Divide individuals for utilitarian libertarianism

or Why I could conceivably support banning smoking part 2 (at the request of Robert Wiblin, who would not support banning smoking)

A strong argument for individuals having complete freedom in decisions affecting nobody else is that each person has much better information about what they want and the details of their situation than anyone else does or could. For example it is often argued that people should choose for themselves how much fat to eat without government intervention, as they have intimate knowledge of how much they like eating fat and how much they dislike being fat, and what degree of mockery their social scene will administer and so forth. Not only that, but they have a much stronger incentive to get the decision right than anyone else.

A counterargument often made here is that people are just so irrational that they don’t know what’s good for them. Sometimes it’s not clear how anyone else would do better, being people themselves, and people in complicated organizations full of other motives no less. Sometimes it’s not clear whether people are actually that irrational in real life, or if they manage to compensate.

However one situation where it seems quite likely that other people would be better informed on your preferences and how an outcome will affect you is when you are making decisions that will affect you far in the future.  The average seventy five year old probably has more in common with the next average seventy five year old than they have in common with their twenty five year old selves, at least in some relevant respects. The stranger people are the less true this is presumably, but most people are not strange.  So for instance a bunch of old people dying of lung cancer have a much better idea of how much you would like lung cancer than you do when you are weighing it up in the decision to smoke or not much earlier in life.

This might not matter if people care a lot about their far future selves, as they can of course seek out people to ask about how horrible or great which experiences are. However even then they are doing no better than anyone else who does that, so there is no argument to be made that they have much more intimate knowledge of their own preferences and situation.

You could still argue that I have much more of an interest than anyone else in my own future, if only a slight one compared to how much my future self cares about herself. But I also have a lot to gain by exploiting her and discounting her feelings, so it’s not clear at all from a utilitarian perspective that I should be free to make decisions that only affect myself, but far into the future.

The simple way to make this argument is to say that the ‘individual’ is temporally too big a unit to be best ruled over by one part in a (temporal) position of power. The relevant properties of the right sized unit, as far as the usual arguments for libertarianism are concerned, are lots of information and shared care, and according to these a far future self is drifting toward being a different person. You shouldn’t be allowed to externalize onto them as much as you like for the same reasons that go for anyone else.

13 responses to “Divide individuals for utilitarian libertarianism

  1. Why choose the future over the present? The only reason we do

    so is if we perceive the present not to be worthy and thus try

    to change it. Always picking the future over the present is

    making the journey the reward.

    And what does that tell us? It is up to what we want. You tell

    me? Nope, it will come to me naturally.

    Over at lesswrong.com it’s the galactical civilisation people

    seem to care about most. You are talking about your future

    self. Both ideas have something in common, they are both

    imaginary entities.

    The ultimate purpose on which all meaning is based is the

    subjective-first-person knowledge of volition. A truth which

    is self-evident. Volition is a truth that is adequately proven

    by circular reasoning. I want what I want, by reason that’s

    what I want. Consequently, any action that helps to enforce

    your will is the only preferable action.

    Thus it is not about pleasing other beings, much less possible

    beings. It’s all about your preferences. The questions are if

    you are happy with the present or what you want to achieve.

    Not what is possible. It’s possible that you’re just the

    tribesman who’s happily trying to improve his hunting skills

    but ignorant of the possible revolutions taking place in a

    city only 1000 miles afar. Your preferences, what you really

    want, change as your knowledge and understanding grow.

    Is what we’ve been doing as kids still intellectually

    demanding and satisfying? At what point are we going to stop

    and enjoy? Isn’t there always more to learn? How do we ever

    know if there isn’t something out there that is more

    worthwhile, valuable, beautiful, something that makes us


    Can there be any goals except enjoying the present or the

    infinite seeking of knowledge and wisdom?

    The only reasons we care about other people is either to

    survive, i.e. get what we want, or because it is part of our

    preferences to see other people being happy. Trying to

    maximize happiness for everybody can just be seen as the

    selfish effort to survive, given that not you but somebody

    else wins. We’re trying to survive by making everybody wanting

    to make everybody else happy.

