Morality, the Problem of Possible Future Selves, and Christmas Parables

In my 2016 book, Rightness as Fairness: A Moral and Political Theory, I argue that morality is a solution to a problem of diachronic rationality called ‘the problem of possible future selves.’

To simplify (very) greatly, the problem–which is partially inspired by L.A. Paul’s groundbreaking work on transformative experience–is that (A) our present selves have to make decisions on behalf of our future selves, but (B) we do not know which future selves we will actually be (particularly as the future becomes more distant), including (C) what our future selves’ retrospective preferences will be regarding our decisions in the present. I then argue that this problem can be solved if and only if our various selves cooperate with each other across timenot just across seconds or minutes, but across decades–to act on principles that are rational for all of one’s possible future selves to endorse in unison given mutual recognition of the problem.

The final part of the argument is that this cross-temporal agreement consists of principles of fairness–principles which require one to treat all of one’s possible selves fairly, and by extension, all other persons and sentient beings. The reason for this is broadly as follows: because one has an infinite number of possible future selves–some of whom are selfish, others of whom care about other human beings, animals, etc.–the only principles that all of one’s selves can rationally agree upon in unison are those that strike a certain kind of compromise between self-interest and the interests of others: a compromise comprised by four principles of fairness.

Anyway, I argue that a rapidly increasing body of neurobehavioral evidence supports picture (a little of which is nicely summarized here and here). In essence, it increasingly appears not only that (A) the neural mechanisms that enable us to care about our own possible future selves just are the neural mechanisms that lead us to care about others, but also that (B) moral behavior and (self-regarding) prudential behavior are simultaneously enhanced or degraded together in direct proportion to the extent to which we concern ourselves with our possible future selves.

Still, all of this is very abstract. Can a simpler, more down-to-earth intuitive case be made for how moral cognition and motivation are rooted in concern for one’s possible future (and by extension, possible past) selves? I believe that Christmas parables, of all things, can help!

One of the more interesting features of the holidays season is the moral parables that have sprung up over the years, many of which have in turn become something of a tradition. Each year, many Americans (myself included) have a tradition of watching Frank Capra’s wonderful film, It’s a Wonderful Life–a film about a good man who almost takes his own life as a result of bad fortune, but who through the intervention of an angel comes to change his mind. James Stewart’s character George Bailey learns something important–that he has many reasons to live. But is that all he learns? And how does he learn it? Or consider another famous Christmas parable: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a wonderful television version of which (starring Patrick Stewart!) I happened to watch with my spouse the other night. In it, an awful person, Ebenezer Scrooge, comes to have a moral awakening that dramatically changes his character and actions. What did he learn, and how did he learn it?

The answer, we will now see, is that in both cases Bailey and Scrooge were exposed to different possible pasts and futures, in a way that led them to see that to be fair to themselves over time, they also had to be good and fair to others.

A Christmas Carol

In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we are introduced on Christmas Eve to Ebenezer Scrooge, the infamous miser who cares about nothing more than making a profit for himself. Scrooge makes everyone around him miserable, yet it means nothing to him, and he says, ‘Bah, humbug!’, whenever anyone says anything nice or wishes him a Merry Christmas. Yet that very night, after being confronted by the ghost of his deceased business partner (who warns him to change his ways), Scrooge is visited by three ghosts: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Let us begin, as the story does, with the Ghost of Christmas Past. What does the ghost show Scrooge? The ghost takes Scrooge back to his school days, where he is a friendly young man who falls in love with a young woman named Belle. At first Scrooge’s heart is warmed by the experience–but then the Ghost takes Scrooge back to the day that he chose to leave Belle for a greater love: money. The old Scrooge screams at his younger self not to, clearly wishing he could go back in time and get his past self to not be so selfish. But, of course, he cannot.

Then comes the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Ghost takes Scrooge to visit the family holiday celebration of his employee Bob Cratchit. It quickly becomes clear that Cratchit’s family despises Scrooge, who treats Bob callously at work–yet Bob Cratchit himself earnestly proposes a toast to Scrooge–which causes Scrooge to feel guilt. Scrooge then learns from the Ghost of Christmas Present that Bob’s youngest child, Tiny Tim, will not survive through next year if the future continues on its same path–a path where Scrooge pays Bob a pittance.

