Note to my future self about our better, future selves

Since I heard of it, I’ve been fascinated by an idea that William Hazlitt wrote up to prosecute his case for the “natural disinterestedness of the human mind”. From an early age and then until his death Hazlitt fancied himself as a philosopher even though it wasn’t where he made his name. Wikipedia tells us that:

around 1795 [he was born in 1778], his thoughts were directed [toward] not only politics but, increasingly, modern philosophy, which he had begun to read with fascination at Hackney. He spent much of his time in intensive study of EnglishScottish, and Irish thinkers like John LockeDavid HartleyGeorge Berkeley, and David Hume, and French thinkers . . . From then on Hazlitt’s goal was to become a philosopher. His thoughts were focused on man as a social and political animal, and, even more intensely, on the philosophy of mind, what would later be called psychology.

In this period he discovered Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who became one of the most important influences on the budding philosopher’s thought, and Edmund Burke, whose writing style impressed him enormously. He was painstakingly working out a treatise on the “natural disinterestedness of the human mind”, meant to disprove the idea that man is naturally selfish, a fundamental concept in most of the philosophy of the day. Hazlitt’s treatise would not be published for a number of years, after further reading, and after other changes had occurred to alter the course of his career, but to the end of his life he would think of himself as a philosopher.

Hazlitt’s (my spellchecker reckons ‘Hazelnut’s’, but we’ll leave that for the time being), Hazlitt’s idea is expounded in his philosophical treatise “An Essay on the Principles of Human Action:  Being an Argument in Favour of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind“. It is this.  That while it makes sense for us to be selfish about our current self and situation, our relationship to our future self is more indirect. Our future self is another person. I have to confess that while I’m not too sure people would take to it regarding their future selves tomorrow, plenty might feel like me, that the self of me in ten or twenty years time isn’t something that the ‘me’ of today has the same kind of relationship with as the self of dinner time later today.

I like this idea.  I think it’s very powerful. I think it is capable of being a framework in which to house idealistic notions. For most of us the future is a place we hope to make better than the present, and we hope to make it better for ourselves and for others – so we can each enjoy it more together. I won’t say more about it, because, I am ashamed to say, I’ve still not read Hazlitt’s treatise. It sits on my Kindle in its original lettering in a difficult to manipulate visual pdf file. It will be read, but I’ve been busy lately. I really have.  Really really busy. And I’m getting busier. Funny thing is, it’s been on my Kindle for a year or so, during which time there have been periods when I’ve not been busy.  And then I haven’t whipped it out and read it.  What does that tell you?

Well what it tells you brings me to what I reading last night. I was reading good old James (Wisdom of Crowds) Surowiecki in the New Yorker on Procrastination, which is something that the generally excellent George Akerlof brought into mainstream economic discussion (OK he tried to) a couple of decades ago. It’s a good piece which I recommend. But I took particular note when I read of this experiment in Surowiecki’s article.

[I]n an experiment  . . . people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films.

So there you go. William Hazlitt might have liked this experiment. I hope so. It illustrates our high aspirations for the future. Just like my high aspirations to read Hazlitt.  And I don’t want to forget it, so I’m writing this unpost (new term I just made up which I rather like). It isn’t quite developed into anything, but it’s a marker to come back to. And perhaps a prompt for discussion and connections in comments. Oh and if you’re going to point out that this phenomenon of our plans for our future self wasn’t too well honoured in my own conduct having not actually read my new found friend Hazlitt, you’ve got a point.  Which reminds me. The passage just quoted continues:

The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”

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11 years ago

While we are desperately overdue for a new “framework in which to house idealistic notions” especially of the more hopeful kind, I can’t help thinking that a big part of the problem is theorists and philosophers looking for the signature characteristic of humanity.

Self interest as the hallmark of humanity completely ignores our capacity for altruism, or worse, takes it and mutilates it beyond recognition by turning it into its opposite, self interest. Rousseau, Hazlitt and Marx,on the other hand, share a belief in the inherent goodness of human nature which is prevented from emerging by a nasty society. These theories are completely unable to cope with the narcissistic, the solipsistic and the sociopath, who, particularly when they emerge as leaders, get treated as unexpected. Who could believe in the possibility of a completely self regarding other if people are inherently good? I could go on. Decision theorists treat heuristic thinking as if it is an error or bias. Post-modernists treat rationality as a historical digression. Heaps of people think possessing language is the be all and end all. Others think our predilection for sorting things, and making pretty sophisticated categories is the key and so maths or systems theory are central, and so on.

All of them pick out one bit and valourise it. Maybe it is some kind of religious hangover to keep asking the question “What makes us special?” “Special” is the wrong question. What makes us general? It seems obvious to me that we are not defined by a signature characteristic. Our humanity derives from the sum. And so does the character of other species which are also defined by many of the same things we are.

What’s even weirder is the confusion of “is” with “ought”, not that I am suggesting Nicholas is doing any of this, just riffing on a premise. It’s a thing we generally do with theories. Having a theory that says we are (name your flavour of the month characteristic) seems to suggest we ought to be like that and to give permission for odd and excessive behaviour of one kind or another – aggression, football and capitalism, say, or an inability and disinclination to come down from the clouds.