Agnes Callard: A New Theory of Self-Creation

Because there are always things I like to do that are better than I like to do philosophy No mistake that I find doing philosophy extremely hard Except on the very, very few moments when one’s had a very good thought, almost like riding a surfboard into the coast My book is called “Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming” and it’s about trying to become a better person than the person that you are But not in that unrestricted way that I just described it, trying to become a better person in some specific respect, so like a better tennis player or a better listener to classical music or a better mother And my view is that a big part of improving, when the improvement is really kind of a substantial one, and kind of changes who we are, is a matter of coming to grasp a new set of values So an example that I keep coming back to in the book is a case where you want to come to appreciate classical music And maybe you do appreciate a tiny bit, so maybe there are like a few pieces that can entertain you for a short time or something, but you but you feel like you’re missing something like there’s a lot more there to be appreciated than what you’re currently responding to And so say you take a music appreciation class Then it looks like there’s a kind of paradox about your motivation, right? Because your reason for taking the class is like the intrinsic value of music That’s what you want to appreciate But it’s not the intrinsic value insofar as you already do appreciate it, because I mean that you’ve already got and that’s what you’re trying to get What you’re trying to get is the bit you don’t have So it’s sort of the value insofar as you can’t yet grasp it But insofar as you can’t yet grasp it, you can’t yet grasp it and it can’t motivate you And so it looks like, you know, the thing that should motivate you in taking the class is the thing you’re gonna get out of it but that’s not a thing you yet have access to Of course, there are other options for why someone might take a classical music class like they might do it to impress their friends, or to appear to be a lover of classical music because there are some social rewards for doing that But those, you know, we wouldn’t want to think that those were the only cases we’d want to think that it was possible to take a classical music appreciation class because you actually wanted to come to appreciate classical music And in that that’s sort of a case it looks like your motivation has to be the intrinsic value of classical music, but it can’t be, for the reason I just gave So my book is about that paradox It’s about how is it possible to try to come to appreciate something, given that your only reason for doing it has to be the value that you can’t yet appreciate? And what I argue is that the reason this looks impossible to us is that there are a bunch of assumptions that we’re making in a couple different areas of philosophy, which if those assumptions were true, it wouldn’t be possible to aspire, as I’m understanding it, so they must be false because I think it is possible And so I try to identify those assumptions So the first part of the book is about decision theory, the theory of rationality and what I argue there is that there are really, I guess, two, let’s say, impediments to the theory of aspiration within that part of philosophy One of them is the idea that all agency is a matter of decision So If we’re thinking about somebody becoming an appreciator of classical music or becoming a mother, that we should structure that in terms of a single point, a single moment of decision where, so to speak, before that moment they had no access to the value and after the moment they have full they have full access to the value So it’s like you flip a switch or something and then you become the thing you want to be Now, that’s actually a pretty hard way to model becoming a lover of classical music And that already illustrates the problem But so that’s actually not the example that people have focused on in the literature when they’ve used the decision model they focus on- so one example people like to talk about is pregnancy, like having a child And so the idea is, the minute you, and then actually which moment where we should pick out to me is not clear, let’s say you feel the baby kick or something or you see the positive pregnancy test, now you’ve transformed into a mother and you have these different desires and kind of phenomenal experiences

and there’s a different way of being for you that wasn’t there before and you decided, in this in this example, you decided to have that happen to you, throwing away the birth control pills or whatever – that was the decision And so then the question that philosophers want to ask is like, what would it be for that decision to be rational? And one philosopher, Laurie Paul, has- she’s even given us a way of modeling that real life example in terms of a fictional example, that’s even more decision-y So we had the classical music example, which I say is naturally really very decision-y And then we have the having a child example, which is still it’s not clear that like you do something and then the result is that you’re transformed But so the example she uses is becoming a vampire So the idea is suppose that it were made available to you to become a vampire, right? And if you become a vampire you will have radically different preferences and experiences from the ones you have now, so you will lose interest in emotional connections to all the people around you, you’ll be immortal, you’ll have great fashion sense, you won’t like daylight, right? You will want to drink blood So like- none of those things describe you now, right? So you So now you have to ask yourself, should I do it? Should I become a vampire? It doesn’t look that attractive because doesn’t satisfy any of your current preferences, but I mean, if you decide to become a vampire, those will be your preferences and then you’ll say, ‘Oh, I love this. I love being a vampire.’ You know that because all your friends have decide to become vampires and they love it and they say ‘Do it! It’s great!’ And then the question is, what would it take? What would it take for the decision to become a vampire to be rational? And it looks like there’s a fundamental problem here At least if you model this as a decision and then you approach it as a decision theorist Because the decision theorist is telling you ‘Well, the rational decision is the one that maximizes the expected satisfaction of your preferences.’ The problem here is that there are two sets of preferences: the preferences you have now, pre-vampire time, and the preferences you will have if you decide to become a vampire Sort of like the pregnancy case, right? Suppose now you have all these preferences like liking to have lots of free time and, you know, sleeping through the night, and you know, if you have a child, you’ll just like won’t be able to satisfy those You’ll have new ones that you can satisfy like looking at your cute child or something The question is, you know, what should you do when you have these two radically different preference bases from which you might make the decision? And at least some people have thought there is no answer to that question within decision theory Other people, Paul is among them, Paul thinks none of the conventional answers work but maybe you could model it, you could decide to make the choice rationally if you decided it solely on the basis of whether or not you wanted to have new preferences I won’t go into the details of that, I don’t think that works So effectively, I don’t think anyone really has shown us how the decision theorists can make sense of these sorts of choices But I think the problem with seeing it is a decision to start out with so I don’t actually there’s a problem with decision theory, that is, it’s usually poses as a problem with decision theory It’s like, here’s a decision that I can’t make sense of But if you shouldn’t have thought about it as a decision in the first place, then there’s no problem decision theory, there’s just a problem with how we’ve modeled this form of agency So as I understand it, this form of agency is essentially extended over time So it can’t be understood as something like where there’s a period of ignorance of the new value and then something that you do and then knowledge It has to be understood in terms of a learning process where over time you’re coming to know the value of, say, being a parent or classical music, I don’t have an analysis of the vampire case, but that’s okay because it’s fake So we need to be able to tell a story, I think, about that form of agency that stretches it over time and decision is not going to allow us to do that So that’s part one of the first third of the book, which is don’t model these as decisions Part two is in the theory of rationality, so the currently dominant theory of reasons of practical reasons, reasons why we do things, it’s called internalism The idea is you have a reason to do something if, roughly speaking, you would come to agree that you had that reason, were you to deliberate in a procedurally rational way about how to satisfy the desires you currently have

So, for example, you know, maybe I have a reason to drink what’s in that cup over there, because I’m thirsty And the idea is, I may not know that I have such a reason at the moment because I haven’t thought it through, but there’s not much thinking through required in this particular case But were I to think it through in a rational way, I’d realize that I do And that means even before I think it through, I have the reason So internalism allows you to ascribe to people reasons that they don’t necessarily self-ascribe, But what it doesn’t allow you to do is ascribe to people reasons that are not in some way– don’t hooked back into their desiderative set Right? The set of motivations that they currently have Motivation should be understood broadly Desires, projects, loves, affections There’s what they care about now and internalism says what they have reason to do is a function of that And so what I argue in the second part of the first part of my book is that if you think that, you’re never going to be able to understand aspiration because the aspirant’s reasons aren’t a function of what she currently cares about, they’re a function of what she will come to care about So they’re kind of You could get them by deliberating procedurally, rationally from the person she will be, but not from the person she currently is And, you know, one way to bring that out, is just to think about, she may currently be someone who cares, like a whole lot more about how much sleep she gets and whether she has free time, than looking at her baby’s cute face But that doesn’t mean that there’s no rational path, I think, from where she is now to motherhood It’s maybe worth saying something about that particular case because I talk about it quite a lot, both in the beginning and the end of the book, and I think, you know, it’s it’s maybe important to every kind of thing that you can aspire to that it’s a kind of ethical category And I do see motherhood as an ethical category rather than, say, like merely a biological one And so I