Finally, there is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This ghost takes Scrooge to a Christmas after his death–one where his former business associates celebrate his death, the funeral director steals his belongings from his body, only a few people attend his funeral (and only because lunch is provided!), his grave stone is left unvisited, and Tiny Tim is dead. At this point, Scrooge is overcome by regret. He saw not only with the Ghost of Christmas Past how his short-sighted greed in the past (when he was a young man) destroyed his then-future selves’ only chance for love, leading him to now regret those past decisions. He now sees how his greed in the actual present may–if the future continues to go as it is–lead him to make the same mistake again: the mistake of focusing on his own narrow interests instead of foreseeing how pursuing those narrow interests in the present might negatively affect his future self through the reverberations his actions have on the lives of others. It is this experience that radically changes him. When Scrooge awakes on Christmas day, he goes out of his way to help others, gives Bob Cratchit a raise, and ultimately saves Tiny Tim’s life.

Notice what we see throughout the story. The Scrooge we are initially introducted to, the greedy miser, behaves a bit like a psychopath. Why? We see that it is because, at every moment of his life, he is focusing either solely on the present (e.g. wanting money) or what he takes the likely future self-regarding gains of his actions will be (viz. ‘I will be rich man!’). It is only when the Ghosts of Christmas take him outside of his narrow focus on his concerns in the present–showing him the actual ramifications of his past on his present actions and potential ramifications of his continued present actions on his (merely possible) future–that he begins to appreciate that the only way to be good and fair to himself is to be good and fair to others. It is only then that he changes his ways.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Now consider, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In this film, we are presented with a very different kind of character: George Bailey, a man who (somewhat begrudgingly) has spent his life being good to others, repeatedly putting others first when he could have pursued his own personal dreams. Although I think it is worth noting that this is arguably unfair to himself (something we can perhaps talk about!), let us focus on the rest of the story. Despite missing out on pursuing his greatest dreams, Bailey nevertheless makes a good life for himself: he marries a wonderful spouse, has a flourishing family, and solid banking business that has greatly helped the community. Alas, an unfortunate turn of events occurs where his absent-minded employee Uncle Billy misplaces a very large deposit, which will not only destroy George’s business but also leads to a warrant being placed for his arrest for fraud. In the aftermath, George berates his spouse and children and leaves, desperate to find a solution. Yet, just when he thinks he might have a solution–a loan from his callous rival, Mr. Potter–George is informed that, thanks to his life insurance policy, he is worth more dead than alive. Shortly thereafter, George gets drunk, punched and thrown out of a local bar, crashes his car into a tree, and wanders to a bridge where he intends to take his life by jumping into the rapids below.

I trust most of us know what happens next: an angel by the name of ‘Clarence’ appears, jumping into the rapids before George can. George then saves his life, but tells Clarence he wishes he had never been born. Which, of course, is where the moral lesson begins. Clarence grants George’s wish, transporting him to an alternate present in which he was never born. It is at this point that he sees the ramifications of that ‘choice’. If his wish were reality–if he never had been born–it would have realized another present and future: one where his town is an awful place run by the evil Mr. Potter, where those he loved are miserable, most of all his spouse, Mary, who never fell in love or married. Slowly but surely, George wishes he could have his life back–and when his wish is granted, he returns to his family with love and appreciation, and comes to learn that the entire city chipped in to pay off the large sum of money that had been misplaced.

Although the dramatic conceit of the story is that Clarence the angel granted George’s wish to undo his entire life, the implicit lesson of the story is that if George killed himself now, it is something that in a very wide sense he could (and would) regret, if not in this life then perhaps in the next (if, hypothetically, he lived to see the results). By showing him an alternate past, present, and future in which he never lived, Clarence gets George to see that it would be unfair to others for him to kill himself, and by extension, unfair to himself. George learns that, insofar as he has improved others’ lives, he has in his own way improved his life–and that if he were to subtract himself out of the world through suicide, he would be harming not only himself but the others he cares about and could care about. It is only by getting George to appreciate the possible past and future, and its implications for others, that George begins to see why life is living for him. George’s insight is that his suicide would be simultaneously unfair to himself because it is unfair to the lives of those around him.

