Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Repentance and Satan's Apple

Suppose Alice is an misanthropic immortal who lives in a universe of happy people. Suppose, too, that Alice is an immortal. Then one day Alice does a really bad thing. She is unreasonably annoyed at all other people and instantly freezes everything besides herself.

What ought Alice to do? Well, she ought to unfreeze everything.

But when? If she delays unfreezing the universe by a week, she gets to enjoy a week without the annoyance of other people. And nobody will be any the worse for it. So, why not? But if a week, why not a month, or a millennium?

There seems to be nothing wrong with procrastinating when the action is just as well done later. So, why can’t Alice just continue procrastinating for eternity?

Maybe the thing to say is this. Alice ought to repent now. It is wrong to live unrepentantly, so one should repent as soon as possible. And repentance requires an intention to repair the damage that one has done insofar as one can.

But it is true that when the damage can be equally well repaired later, the repentant person does not need to do it immediately. We can even tweak the case so that the repair is better done later. Perhaps Alice will be slightly less grumpy each day, and so if she unfreezes people later, they will be better off as they will have a slightly less grumpy Alice to live with (this makes the case more like Satan’s Apple). And it’s clear that when the damage repair is better done later, it may be left for later.

I think what we need to say is this: The intention needs to have a reasonable level of specificity. When one is able to specify how and when one will do the repair, one needs to intend that. One cannot simply have the intention to do one of infinitely many things (unfreeze tomorrow or unfreeze the day after or …). Intentions, either in general or in the special case of the intentions of restitution that repentance calls for, must come with a plan of action. And so Alice needs to set herself a plan, rather than just vaguely leaving things for the future.

But can’t she just procratinate, even so? When I have an intention to do something, and a better idea comes along, there is nothing wrong with switching to the better idea. So, take the case where the repair is better done later. It seems that Alice can permissibly form the intention to unfreeze tomorrow, and tomorrow change her mind, and so on. But that would allow Alice to get away with never unfreezing, and yet without violating any further moral obligations (besides the ones she violated by the initial freezing).

It seems to me that to get out of this, one needs some way for making intentions be morally binding. Perhaps repentant Alice needs to promise herself or vow to God to unfreeze people on a particular day.

It seems that from our outlandish freezing scenario we can get some interesting conclusions:

  • intentions of restitution need a significant amount of specificity; and

  • there are ways of moral self-binding, such as self-promises or vows to god.

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