think it takes a long time to become a mother Like, it doesn’t just take as long of amount of time as to see the pregnancy test And I also think as your child changes, motherhood changes and so there’s opportunities for learning there, let’s say, that are important to that example being a possible example for what I’m talking about OK, so that’s part one of the book, Rationality Part 2 is about Moral Psychology So it’s like what assumptions are we making in moral psychology that prevent us from acknowledging the phenomenon of aspiration? And what I say there is that essentially that there’s a There’s already somebody who went ahead of me in this particular area Which is Harry Frankfurt I think there was an assumption and he overturned it, but he didn’t quite see the significance of what he was doing as I understand it So I’ve kind of adopted a revisionist, it’s like a revisionist version of Frankfurt So Frankfurt has this great example: Imagine a guy who is trying to decide between going to a classical music concert and going to the movie that’s playing at the same time and he can’t go to both And he’s deliberating and say he decides to go to the concert But you can imagine that if it turns out the concert tickets are sold out, he goes to the movie, It’s his second choice Now imagine somebody who, like, somebody is walking towards them and it turns out it’s like an old acquaintance And they are they’re about to like say something nice to the person like ‘Oh it’s so great to see you.’ But then they’re tempted to just like make a really mean cutting remark And now imagine that they just sorta can’t get out the words to say the nice thing It wouldn’t make sense to be like, ‘Well, I’ll do my second choice of the mean cutting remark.’ OK, so what Frankfurt is pointing out is that not all problems of agency are of the first type That is, not all problems of agency, where an agent has multiple options or paths before them, can be understood as being able to be put in hierarchy So that’s the kind of dogma that I’m objecting to But as I say, Frankfurt already objected to it, so I didn’t come up with that problem But I think he didn’t appreciate how deep the problem was Here’s what he thought: He thought the problem was that in the second kind of case, the compliment-insult case, the person can’t deliberate about which of the two things to do, so they can’t resolve their problem by deliberation – that’s correct, I agree with him about that – but they could resolve it by identification

So they could decide which kind of person they want to be So they throw their will in with one side or the other I think that the problem is deep enough that they can’t really see the two options as options So they can’t resolve it by identification either, because they can’t decide ‘which of these two ways do I want to be?’ And the reason is because Appreciating the value of being in one of those ways gets in the way of appreciating the value of being in the other way So like insofar as you’re in the mindset, where one of those ways is a real option for you The other way isn’t even an option It doesn’t look like something you might do, right? So what I say is that’s what I call an intrinsic conflict when the so-called options only show up to you from evaluative perspectives that are themselves conflicting And there is no stepping back far enough that both of them just look like options to you You have to always be in one evaluative perspective or the other And so it’s a consequence for me that those kinds of conflicts where, you where, you know, you say to yourself, look, of course I’m going to say the nice thing, but then you’re sort of still tempted For me, that’s just like, well the other evaluative perspectives is coming up, there’s not a ‘you’ that decides between them, right? And so then, how does one resolve the conflict? Now, one can’t resolve it by deliberating – Frankfurt and I agree We agree on that point for different reasons Frankfurt thinks because it can’t be decided by deliberation I think because it’s not even available to deliberate about it So Frankfurt’s solution, which is that you just decide or identify, doesn’t work for me I think you resolve those conflicts by aspiring That is, I think what you do is you try to become the person who more fully inhabits the one evaluative perspective And it’s a problem of kind of attention So we can inhabit, in some sense, multiple evaluative perspectives at once in the way in which we can have our attention be split, But when you’re paying attention to one thing, but then you’re being distracted, there isn’t any point for you to step back where you get like all the data in view The distraction is kind of a genuine one And so I don’t think you can resolve it by any stepping back move, into the kind of person who only hears the one voice but I think you can resolve it by changing OK So that’s where the theory of aspiration sort of speaks to the moral psychologist There’s some stuff about weakness of will too, but maybe I’ll skip over that And then the final part of the book is on Moral Responsibility and it is about the problem of self-creation So in order for aspiration to be possible, it needs to be possible to create yourself But most philosophers- first of all you can’t do that So I need to argue that it is possible That’s the sort of dogma in that part of the book And you know what I what I argue is that people have understood anything that could count as self-creation sort of in like one of two ways One way would be, well, you make a decision about who to become on the basis of more perfectly fulfilling the set of values or desires you