Sunday, September 13, 2009

Character as Inverse Time Preference

It is useful to divide "virtuous behavior" into two categories: 1) actions which are motivated by conscience and 2) actions considered virtuous, but which are not motivated by conscience.  The first category concerns man's morality.  The second concerns man's character.  While moral behavior is impelled by urges which are, in a sense, selfless, "acts of character" are impelled urges that are selfish, only the "self" concerned is a "more future" self.  In other words, character is a matter of time preference.  Everyone has time preference; everyone places a premium on gratification sooner rather than later.  But the level of that "premium on promptitude" varies.  The lower that premium (in other words, the less "now-oriented" the person is), in general, the higher the "character" of the person is usually deemed.
To illustrate this, let's consider the "13 virtues" of Benjamin Franklin.


Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

Let's say a man is at a work party.  He's had three drinks.  He knows a fourth drink will make him drunk.  He knows if he becomes drunk he will say and do things he will regret later.  He weighs two urges in his psyche: 1) an urge to feel the pleasure of being drunk in the near future and 2) the urge to avoid embarrassment in the distant future.  If his premium on promptitude is high enough, he will down the fourth glass.  If it's low enough, the thought of future embarrassment will steer him toward the ginger ale.

Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

Let's say two professional colleagues are having lunch together.  One has a juicy bit of idle gossip on the tip of her tongue.  She weighs the urge to unload her tale with the urge to be more productive with her time with her colleague; she could instead talk about the project they are working on.  The former action would be more pleasant in the short term.  But making headway on their project would advance her career, thereby paving the way for a great deal of pleasure in the long term.  If her premium on promptitude is high enough she will choose to indulge in the gossip.  If it's low enough, she will instead start discussing the project.

Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

Let's say a man comes home after a long day at work.  He picks up his mail in the lobby of his apartment building, and then walks into his apartment.  He really wants to just crash on the couch and turn on the TV forthwith.  So he has the urge to just drop his mail on his big pile of unopened mail as he's been doing lately.  He knows by doing this every day, he's creating quite a chore for himself in the future when he will have to sort through the big pile.  If he just took a minute to sort through the mail in his hand now, he wouldn't be contributing to the huge chore he'll have to do later.  If his premium on promptitude is high enough, he'll just toss the mail and crash.  If it's low enough, he'll do the tiny chore now to avoid contributing toward having to do a giant chore later.

Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

Let's say a woman makes a New Year's Resolution to spend 15 minutes on her treadmill every morning.  Her alarm wakes her one morning.  Only if she gets out bed right then, will she have enough time to do her morning exercise.  But she's still groggy and would love a few more winks.  She weighs in her psyche the urge to sleep more now against the urge to contribute toward her long-term health.  If her premium on promptitude is high enough, she'll hit snooze.  If it's low enough, she'll drag herself out of bed.

Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

Let's say a woman shopping in a department store sees a really cute, but ridiculously expensive pair of shows.  Buying them will set her back a whole month in her longer-term goal of buying a new car.  If her premium on promptitude is high enough, she'll swipe her credit card and run home to try them on.  If it's low enough, she'll walk off in her New Balance sneakers eagerly awaiting the day she can drive of the lot in her new car, and pleased by the knowledge that that day will arrive a month sooner than if she had bought the shoes.

Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Let's say a man at work needs to finish his TPS report.  But the task bores him, so he'd rather idle away the hours mindlessly clicking around on the web.  Diving into the TPS report will be burdensome in the short term, but will advance his career in the long term.  If his premium on promptitude is high enough, he'll commence surfing.  If it's low enough, he'll close Firefox, and fire up that awful database software.

Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

Let's say a politician is considering embarking on a smear campaign, based on mischaracterization, against his opponent.  Part of the decision process involves time-indifferent moral considerations.  But another part weighs the short-term goal of winning the election against the longer-term goal of maintaining a reputation of decency.

Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

Incidents of justice qua justice are time-indifferent, and as such are matters of morality and not character.  Let's say an adolescent is contemplating stealing candy from his baby nephew, and that there is no chance of him getting caught.  There is no long-term downside of stealing the candy aside from the pangs of guilt he might feel.

Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

Let's say a shopkeeper is tempted to shoot a shoplifter in the back for lifting a candy bar from his shelves.  In this case, there is a chance of him facing retribution for what others will consider a gross over-retaliation.  Insofar as that is the case, it is a matter character (inverse time preference).  It might feel good to shoot the punk in the short-term.  He weighs the urge against the long-term fear of rotting away in a prison cell.  Of course there a moral considerations as well.  His urge to shoot is also mitigated by his conscience screaming at him not to commit such a monstrous act.

Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.

Let's say a man is tired of thoroughly cleaning the carpet every time his dog pees on it.  He weighs the "sooner" urge to not have to deal with the mess now against the "later" urge of not having his pad smelling like an outhouse when he has guests over.

Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

A man gets cut off in his lane on the freeway.  He wants to lean on the horn, and speed past the offending motorist with a middle finger thrust out his window.  This would satisfy him in the short-term.  But if he instead counted to ten and let it slide, it might contribute to a better mood in the long-term.

Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.

A married man is tempted to sleep with his co-worker.  Again time-indifferent morality plays a role ("it's just wrong"; "my wife doesn't deserve to be cheated on, etc."), but so does the conflict between "sex sooner" and "non-ruined marriage later".

Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

A woman is tempted to give vent to her pride by bragging about her luxurious vacation.  She weighs that short-term temptation against the long-term aversion against contributing toward a reputation as a boastful bore.

Character, it would seem, may be considered simply to be inverse time preference.