Saturday, September 5, 2009

On Refinement and Self-Restraint

There's a monkey in the jungle
Watching a vapour trail
Caught up in the conflict
Between his brain and his tail


A most common conceit among philosophers is the idea that their motivations are fundamentally different from those of the common man.  They draw a sharp distinction between the refined pursuits of the mind or soul and the base pursuits of the body.  In Hesiod, the Muses, veritable embodiments of the soul's pursuits, denounce shepherds for being "mere bellies".  Plato and Aristotle characterized the common man as being driven by the passions of the belly and the sex organs, whereas the philosopher was driven by pure love of wisdom.  But to characterize the philosopher as having risen above the passions and to operate according to pure reason is incorrect.  As David Hume explained, operations of the will are always ultimately impelled by the passions.
It is obvious, that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carryed to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasines or satisfaction. It is also obvious, that this emotion rests not here, but making us cast our view on every side, comprehends whatever objects are connected with its original one by the relation of cause and effect. Here then reasoning takes place to discover this relation; and according as our reasoning varies, our actions receive a subsequent variation. But it is evident in this case that the impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it. It is from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion or propensity arises towards any object: And these emotions extend themselves to the causes and effects of that object, as they are pointed out to us by reason and experience. It can never in the least concern us to know, that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both the causes and effects be indifferent to us. Where the objects themselves do not affect us, their connexion can never give them any influence; and it is plain, that as reason is nothing but the discovery of this connexion, it cannot be by its means that the objects are able to affect us.
Reason, as Hume said, is always the slave of the passions.  The involuntary urges that impel a philosopher to philosophize are different from the urges of the hedonist; but they are involuntary urges, nonetheless.

Another category of man considered wholly distinct from those who are "slaves of the passions" is the man of self-restraint: the ant, as opposed to the grasshopper in Aesop's fable.  Yet even the man of self-restraint is a slave to his passions.  The only difference is often that he has a lower "time-preference".
Time preference is the premium given to a desired situation sooner rather than later.  For example, in terms of control over resources, it is the premium given to a good according to its availability sooner rather than later.  A person will generally prefer a given quantity of a good sooner over the same quantity of the same good later.  A person may also prefer a slightly smaller quantity of a good sooner over a slightly larger quantity of the same good later.  However, if the quantity of the good acquired sooner were continually diminished, eventually its "soon-ness"-based premium would not be sufficient to make up for its diminution, and the later, greater amount of the good would be preferred.  Somebody with extremely high time preference would rather eat one peanut immediately than wait one day to acquire a year's supply of peanuts.  Somebody with extremely low time preference would forego eating peanuts for a whole year if it meant at the end of the year he would achieve one more peanut than he otherwise would.

Having a low time preference is often thought of as a form of "self-restraint": an ability to resist one's urges.  However, all our actions are impelled by our urges: even actions whose goals are long-term.
Let us say you have the choice illustrated above of "one peanut now" vs. "a year's supply of peanuts in one day"  (If you don't like peanuts substitute some preservable food you do like).  You look at the peanut in front of you; it looks delicious.  You have an urge to reach out and pop it in your mouth.  But then you think about what it would be like after just one day of waiting to have all the free peanuts you want for a whole year.  That notion is so attractive, that you have an urge to forego the peanut in front of you to make that excellent situation possible.  The urge that impelled you to forego the peanut is more distant-future-based; but it is an urge nonetheless.

Keep in mind that all urges are future oriented: even the highest time-preference urges.  Popping the peanut in one's mouth forthwith may occur in the very near future, but it occurs in the future nonetheless.  All urges relate to a desired state for one's "future self".  Those acts that are commonly considered to demonstrate "self-restraint" are actually just as self-oriented as any other act.  They are simply oriented toward a more distant future self than those acts that are commonly considered to exhibit "lack of self-restraint".

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