currently have So you could like, decide you want to go to the gym every day because you value health but you’re not instantiating the value But that’s not self-creation, right? Because you already have the self, right? You’re just not being consistent with it So that’s one option There it just looks like there isn’t really any creation And then the other option is, well, you could get a whole new self because you were like hit on the head by a brick or something or like, you know, you’ve had some experience that just changed you So there’s a new self, but you didn’t create it, it’s not really self-creation, right? And I think people have really thought that’s a very powerful dilemma It is a powerful dilemma It looks like, look, either the new self that you get is a product of your reasoning and therefore entailed by the previous state you were in, in which case it’s not really creation, Or the new self is not a product and it is rationally unconnected to the self that you had, in which case you didn’t do the creating It’s just a new self popped up So there’s like a dilemma that people have posed in one way or another for the very idea of self creation And what I tried to do is to show that the person who poses that dilemma is right in

saying that there are two requirements on anything that could count as self-creation So one is that the created self has to be genuinely new and not derivable by any kind of rational entailment from the earlier self So I’m willing to allow that And the other is there has to be a relation of normative dependence between the two selves, which is to say one of the selves has to be derivable from the other The reason why it seemed to people like this is a nut you can’t crack is because they’ve always assumed that it has to be the later self that’s derived from the earlier one And so what I argue is if you just flip that, then you solve the problem So I think there are revelations of rational entailment between the two selves, but they go the other way So the self that is like the governing authoritative self from which the norms spring is the later self and the governed self is the earlier self So one way to think about it is that it’s like the opposite of promising, right? So if I promise to do something for you, then my later self is bound by what my earlier self did You know, there’s a relation of normative dependence that is past heavy, the throw weight is the past And a lot of people have just even reflexively assumed that anything like self-creation would have to be modeled along the lines of promising So Joseph Ross does that, he uses the promising example specifically as like what it would mean to create oneself is like to make promises that one’s self later has to keep And so my thought is… I actually could use the language of promising to express it, but in a kind of perverse way, I could say sometimes we talk about some prospect, that’s like a promising one? ‘That’s a promising idea,’ right? We don’t mean that it’s making a promise, we mean that we can see something about it that we’re later going to be more clear about So it’s in that other sense of promising that I think comes closer to what I am talking about And so essentially what I think is that we sort of look up to our future selves, we try to become them, we don’t view ourselves as governing or shaping them And so if we model the relation between those two selves in that other way, we get around this dilemma And I then have some implications for the broader implications for the theory of moral responsibility to come out of that So for example, you know, there are I think really important questions about a moral responsibility for character Like what does it take to be responsible for the person you are? Where that isn’t I think immediately reducible to or the same as what does it take to be responsible for things you do Some philosophers have thought that there is like an obvious reduction Like, responsibility for action can be reducible to responsibility for character because if your character disposes you to act in a certain way, then you’re only as responsible for what you do, as how responsible you are for having developed a character that would make you do that I don’t think that, so I don’t think as much rides on the question of ‘Can we be responsible for our characters?’ as some other people do, but in any case, I think we can be responsible for our characters regardless of whether that’s going to be use to explain responsibility for action And I’m interested in saying something about that, because I think the theory of aspiration is the theory of how we are responsible for our characters And so what I say, well, it’s pretty straightforward, you’re responsible for your character if you got there by aspiring So that’s the theory, But then there are some interesting wrinkles So here’s one of them: I argue that you can only aspire, well, lemme put it this way If we’re looking at someone and we’re trying to decide, is she aspiring or not? We can only count her as aspiring if the thing to which we think she’s aspiring, we also think it’s good So in a simpler way, you can only aspire to conditions that are good, So suppose I aspire to be a mafioso Well, I can’t On my view you can’t do that, it’s impossible to aspire to be a mafioso because it’s not good to be mafioso So on my view aspiration is a form of learning it’s a form of value learning and the word learning like the word knowledge, is factive So just like you can only know what’s the case and also like the word remember, you can only remember what’s actually the case you can only learn what’s actually the case So you can only learn values that are actually there So that creates a bit of a problem for my theory of moral responsibility because it works fine for the good cases, so if you know, if you became a lover of classical music and then we want to know, are you responsible for having become that? The question is, did you get there by aspiring? And on my view, it’s always going to be the case that the answer is only partly, because aspiration rests on a community and a background of people helping you