    Your existence is not irrelevant to you. You care not to be

    wiped out. But considering future possibilities regardless of

    the present is missing the only piece of information that is

    relevant to estimate the true value of these possibilities,

    namely what you want right now. It means to take a look from

    the outside, or in other words, take an objective view and

    thereby deduce that the present is of no value, that our

    current existence is irrelevant compared to the future. Of

    course, from the point of view of a fictional galactic

    civilisation or your possible infinite future this is true,

    from an imagined, made up viewpoint, created to give the

    desired result that the future is too big to be ruled over by

    the present.

    If you are dead, there is no will, indeed everything is

    irrelevant to you. Taking this standpoint and deduce that if

    everything is irrelevant from that point of view, it is also

    irrelevant from any other position is the same as prefering

    the future over the present for that it is larger.

    Just because you can imagine that as seen from outside of your

    first-person view thyself might be of no relevance, it doesn’t

    make it true. You will never “really”, “objectively” take that

    position, because it does not exist!

    So why would you support banning smoking? Because you want to.

  2. If my 25-year-old self and 75-year-old self are considered separate for the purposes of deciding who’s more similar to whom, or whose situation is more relevant, or whose advice should weigh more, then should they be considered separate for ethical purposes too?

    In other words, what kind of moral obligation does my 25-year-old self have towards my 75-year-old self? And should this moral obligation be legislated?

    For a 25yo to act in a way that she knows has a 33% chance of killing a 75yo is criminally negligent. Should it be criminal for a 25yo to engage in behavior that she knows has a 33% chance of killing her at age 75? If not criminal, is the 25yo as morally culpable in each case? And if not, is the culpability discount because the 75yo is removed in time, or in probability (she might not exist), or is it because the 25yo has rights relative to her future self (perhaps similar to the rights that a parent has over a child, or a parent over a fetus, or a person over their parietal lobe) that she doesn’t over other people’s current (and future) selves?

    Also, a 25yo and a 75yo might have different opinions about the extent to which a 25yo is morally responsible for the future 75yo; or even whether these are best considered, for different decisions, as different individuals.

    Some of these questions are easier to think about with respect to suicide, perhaps because some of the strongest arguments against smoking are based on the extent to which it’s a (probabilistic, semi-hedonic) suicide — does a 25yo have a moral obligation to her potential sequelae to stay alive?

    Also, a minor point: “So for instance a bunch of old people dying of lung cancer have a much better idea of how much you would like lung cancer than you do when you are weighing it up in the decision to smoke or not much earlier in life.” — yes, but your advisor pool should also include (a proportional representation of?) old people who smoked and aren’t dying of lung cancer telling the 25yo how they enjoyed their cigarettes, and old people who didn’t smoke telling the 25yo if they felt they’d missed out. (Although I bet this wouldn’t change the result, given that so many smokers want to quit, and given the non-cancer consequences too.)

  3. Good post. I second Oliver’s questions about moral/legal culpability for risky behaviour endangering our future selves, which were at the forefront of my mind while reading.

    For what it’s worth re our last conversation, this is one more reason I hold for why you can’t arbitrarily trade away all of your rights. As I’m sure you’re already aware, given your questioning had a somewhat Socratic/devils advocate tone.

  4. Actually the strongest argument against letting people eat what they want is that fat people have more health problems, and we all wind up paying more for their health care.

    Unless you believe that everyone should pay for his/her own health care. Which is a defensible position, but not a common one.

    But if you believe that society should provide “universal health care”, then you also believe that personal decisions about eating and smoking do not just affect you.

