Archive for July, 2013

The consent problem

Steve at age 70 did not consent to what Steve did to him in previous decades. Steve_70 might wish that Steve_30 had invested more in retirement, exercised more, etc.

We were brought into existence without our consent. Whether we end up happy about partially depends on the judgment of our parents at the time they made the decision.

Similarly, how happy we are at age 70 depends, to some degree, on the judgment of younger versions of ourselves. You could view young versions of yourself as making decisions for older versions of yourself, just like your parents made the decision to bring you into the world.

However, it’s not hard to imagine that when we are older we won’t strongly relate to young versions of ourself; just like a lot of people view the world much differently than do their parents.

Perhaps the recognition of this is part of the reasons that social programs exist. Older adults are aware of the consequences of their younger selves having not taken care of them.  They stick up for future versions of people who are currently young by supporting programs like social security. Young people, of course, might be upset that they are being taxed. So, some lack of consent is inevitable.

A harder, but related problem, has to do with counterfactuals related to existence. For example, suppose Steve_20 is miserable and decides to commit suicide. However, suppose that if Steve_20 had been prevented from committing suicide, then older versions of Steve would be glad they exist. In one scenario, older versions of Bob won’t exist, and so won’t have preferences. In the other scenario, they will exist and will have preferences. Similar counterfactuals are involved with decisions about whether to create life.

With suicide, we do not take future Steve’s actual preferences into account, because we do not know what those are. Rather, we take his possible preferences into account – that he might be glad he’s alive and therefore we must keep young Steve alive. It’s possible that we are condemning Steve to a life of suffering, but we are mostly unaware of that fact because we are bombarded with sayings about how good life is.

When it comes to retirement and so on, we have better idea about what older people’s preferences will be. That is, Steve_60 is likely to have preferred that Steve_30 did not spend all of his income at the casino. Even in this case, however, much is still uncertain. Perhaps older Steve will get pleasure and find meaning from the experiences that younger Steve had, even if those experiences made it so that older Steve does not have as much to live on.

I have no conclusion here or really anything interesting to add. These are just things I’ve been thinking about.

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