So if you took a music appreciation class, you didn’t do all of it, your teacher helped you out So I think we don’t tend to be completely responsible for our characters even in a good case So it’s a matter of degree But I think you can contrast, so you can take like, take two kids and they both, you know, came to be able to appreciate a certain piece of music by playing it And they both play it equally well and they both appreciate it in exactly the same way, but one of them come from a wealthy family, has a piano teacher, mother, has lots of leisure for like playing the piano The other one, you know, comes from a poor family and has to, like, make time for the piano and is self-taught We would want to say that one bears more responsibility for having developed in himself the character such as to appreciate the piece than the first one The first one, I’m sure also has some of it So anyway I can make comparative judgments about the good case but there’s still the bad case, which is a problem for me And so I don’t think- I can’t say, “Well, if you’re a bad person or if you have a bad character or if you value things that are not, in fact valuable, then you’re responsible for that to the extent that you got there by aspiring,’ because I think you can’t aspire to those things I think you can value things that aren’t valuable So I think you can make value mistakes I don’t think the word value in a sense that it’s a thing we do, is factive in the way that the word ‘no’ is So I think people can value things that aren’t valuable, but I don’t think they can come to value those things by learning So how do they come to value them? Well, once again, I think we’re going to want two different cases, right? We’re going to want the case in which they’re responsible and the case in which they’re not So we need at least two ways So one of the cases I consider in my book is one that I personally found very compelling and it was happening at the time when I was writing the book There was this sort of Senator’s Chief of Staff Ryan Loskarn who you know, who’s kind of an up-and-coming D.C. player who was arrested for having child pornography on his computer and like really violent and really horrible child pornography And he sort of experiences immediate like cutting off from his community People just like, you know, he was immediately fired and everyone would want to distance themself from him because it’s the kind of like crime that we don’t even want to think about And when he was in jail, he talked to a counselor and eventually he wrote this letter, which was then put online by his family He committed suicide afterwards But I don’t think it was a suicide note It was just like a letter that he wrote to explain himself But it’s hard not to hear it as a suicide note, given that he shortly after that committed suicide Anyway, what the letter says is that he was sexually abused as a child like the ages of 5 and 7, and that he never told anyone except finally, this counselor in jail, and that he, you know, he felt like he had really mastered and overcome his abuse and he felt like a more controlled person because of how he responded to it, he kind of prided himself on the secrecy in which he sort of preserved that secret, but that he now he can sort of see that that event made him into the person that he is, and he is very explicitly in the letter saying like that he feels morally responsible for what he did in terms of perpetuating the abuse of these children by consuming this pornography, but that, you know, so he’s not trying to be absolved of more responsibility for what he but he does want to say, like, look, part of what made me enjoy this pornography was that it felt like it spoke to me, it spoke to the experience that I’ve had, I identified with these children and, you know, becoming that person, the person to whom that spoke, that was not his responsibility OK, so I find this case very compelling and I want a theory of aspiration that explains why someone in this position isn’t morally responsible at least for developing that character And what I want to say is that he’s not morally responsible because what it would be to be responsible would be to be culpable for not aspiring out of the bad condition that you’re in Or, you know, be culpable for not aspiring towards some good condition So culpability for bad character is a matter of culpability for failure to aspire And the reason why he’s not culpable for his failure to aspire is that the shame and secrecy in which he sort of locked himself meant that nobody could help him

And we can’t aspire by ourselves None of us can, ever And so, you know, you would be culpable for not aspiring if in effect, in spite of having people to help you, you still didn’t do it And so that’s the condition in which somebody would be morally responsible for their bad character, if they were not locked away in the way that he was through shame and secrecy But despite having available to you resources and people who would help you aspire into a better condition, you nonetheless fit through that So that’s moral responsibility and moral failure And yes, that’s it. That’s the book