There’s something puzzling about intentionally acquiring a new value: if we don’t already have the value, what motivates us to acquire it? This is best understood through an example: a young student takes a music appreciation class in order to learn to appreciate the value of classical music. She doesn’t already appreciate the value of classical music—if she did, she wouldn’t need the class. But if she doesn’t appreciate its value, why take the class? The class is hard work, after all: she must spend hours listening to music that she doesn’t yet appreciate!
Philosopher Agnes Callard calls this kind of intentional value acquisition ‘aspiration’. In this interview, we discuss a number of issues surrounding aspiration: how it is possible, how it begins, why one cannot aspire to be a gangster, and perhaps most surprisingly, how aspiration accounts for how we can author of our own lives. Along the way, we discuss the nature of motivation, future-to-past normative grounding, and the immortality of the soul. We end with a quick discussion of the value of public philosophy.
0:02 – Intro to Agnes Callard
3:50 – What is aspiration?
5:13 – What aspiration is not
17:27 – Moral skepticism and aspiration
24:04 – Proleptic reasons and motivation
45:13 – Starting to aspire and the direction of self-creation
55:40 – Future to past normative grounding, ontological commitment, and motion
1:11:52 – The value of aspiration, the good life, and the immortality of the soul
1:28:42 – The value of public philosophy
Suppose you’re in a serious, long-term monogamous relationship. One day, your partner comes to you and says: “I have been finding myself irresistibly attracted to other people. I’ve tried just getting over it but it hasn’t worked. This has left me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. I still love you and remain committed to our relationship. Can we discuss options for alleviating my situation while still staying together? I am open to anything, and let’s talk, but I hope you will at least consider an option that involves my seeing other people in some form because I doubt that anything less will make me feel okay. In turn, I will consider anything that you might need to make that workable for you.”
How do you respond? As I see it, you have two broad options:
A: say ‘absolutely not, no chance in hell, if you require this to even be an option, then I’m out’; or
B: say ‘let’s look at our options’.
B can have a number of different flavors. It can be something like, ‘yes, of course, if you really feel that way, let’s consider our options’. Or it can be something more like ‘I really don’t like this and doubt that it can work; what’s more, I have some non-negotiables; but, okay, let’s talk and see what we can work out’. One is more open than another, but both fall into category B.
If you can honestly say that your answer would be of form B, you’re already in a polyamorous relationship.…
Disclaimers! First: I (somewhat indirectly) work for Tyler Cowen.
Second, this is a reply, not a review. My review is simple: Stubborn Attachments is a fascinating, thought-provoking work of political philosophy. Given its depth and originality, it’s also remarkably accessible. I strongly recommend it.
Third: there is plenty of interesting material in the book that I will not address at all. This includes narrow arguments about redistribution and environmental policy, as well as more abstract arguments about ethical disagreement and decision-making. I will not touch on these because I either simply agree, or if I have reservations, they’re not all that interesting.
Onto the fun stuff.
Introduction: Cowen’s argument in a nutshell, and map of my response
Essential to Cowen’s position is the claim that the discount rate for the value of the wellbeing of future people should be zero. In other words, the fact that someone doesn’t exist yet does not at all diminish the ethical value of their wellbeing. John, who is alive today, living a life of, say, 100 net utils, is worth exactly the same as Linda, who will live two hundred years from now, living a life of 100 net utils.
Presumably, there will be many, many more people alive in the future than are alive today. So, when we think about hard things like public policy and social organization, we shouldn’t aim to maximize the wellbeing of people alive today. Instead, we should maximize the wellbeing of all people—present and future. Given that there will be so many more future people, in practice this means our focus should be on maximizing the wellbeing of future people.…