As Parfit famously claims in Reasons and Persons, we would prefer to hear that our painful surgery is 10 hours long and finished than that it is 1 hour long and about to start. If true, this claim means that our judgments about the value of future suffering are very different from our judgments about past suffering. But, surely past and future suffering have equal disvalue for our lives, and we should privilege the total amount of suffering in our judgments. Relying heavily on experimental data, I argue that our privileging of our own future hedonic states is peculiar, and poses a puzzle regarding the rationality of this deeply held way of thinking.
All data reported refer to paper-based surveys of undergraduate students at CSUS and Waikato (New Zealand). References to “we”, “our” etc. below technically apply only to the respondents. Only one scenario is presented per survey. All statistics cited are statistically significantly above 50% (roughly: I can say most people reported X with 95% confidence). Sample sizes range from 60-100.
We normally evaluate goods by privileging the quantity of the good, paying less attention to when the goods are received. Most would rather live a life with a 1-hour painful surgery (90%) than a 5-hour painful surgery (10%). Most think that a 54-year happy life (87%) is better than a 24-year happy life (13%). It’s simple: less suffering and more happiness is better. But note that contradicts our judgments about Parfit’s case, which is paraphrased below.
You must have a perfectly safe and effective surgery. You must be able to feel pain during, but you will be made to forget after.
You have just woken up. The nurse says you may be the patient who had the operation yesterday (lasted 10 hours), or the patient who is to have the operation later today (lasting 1 hour). It is either true that you did suffer for 10 hours, or true that you shall suffer for 1 hour.Most of us would prefer to hear that our painful surgery is 10 hours long and finished (73%) than that it is 1 hour long and about to start (27%). Removing the “made to forget after” bit doesn’t make much of a difference (84% prefer 10 hours past to 1 hour future suffering).
Which would you prefer to be true?
We see a similar effect with another hedonic state: happy years. Waking up in hospital again, most people report preferring to hear that they have already lived 40 happy years, and would go on to live another 30 happy years (86%) when the other option was that they have lived 70 happy years and have 1 more happy year to go (14%).
So, when asked to make the judgment from the in-the-moment point of view (e.g., the case above and if you were asked about your future and past right now), most of us privilege future hedonic states over total hedonic states (otherwise we would have preferred to hear that our 1-hour painful surgery was later today).
Considering further cases reveals that it is our privileging of future hedonic states in the moment that is peculiar.
When a version of Parfit’s case is presented with the patient being someone you care about (like a relative) rather than yourself, most report preferring to hear that the patient will suffer 1 hour in the future (88%) rather than having already suffered for 10 hours in the past (12%).
Again, we see a similar effect with happy years. Most of us would rather hear that our long lost relative had lived for 70 happy years and had 1 more happy year to go (73%) than that they had lived for 40 happy years and had 30 more happy years to go (27%).
So, when making judgments about the lives of other people we care about, most of us privilege total hedonic states over future hedonic states.
Now consider a version of Parfit’s case in which the two lives differ most prominently in regards to success (as opposed to hedonic states). Most of us would prefer to hear that we had published 5 excellent books in the past and won’t publish any more (82%) than that we had published none in the past and would publish 1 in the future (18%).
So, when making judgments about (at least) one non-hedonic good, most of us privilege the total amount of that good over the future amount of that good.
Let’s sum up the findings to bring the puzzle into stark relief. Most of us privilege our future hedonic states when making in-the-moment judgments about our lives. But, in all of the other cases, we privilege the total amount of the good over the future amount of the good. (The other cases, again, were lives from the whole-life view, other people’s hedonic states from the in-the-moment view, and other goods (for us) from the in-the-moment view.
The contrast that makes this puzzle the most apparent comes from comparing our views on Parfit’s surgery case and the surgery case for someone you care about. Most of us really want our painful surgery to be in the past (84%), even if it was 10 times longer! But, most of us also want our relative’s painful surgery to be in the future (88%), precisely because it is 10 times shorter! These verdicts seem to be contradictory.
Is it possible that the rules of prudential value work differently for us than for others? That would be strange, since from most other people’s point of view, they make judgments in the same way (they would choose for themselves to have the surgery in the past, just like you would for yourself, but not for them!)
So, it seems that one of the judgments reported above must be wrong. Our privileging of our own future hedonic states from the in-the-moment point of view is the odd one out – but is that enough to conclude that it is the mistaken one?
School of Social Sciences
University of Waikato
University of Waikato