Some complain that young people are irresponsible and foolish for spending their money on Starbucks or avocado toast when they could be saving for a deposit for a house.
Even setting aside any misunderstandings on the complainers’ part about the cost of deposits and toast I think such irresponsibility is rational, and I’m going to present what I think is a novel philosophical argument for it — one, at least, that moves me quite a lot. The argument makes use of several interesting ideas from recent analytic philosophy, so I’ll also introduce those ideas.
The form of responsibility that the avocado toast complainers are interested in is responsibility towards your future self. You shouldn’t do things now that are going to cause problems for yourself later, like eat healthy fats on wheat that will lead you to be still renting at 40. You’re mistreating your future self — depriving them of money they could put to better use.
I don’t think one is mistreating one’s future self, because, in essence, for those of us living now, we don’t have future selves. The world is going to get either much worse or much better in the coming years, and this is going to change us fundamentally, so that what we want and are concerned about will change fundamentally. But we are, plausibly, just what we want and are concerned about, and so the future parts of us will be different beings from the current parts of us.
Here’s a rough analogy. Say you knew that in five years the world, including where you lived, would be plunged into war, a war in which you had to fight. Alternatively, and more optimistically, say you knew that you would suddenly come in to a life-changing sum of money: for example, a relative gives you a million dollars. Either of these scenarios will change you unrecognisably.
At the moment, you may desire to travel the world. It could be your deepest held desire. But that’s likely to change in either of the above scenarios. In the war scenario, your deepest held desire might be simply an adequate supply of water; in the millionaire scenario, it might be, say, to be the president. There’s a lot of difference, you might think, between those whose deepest desire is just for water, those for whom it’s world travel, and those for whom it’s the presidency. If you were to learn that your desire was going to change that way, you should feel a disconnect between who you are now and who you will be; moreover, you should feel that it’s not irresponsible to act in a way that favours yourself at the expense of future you. It’s pointless to save for a house if war-induced hyperinflation is going to reduce your savings to nothing; it’s pointless to save for a house if you’re just going to inherit enough money to buy one soon. So, in the war-or-millionaire scenario, you should get the avocado toast.
In a second, I’m going to argue that we should expect something like the war-or-millionaire scenario. But first I want to take a detour to consider some recent work in philosophy that helps understand these sorts of decision problems, and which influenced this post.
Transformative Experience And Externalism
A few years ago the philosopher Laurie Paul introduced the notion of transformative experience to capture how we make decisions about things that, if we act on them, reshape our nature in such a way that us before and us after have different values and desires that are hard to integrate. An accessible account can be found here.
She has several vivid examples; I will consider just one. Thus consider the decision to have a (first) child. Whether or not to have a child is a hard decision to make. It’s hard for several reasons — for one, it’s very hard to know what it’s like to be a parent in advance of actually being one. And for a second, becoming a parent changes one’s desires fundamentally. Before doing so, you might be able to know what it would be like to care for an infant. And you may not may not find that appealing — they can be cute but also annoying.
Caring for a child is very different from caring for your own child, though. You can’t really imagine what that’s like. And you can’t anticipate how it’ll change your desires — how you might come to want nothing more than to spend all your time with this young child, whereas the thought of spending all your time with some random child leaves you, as it does most people, cold. Having a child is a transformative experience.
The point that I want to eventually make is roughly that going to war or becoming a millionaire is something like a transformative experience, in the sense that it fundamentally reshapes one’s desires and concerns about the world, and that we avocado toast considerers should anticipate war or millions in the 2020s or 2030s.
But the fit isn’t quite perfect at the moment — in Paul’s cases, we are faced with a decision that we are in charge of. We decide actively to have a child; in the war and inheritance case, though, it’s something that happens to us.
To make the idea of transformative experience play nice with the concerns of this post, I will introduce a second concept that receives a lot of attention by analytic philosophers (indeed, it’s considerably more venerable, dating from around the 1970s, although it has been constantly refined and developed), namely what’s called externalism.
The last fifty or so years have seen a movement away from the thought that one’s mental life is something to which one has special privileged access, in favour of a view according to which the external world impinges upon and determines the nature of that life.
That’s jargony. So let’s consider an example. The view first arose in the philosophy and language in the mind with the theory that what your beliefs and desires are about is not something you can learn just by introspecting.
To show this, Hilary Putnam came up with a famous thought experiment. Water, on planet earth, is H2O. Imagine there was another universe exactly like ours except the stuff that was in rivers and came from taps and which we could drink was the chemical element XYZ. Apart from that, it’s exactly like earth. In particular, there are people who speak English and who go around saying things like “I sure would like a glass of water!”
