense of the rich, and vice versa for conservatism. Young people tend to be poor and old people relatively rich. Hence the transition of political views may reflect a change in economic circumstances, and we are dealing with pure self-interest throughout.

    A young person who recognized this effect would presumably not be motivated to try to constrain his future self. But self-deception seems to be especially widespread regarding the degree to which our political views align with our personal self-interest.

  • michael vassar

    Robin: It could only be rational to prefer one’s initial indoctrination regarding facts to hypothetical later indoctrination if there was some objective reason to expect it to be more reliable than the later indoctrination, but regarding moral or normative indoctrination this is not the case at all. Having any preference at a deep level implies having a preference for continuing to have that preference. If I care about my pleasure but also about the happiness of my family and I believe that taking drug X will cause me to care more about my pleasure and less about the happiness of my family, leading to my doing a worse job at fulfilling my current preferences and a better job at fulfilling my hypothetical future preferences this is a good reason to avoid drug X.

  • Liberalism tends to benefit the poor at the expense of the rich. . .

    I’m not sure that the fatherless kids in the inner city have, in the long run, “benefited” from the liberal social programs that foster irresponsibility. . .

  • Michael, it can make sense to have a preference to keep your preferences, but most people do not accept calling their moral views mere preferences.

  • albatross

    I keep thinking this is a power struggle between two decisionmakers, one is the me that’s here now, the other is the me that’s going to be here in twenty years.

    Suppose the values on which I want to act are not based on objective reality–there’s no reason to expect that I will learn more about the importance of caring for the poor as I learn more about the world, say. I know my values now. (I think Hal saw this as an implication of the case of future-self paternalism we were discussing before.)

    I can act to accomplish my goals over the rest of my lifetime. But my agent in this matter, twenty years in the future, may not entirely share my values. Perhaps this is simply arbitrary–I (now) like to see third world children fed and vaccinated and given clean water. Perhaps I (in twenty years) will prefer to see money spent on longevity research. But I am in the position to make the decision now, and so I’m going to act on my values, and impose them on the future me, binding him as I might bind any other agent I wanted to act according to my values.

    It’s weird to think of yourself at different times having different interests, but it seems like a pretty good model. Every time you have a bacon double cheesburger and skip that boring trip to the gym, your future self would like to have a say, since you’re leaving him with the clogged arteries to deal with. Every time you keep your bills paid up, save money, study some useful subject instead of frittering away times on blog comment threads, your future self is benefitting.

  • michael vassar

    Robin: Do most liberals not accept calling moral views preferences (or relative or whatever?) Most people with evolutionarily influenced psychological views? Most people is rarely epistemically relevant in a world of naive theists.

    By the way, can you somehow increase the length of the “recent posts” list, preferably by a lot and with divisors for days? This would significantly improve the web site.

  • TGGP

    Robin, were you actually agreeing with my view that normative beliefs have no truth value, or were you just asserting that most people would disagree?

  • David J. Balan

    Robin, It surely won’t surprise you to learn that I do think that the kinds of ideas that you are exposed to in college are more likely to be true/good than those you are exposed to in the business world. The focus of institutions of higher learning is (or at least is suppposed to be) looking for the truth. The focus in the business world is to make money, which is not generally a bad thing, but which is also not the same thing.

    Carl, I can’t speak directly to what the people in Robin’s original example thought were the good liberal things that might be undermined in the business world. For me, the obvious thing is economic justice, whether in the form of personal charity or in the form of political support for redistribution. (It is worth noting that the old conservative businessman might well have a more realistic sense of which programs are likely to achieve a given amount of redistribution at the lowest cost in efficiency than the young liberal will). And I am inclined to think that people who have been conditioned to care less about the other fella are more likely to allow themselves to indulge their racial or class prejudices.

    Matthew C., Of course one ought not to support programs that don’t work. And there are some people, many of them young and many of whom call themselves liberals, who seem to advocate programs such as trade restrictions whose effects aren’t at all consistent with what are supposed to be liberal goals. It is indeed perfectly possible that our young liberal is wrong in more or less important ways. But the question is not whether the young liberal is perfectly right, it’s whether he is likely to get righter or wronger if he chooses this or that path. And nowadays you’d have to be one mighty misguided liberal before you were wronger than a typical contemporary conservative.

  • David, we went over this ground before, but one can’t conclude that schools are more truthful places than jobs just because schools say they are more truthful.

  • TGGP

    If a business does not really know how to make money, it is likely to go out of business. If an institution of higher learning does not really know about “the truth” with regard to “economic justice”, how will its outcomes differ from a school that does?

  • albatross, in case you’re still reading this – I quoted you in my recent blog post, “Ethics of forced choice and future selves” (where I managed to conclude that in case a superintelligent being wants to reprogram my desires entirely, I can have no moral objection for as long as that makes me happier than I am now). Just thought it’d be polite to mention.