Monday, June 30, 2008

Hindsight and altruism

Forty years ago you and your brother foughts about who would get to play with the new train. You remember the fight, but not the outcome. At the time, you really wanted to win the fight and play with the train. Now you no longer have any strong preference for having been the one who got to play with the train.

In the view from distant hindsight, we do not have strong preferences that we were the ones who obtained some good—at least if we are talkiing of material goods. Now Simone Weil thinks, and I think common sense supports her, that the view from distant hindsight is the true and objective way of looking at a situation. Since it is not rational to see it as strongly preferable that we had long ago received some material good rather than someone else getting it, neither should we have such a stroong preference in regard to near-future goods. This is an argument for altruism and against egoism.

8 comments:

larryniven said...

So if I also have memories involving material goods that were very valuable at the time and that are still very valuable to me, or memories involving material goods that weren't valuable to me at the time but now I really wish I'd obtained (or not, as the case may be), what am I to make of that?

linty_pupik said...

Seriously, when I was in Egypt 15 years ago, I bought this cotton t-shirt you wouldn't believe. The quality of the cotton was unreal. Cheap too. I only bought one. With hindsight, I regret I didn't buy 10. The one is long ago worn out and thrown away, I have no way of getting another.

A big part of the whole nostalgia-collecting thing is people try to buy, as adults, all the stuff they didn't get as kids.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Larry:

I was thinking here of the having of material goods at a given time. Thus, a case where you had obtained a material good long ago and still have it is not included in my thought experiment.

Do you think there were material goods you obtained long ago, which you no longer have, but where you still have a strong preference for having had them? Maybe. But even if so, the argument isn't that it is never rational to have a strong preference for self in some context, but that it is sometimes not rational to have such a strong preference.

In any case, feelings are defeasible evidence.

larryniven said...

"the argument isn't that it is never rational to have a strong preference for self in some context, but that it is sometimes not rational to have such a strong preference"

Er? I thought the argument was that the "true and objective" fact of the matter was indicated reliably by altruistic feelings of indifference after the fact. My point, though, was that this argument doesn't seem to help a great deal either on a theoretical or a practical level. In the first case, there's evidence going every which way, and a specific lack of evidence where we need it most in order to reach your desired conclusion: how do we know that indifference in hindsight is not, in these cases, the most palatable result, sort of a privileged reaction to having actually received it? In the second case, this leaves us no way to determine when to act altruistically as opposed to egotistically - doesn't it?

Alexander R Pruss said...

You're right: "the true and objective" is too strong. But let's weaken the claim: The view from hindsight is more reliable than the present view.

No, this isn't going to give a rule for when exactly altruistic action is appropriate.

Mike Almeida said...

Now Simone Weil thinks, and I think common sense supports her, that the view from distant hindsight is the true and objective way of looking at a situation.

Simone Weil is an important thinker, but this just seems false. Think of someone you loved but lost to another. Certainly looking back you might not have the strong feelings for this person that you had then. But that's because (thankfully) you no longer have the "true and objective" way of looking at the situation. It's silly to think that, since you do not so much care now, you never really cared about this person. It's sillier to think this shows that you should share the people you love with your rivals . . .yikes! . . . I do know that this is not quite what your arguing for!

Tim Lacy said...

I've not read Simone Weil's original text on this, so I'll assume Professor Pruss's restatement as accurate: "The view from distant hindsight is the true and objective way of looking at the situation" (italics mine).

The problem with the italicized portion of the text is the "the" article in front of "true." If she weakened it say "a highly important and objective way," I'd be inclined to agree with her. Time, with respect to reason, has the fantastic capability of removing short and medium-term emotional attachments.

Then again, Simone Weil sounds like a class of "objectivist" historians dealt with in a most excellent fashion in his book That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity" Question and the Historical Profession (circa 1988). There is no such thing as a truly objective retelling of a past situation; the main facts can be true, but the retelling of them is clouded with subjectivity. - TL

Tim Lacy said...

When I said "his book" above, I meant Peter Novick's book. - TL