Consider my duplicate in this alternative reality saying this, and consider me saying it here on earth. The two scenarios are identical but for the nature of the stuff in rivers. That means they’re identical as far as the introspectible mental states of me and my duplicate. We have the same mental states; at least, introspection makes it seem like they’re identical. But we’re talking about different things: I am expressing my desire for H2O — that’s what my thought is about — while my duplicate is expressing a desire for XYZ. So you can’t learn what your desires are about just by looking at your mental states, because your mental states don’t uniquely determine any one object of aboutness. My duplicate and I have the same mental state but want different things. As Putnam famously says, meanings ain’t in the head.
A core theme in much contemporary analytic philosophy is that many things ain’t in the head. The world presses on us and shapes our mental states. It seems quite reasonable to extend this to our personality. Who we are isn’t something that is in the head: rather, it’s something, at least in part, determined by our environment. Change the environment, change the personality. And that makes sense of our view that we would be very distanced from how we are now in the war-or-millionaire scenarios: because the environment has changed markedly, so has our personality.
But what, you might ask, has this to do with avocado toast? What it has to do is this: we’re currently like a person contemplating a war-or-millionaire future, and since it’s rational for such a person to eat the toast, it’s rational for us to do so. Next, I make this point.
What The Future Brings
For millennia, a story goes, things didn’t change much. The world one found was similar to the world one’s parents found. Although events were unpredictable, they were predictably so: there was always a change of bad harvests or war, but there had always been such changes. Economic output and and other measures of progress proceeded at a more or less constant speed.
Our world is increasingly unlike the world of those who came before us. We’ve left our mark on it and will continue to do so. There are new forms of war and new belligerents, a warming planet that no one is doing anything about, and humans are living for longer than it seems the economy, as currently set up, can bear. Any of these three factors, or at least so I believe, could lead to an event of world-historical importance in the next couple of decades. That could be nuclear war or complete denuclearisation, or massive death tolls among those most exposed to global warming and the elderly. Alternatively, and more positively, maybe these things could end well: maybe the world en masse will refuse to let millions in the exposed global south die, or — more likely — will refuse to let first-world elderly die through neglect leading to the re-emergence or the creation of new social support systems at a scale we’ve never seen before.
That’s impressionistic, and maybe you can’t get more than impressionistic when trying to predict the future, but it’s worth noting that according to some of those who see patterns in history, we’re overdue a change. According to the idea of Kondratiev waves (a decent first source to consult here is the wiki), economic development is cyclical: periods of growth, marked by the introduction of new technology, are followed by periods of stagnation and depression, a whole wave lasting between 40–60 years. Although very controversial, one could view the development of information technology beginning roughly at the start of the last third of the 20th century as beginning a wave that we’re currently at the tail end of, and thus that we should expect a new wave to come (the internet of things, some think), bringing with it prosperity, or, at least, a markedly different social, economic and political world (think of how different life was in 1965 relative to now). Similarly, the theory of cliodynamics has it that history cycles between periods of political stability and periods of instability, with one such unstable phase in the West beginning in the mid-70s. It’s plausible to think that Trump and the return of the far right are marking an endpoint in this, and thus that we’re due for change. (For more on cliodynamics, see this by its founder. In the first bit of this post I outline the theory.)
While you may think such predictions are a waste of time, I think you should at least be open to the possibility of widespread change soon, either for good or bad. The closest to home for me and probably for most of my readers is the treatment of an ageing population. There are too many years of life, and expensive, ailing years of life at that, chasing too little money, either in the form of government benefits or in the form of a younger generation that can spend time/money to care for the elderly. Something will have to change either for the better, or the worse.
But if things are going to change drastically, who I am is going to change too. I suggested two ways to understand this: what I desire is going to change, and I am what I desire. Or my society is going to change, and I am externalistically shaped by my society, so, again, I am going to change. I accordingly think that future me is going to be markedly different from current me; perhaps unrecognisably so.
Note that this is out of my control. I can’t stop those changes in myself, because they’re the result of external changes over which I have no control. I’m not responsible for nuclear war or political instability or social welfare policies. I thus think that I will not only be different from what I am, but that I don’t have the capacity to control those differences. And so I think it’s somewhat pointless even to try.
And this brings us back to toast and irresponsibility. If I expect to be a different person to who I am now, and one whose nature is determined by things outside of my control, then I shouldn’t be too concerned to act on behalf of that person. I should act on behalf of my current self, over which I do have control. If, to a large extent, I am not responsible for how I’m going to be in the future, then it’s not irresponsible of me to concentrate on today, and to eat the toast.