Ethics and the two selves
Posted on December 19, 2012
My colleague Ian Pollock last week registered an interesting essay on Rationally Speaking (where I blog occasionally) on Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In the book, Kahneman — who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 — differentiates between two different types of thinking:
…. between a here-and-now preferrer — the experiencing self — that wants this pleasure to continue and this pain to cease, and a storyteller — the remembering self — that looks at an experience as a whole and evaluates its worth, with special attention paid to the beginning, climax and ending.
What Pollock then procedes to do is explore the implications of these two different thought processes, these two selves, for moral decision making:
One of the areas that it seems worth applying to is ethical philosophy; specifically the contrast between virtue ethical and consequentialist strains of thought.
For virtue ethics, the point of morality is to help you to be a better, happier person. Here, happiness is emphatically not understood in the popular modern way as a mere persistent good mood. On the contrary, happiness (or eudaimonia) involves living an ethically good life, with close ties to friends and family, and strong community involvement. A lifetime of good deeds and fine company could be undone by your child’s turning out to be a villain, even if it were not your fault — hence, Solon says “call no man happy until he is dead.”
Meanwhile, consequentialism (particularly its subspecies, utilitarianism) seeks to maximize welfare or utility across all beings. In utilitarianism this gets defined as the balance of pleasure over pain, or some such concept. The definition of utility is always vexatious, but needn’t concern us overmuch here — the point is that almost all plausible consequentialist theories care quite a lot about moment-to-moment mental states like pleasure and pain.
I suspect you may be able to see where I am going with this. Virtue ethics is speaking directly and pretty much exclusively to the remembering self, while utilitarianism is much more friendly to the experiencing self. Is this a defect in one, or in both of these theories?
Keep reading here.