Real People and World Events

Are these just parables? No. There are some obvious differences between these cases and our own situation. Scrooge is shown his actual past and the future he will have if he continues in his ways. Similarly, George Bailey is shown the past and present that would have occurred if his wish were granted and we were never born. We do not enjoy these supernatural gifts, but instead can only imagine different possible futures and pasts. This is what makes our case so vexing, and the rationality of moral behavior so hard to appreciate (the problem of possible future selves and solution to it are much more complex). Still, the Christmas parables demonstrate important parallels to our situation, illustrating how it is concern for our own possible pasts and futures that lead us to be concerned (when we are properly concerned) with our treatment of others.

As I mention above (and examine in more detail in Rightness as Fairness), a variety of empirical results increasingly converge on this general picture. Impulsivity–or concern with the present–is one of the best predictors not only of imprudent but also immoral behavior. Conversely, concern for one’s future–and being able to delay gratification in the present for possible future rewards–appear to be among the best predictors of prudent and moral behavior. Not only that: as results summarized here indicate, the more people are stimulated to consider their possible future selves, the more likely they are to act prudently and fairly; and the more these capacities are inhibited, the less likely they are to do either.

And we can see why when we look at our own lives. Consider first a small-scale case. One night, like many married persons, I was having a fight with my spouse. Out of anger, I wanted to say something very, very mean. But then I looked into her eyes and imagined a future in which I could never take those words back, realizing it could not only harm her, but harm us (viz. our relationship). I kept my trap shut. Why? Because I was concerned about different possible terrible futures it could lead to: futures where I realized I hurt my spouse forever, haunting our marriage, haunting me, etc.

Now consider an alternative version of me who did the wrong thing, lashing out in anger. How might my deliberations have gone? Most plausibly in one of two ways: (1) I could simply lash out impulsively, without any forethought at all; or else (2) I could focus on what I might have taken to be the likely outcome, which I might have taken to be ‘winning the argument and feeling good about expressing righteous indignation.’ In neither case–where I do the wrong thing–am I appropriately concerned about the many possible futures in which my actions wound my spouse, undermine our relationship, cause unremitting regret, etc.

Finally, consider a much more consequential case: the genocidal terror Adolf Hitler inflicted upon the world. Hitler, like all psychopaths, was presumably focusing on what he took the likely outcomes of his actions to be: glory for himself, glory for Germany, and death to all those he hated. What Hitler was presumably not thinking about appropriately was the possible future–namely, the actual one–in which he failed, destroyed Germany, and took his life in an underground bunker. If he had been fair to others for its own sake–as Rightness as Fairness argues diachronic rationality requires in response to the problem of possible future selves–then that horrible future, for him and for everyone around him, is one that would not have occurred.

Conflating Morality and Prudence?

Now, I expect some of you might think that all of these stories and account of moral deliberation conflate two distinct things: prudence and morality. Scrooge, after all, only comes to change his ways because he wants to avoid a terrible future for himself. Isn’t that just prudence (or self-regard), not morality? The answer, I contendis that it is not our place to affirm a difference in kind between prudence and morality, any more than it was the place of physicists and philosophers to affirm that space and time must be absolute or Einstein’s place to affirm (in the face of quantum mechanical evidence to the contrary) that “God does not play dice.” The history of human inquiry has repeatedly demonstrated that reality has no special need to cohere with a priori intuitions about phenomena. We should instead follow the evidence where it leads, even if it leads us to a counterintuitive place. And, or so I believe, our evidence increasingly indicates that prudence and moral deliberation are not ultimately distinct at all: fairness to oneself and fairness to others are just two sides of the very same coin.

Anyway, these are just some philosophical Christmas thoughts I had: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you!

Cross-posted at the Philosophers’ Cocoon.