When To Expand Yourself

Alex says “Philosopher Galen Strawson defends my most absurd belief,” namely:

My future life or experience doesn’t belong to me in such a way that it’s something that can be taken away from me. … You can’t harm [people] simply by bringing about their painless and unforeseen death.

Bryan Caplan says gaining existence is as clearly good for someone as is getting $100. Adam Ozimek disagrees because this would imply

There is a huge market failure whereby the unborn are unable to contract with their potential parents to pay for life. This argues for taxation of everyone (the set of people who are born) in order to subsidize reproduction.

I disagree with Alex, since I think you can harm people by thwarting their preferences, even re things that don’t “belong to” them, and I disagree with Adam, because I don’t think uncomfortable implications argue much against policy premises, and don’t think his tax implication follows.  But mostly, these issues inspire me to consider again analogies to creating and killing alters:

Our attitude toward “alters,” the different personalities in a body with multiple personalities, seems a nice illustration of … “when life is cheap, death is cheap.” … Alters seem fully human, sentient, intelligent, moral, experiencing, with their own distinct beliefs, values, and memories. They seem to meet just about every criteria ever proposed for creatures deserving moral respect. And yet the public has long known and accepted that a standard clinical practice is to kill off alters as quickly as possible.

Let me frame the issue today in terms of preference parts. Consider yourself to be a collection of different parts, associated with the different categories of things you care about. That is, one part of you likes music, another likes the taste of food, another likes sex, and yet another the feeling of wind in your hair, etc. If we ignore any ways in which your preferences depend on combinations of these things, such as especially liking the taste of tomatoes when listening to classical music, we can think of your total preferences as resulting from compromise deals between these different preference parts.

For example, if you have to make a particular choice between food and music, your choice will depend on just how much your food and music parts like the particular food and music offered.  Your internal deal will let your food part win when it especially likes the offered food, in trade for the music part of you winning when it especially likes the offered music.

Consider now the example of losing your taste for food, and compare that to losing a whole person. Imagine that you simply lost all pleasure from food.  That is, while being able to eat, and perhaps also to intellectually distinguish nutritious food, you no longer cared about differences in taste. This seems a lot like the food part of you dying, and can be usefully compared to an entire person dying.

Yes, this food-taste-caring part of you might have been useful to other parts of you, for example helping you to bond socially with others over dinner. But whole people can also be useful to other whole people. If you think it is bad to lose a whole person, beyond how much that person could be useful to others, you might similarly think it is bad for a whole person to lose a preference part, setting aside how useful that part is to other parts.

Also, similar to the way you might celebrate creating a new whole person, you might celebrate creating a new preference part of a person, such as when someone acquires a new kind of taste, or a new ability to satisfy a previously-ignored taste. For example, you might celebrate if a person who had never been able to listen to music, and had never even known that music existed, finally got to hear and enjoy music. You might say that this person’s music part had “come alive.”  Most of us experience such an awakening at some point in our lives regarding sex, as do once-blind people who can finally see.

Regarding whole people, most folks think it clearly bad to prevent a person from continuing to exist, but agree less on whether it is bad to prevent someone from coming into existence. On preference parts, my prior attitude was similar, being horrified by scenarios where I’d lose a beloved part of myself, but I wasn’t particular eager to develop tastes in more kinds of things; the older parts of me were jealous that satisfying new parts would come at their expense.

On whole people, my opinion has been, like Bryan’s, that it seems bad to prevent a whole person like us from existing, and good to make one exist who would not otherwise exist, assuming this new person can pay for itself over its lifetime, and assuming there are not large negative externalities (whereby this new person hurts others). And if I’m thinking about dividing up my bequest among my future descendants, my personal altruism toward them says I’m willing to go a fair ways in the direction of creating more of them, even when that makes each of them less rich.

To hold a similar position on preference parts, I should also celebrate the creation of new preference parts of me, if those new parts come with associated new abilities, so that those parts can “pay for themselves” in my internal deals.  For example, a new ability to discern what are good shopping price offers, and to enjoy the process of so discerning, might be a welcome addition to my internal society of mind.  But the addition of new tastes that don’t pay for themselves, and which might loudly complain when they were dissatisfied, might be less welcome.  For example, I may well not want to develop a strong preference for expensive wine.

Now if my other parts felt a strong altruism toward a new part, they might accept less for themselves to pay for it.  But such altruism is hardly guaranteed, just as a society of whole people need not welcome the creation of a new whole person who could not pay for itself, but instead was a substantial burden on others.  To be unambiguously good, new people and parts must pay for themselves.

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  • Robert Koslover

    Despite the similarities, I find this “preference parts” version of arguing that multiple lives (actually, aspects of our overall selves) have values worth preserving (or even expanding) makes far more sense than the prior arguments in favor of preserving “alters.” But perhaps I feel that way simply because alters are considered abnormal, while preference-parts are not.

  • gwern

    I thought the research on alters had shown that they were far from being full independent shared personalities? Reading http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissociative_identity_disorder , I am reminded quite strongly of the recovered-memories/Satanist hysteria. Maybe you should switch your ‘real’ example to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split-brain patients…

  • Unlike Robert Koslover, I found your alter analogies more convincing. They are conceivably whole persons, while preference parts don’t.

    As illustration I quote your OP:

    Now if my other parts felt a strong altruism [emphasis mine] toward a new part, they might accept less for themselves to pay for it.

    Now, won’t you consider altruism a preference part as well? If preference parts in general have altruism preference parts… doesn’t this lead to an infinite regress?

    I agree that preference parts are valuable, but they are not a unit/locus of experience, unlike humans or alters.

  • William H. Stoddard

    It seems to me that this business of creating alternate selves or new preference patterns is subject to Bastiat’s point about “what is seen vs. what is not seen”: When you choose to use resources (such as time and attention) to cultivate a self that is passionately interested in haute cuisine, you are preventing the use of those resources to cultivate a self that is passionately interested in soccer, or playing the commodities market, or collecting classic pulp aviation magazines, or to cultivate one of the selves that you already have. There’s a need to have an internal market on which the rates of return from those different cultivations can be compared. But I think that inner market is what the “sense of self” is supposed to provide. Or, to put it in Aleister Crowley’s terms, you need to know your True Will.

    On the other hand, a lot of people don’t seem to have a fully integrated True Will; they have separate preference patterns that impose external costs on each other. There are even things people do whose effects seem to include hampering the operation of the internal market, such as drinking to the point of intoxication.

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  • I’m reminded of religious folks who think that people without a connection to God are missing a part of themselves and had a “God-shaped hole”. Though I’m an atheist, I don’t think they’re that wrong for the modal human.

    It seems that the preference part for “reading stuff on the internet” is taking over larger and larger portions of my brain. I’ve dropped playing videogames, watching tv, reading fiction and other competing interests. I’ve never been that interested in sex or good food to begin with. This weekend I tried actually reconnecting with old friends and doing normal activities in the sun rather than my usual wastes of time. Terrible bad luck ensued on the return home, souring me on similar deviations from my standard activities in the future.

  • good to make one exist who would not otherwise exist, assuming this new person can pay for itself over its lifetime, and assuming there are not large negative externalities (whereby this new person hurts others)

    That’s a questionable assumption. Everyone hurts others by degrading the environment, etc.

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t the argument here an argument by analogy?