  5. Great post.

    1) One problem with emphasizing the quality of life of (or perhaps the potential existence of…) the 75 year old ‘me’ is that the time span over which one would benefit from a ‘healthy’ lifestyle as a 75 year old is much shorter than the timespan over which one is required to make sacrifices on a continuous basis. Which is presumably one of many reasons why a lot of people live relatively unhealthy lifestyles. If you choose to not smoke and commit ‘yourself’ to make sacrifices for, say, the next 40 years, then maybe you can expect to live another 5 or 10 years. It doesn’t stop you from dying in the end anyway. Because of modern medicine you can actually live a quite unhealthy life and still expect to live much longer than your distant ancestors.

    2) The focus on the 75 year old of course also begs the question: Why not consider the 85 year old instead? The 65 year old? An average 20 year old male is very different from an average 40 year old male, shouldn’t the law take this into account too in order to protect the 40 year old? What if the interests of the 75 year old me conflicts with both the interests of the 25 year old ‘me’ and the 45 year old ‘me’? In short, how long time can we expect to pass before you can no longer be considered the same person, and how do we weigh the interests of the different potential ‘selfs’? It can very quickly get very complicated to deal with issues such as these and there are no clear-cut answers.

    3) Laws that help people on average still usually hurt some people, and it’s often a tradeoff where an expected small gain of each individual in a large group should be compared to an expected big loss of each individual in a small(er) group. I of course state this because a legal framework that would try to protect the lives (/quality of lives…) of (potential) 75 year olds would likely do nothing but hurt me – both the 25 year old me and the 35 year old me and the 50 year old me. For instance, if I was required by the government to save money for my retirement in order to protect the 75 year old me, I would be much harmed by that policy, because I in all likelihood because of a medical condition won’t survive to ever reach the age of 75. The policy would thus achieve nothing but lower my lifetime consumption. Yes, you could amend the system to compensate the losers, but the more complicated the system gets, the less likely it is that it will achieve the goals it was supposed to achieve. This points to a fourth problem:

    4) The 75 year old me don’t have a vote. I do. This, I believe, would make attempts to increase overall lifetime utility in ways such as these very difficult to implement politically. Not impossible, mind you, but difficult – and it’s likely that the more effective the laws would be, the more difficult it would be to stop young 25 year olds from voting against them.

  6. If what you are concerned about is desire satisfaction could also treat an akrastic as separate people regardless of time. Although different parts of yourself have greater opportunity for ‘negotiation’ than distant time slices so there is less of a case for intervention.

  7. If laws and regulations were determined more by 75 year olds, this would make more sense as a justification of such things.

  8. @Robin

    You needn’t change the system all that much in that regard: The average age of US senators is 63, the average age of the Supreme Court justices is 69:


  9. I can’t remember why I disagreed with this as the discussion was over six months ago.

    If someone has a high discount rate then a zero-discounting utilitarian might want to protect their future self from intertemporal externalities by restricting their behaviour. And I agree, the further away in time that future self is, the less private knowledge the present person has about what they will want.

    However, they may still be a better judge than a law which treats all people as if they were the same (which seems the only practical alternative). Someone who only just enjoys life more than death might have good reason to smoke. Their friends might be able to predict their far future selves’ subjective well-being as well as they can, but it’s unlikely a bureaucrat who hardly knows them could.

    The common suggestion for how to cure people of time inconsistency in behavioural economics is to give people better commitment devices so their less patient side can make decisions about what their future self should do. We could have smoking licenses for example, which must be applied for a year ahead of time. This is technically difficult, but would help combine private knowledge about preferences with less impatience (that is to say, more compassion for your future self).

  10. Pingback: Russians are collectivist « Entitled to an Opinion

  11. It isn’t necessary to think of future selves as distinct from our present selves ala Parfit for this kind of thinking to sometimes justify paternalism. Human beings are composed of multiple selves right now. (See here.)

    Basically, this is equivalent to having some lunatic show up, make a decision, then leave and let someone else take the consequences. It might therefore sometimes be justified in restraining the lunatic in order to protect a persons other selves.

    • But if part X of you loses in the decision making process to part Y (both existing now), we usually say the preference of Y was greater than the preference of X so you made the right decision.

      Not clear why we should take sides in intrapersonal disagreements, or how we would work out who to side with.


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