Tuesday, October 30, 2007

aiming at it.

twenty years ago derek parfit wrote a book, and one of the things that he said in it is: it's sometimes true that "if someone tries to achieve [certain] aims, those aims will be, on the whole, worse achieved". he says that if you play tennis to have fun, you'll have less fun than you will if you play to win, and that's a stupid example, but there are others. there is the larger contention that our self-interest, on the whole, may be worse served by those who go around consciously serving their own best interest. and even that, one the whole, the interest of our families may be better served when we choose to act in the interest of some larger community.

there are endless examples of this-- how in aiming at something too directly we defeat our own aims. i think it happens two ways-- one is a matter of the limitations of our practical reason-- how we aren't able incorporate enough information to be good conscious calculators of how to serve some particular interest, as in the above examples. the second class of examples come up when people relate to one another in groups- maneuvering socially, pursuing and spurning one another's advances. how uncool x proves himself in his efforts to be cool-- how y, acting out of a desire for z's attention, looses it. there's something about us. we want all kinds of power-- knowledge, beauty, notoriety, social status-- and we like other people who have it, but we save a special kind of disgust for those we catch pursuing power directly. we respect those who achieve it indirectly, as the bi-product of some other aim. i've thought about this phenomenon before, felt badly that i'm so repulsed by people who aren't so good at masking their aims. they're seams are showing, i say. and i know that other people have seams, too, whether they're showing or not, and i wonder why i should like someone better just because they're more adept at coving their tracks.

there's a mess more to say-- especially about how this is bound up with the idea of non-maximizing dispositions (which i think may also be a concept propounded by parfit) and how both concepts hinge on game theory (the classic prisoner's dilemma v. the iterated prisoner's dilemma). and also something about the problems of escaping this-- what if trying not to care about one's own self-interest- or about one's social position- or about the object of one's affection- is itself the sort of aim which is self-defeating?

1 comment:

Jane said...

What if a person could hook her self-interests to a community's interests?

For example (and this is a real example, from when I worked at the Pine Street Inn many years ago), what if a person owns a townhouse in the Back Bay, and he wants to do something about the homeless, because he doesn't want them living in the alley behind his property? This might selfishly motivate him to get involved in local efforts to serve the homeless better, and provide them with transitional housing and services. Yes, it's entirely in his self-interest -- his own life improves if there's a successful outcome to his charitable donation and service on a shelter's board of directors -- yet the texture of the community improves, too, even though there's something kind of mealy at the base of his motives: he just doesn't want to deal with poor people. (Although, oddly, by joining the organization, he does come to deal with them.)

I have no philosopher's mind, but it is really interesting to me how self-interest and "selflessness" (is that even possible?) entwine.