A Rationality Pill?

Suppose that you are a person who suffers from what an economist would call a “high discount rate.”  You tend to attach very little importance to the long-term consequences of your actions.  As a result, you smoke and drink a lot, eat a lot of bacon, are massively in debt, and so on.  Then, someone proposes that you take a pill which is known to make people attach greater importance to the future.

Would you take the pill?

Would it be rational for you to take the pill?

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8 Responses to A Rationality Pill?

  1. Nates says:

    Is this about David?

  2. David says:

    Interesting question, Lime (and very funny response, Nates, if that is your real name).

    I would take the pill. In fact, I can’t imagine any reason *against* taking the pill. I would thereby make myself more rational at relatively little cost to myself and with minimal effort.

    But your hypothetical reminds me of an article I perused a while ago that raised an interesting, somewhat related question. Suppose that you are a bit of a personal disaster. Left to your own devices, you are constantly making stupid, imprudent decisions and getting yourself into all sorts of jams. The main cause of your frequent practical failures is that you routinely choose less than optimal means to your ends. Now suppose that someone could ‘take over’ for you the selection of means without at all influencing your present ends/aims. This would no doubt infringe on your autonomy, but so what? Wouldn’t it be foolish to resist ‘outsourcing’ a part of your agency in this case, given that there is someone else (by hypothesis) who can do the agential work better than you can? Or, and this is the question lurking behind the initial question, is there some *inherent* or *intrinsic* value that would be lost in giving up a part of one’s agency?

  3. Lime says:

    Is the reason that you routinely choose less than optimal means to your ends that you (a) lack relevant information (or time to acquire it) or (b) that you are poor at practical reasoning? If yes, then there may be an importance difference between my example and David’s.

    In my case, you have all of the relevant information and know which choice will lead to which outcome. All the actions that would be induced by the pill are clear and in your repertory (as it were). You simply choose something else.

  4. David says:

    So we’re imagining something like an “anti-akrasia” pill? Such pills already exist on a local scale–pills to help people quit alcohol, quit smoking, suppress appetite, and so forth. (Basically, these pills are supposed to help people make the choices they know to be right.) I suspect you raised this question because you think there is something insidious about taking such a pill (?). Stop keeping me in suspense. Let’s hear it.

  5. juan says:

    i think it’s rational to take the pill,and also rational not to take it. it all depends on how much it’s going to modify your life,and whether you think that’s best overall.i would take a pill that would make me not care for bacon any more,but not one that would make me quit smoking for good.i would also take one that would make me smoke much less, and definitely one that would guarantee i wont end up in debt any more.
    what’s the difference between taking the pill and making serious efforts to change your life?is it that the pill is supposed to be doing all the work for you, and you don’t have any merit?as concerns small scale effects, like smoking less and such,i think that’s ok.but the initial question was posed i think with the intention of presenting this device that actually changes your overall personality ( for the better, of course).It really changes who you are.Should we want that?I dont have an answer to this question.
    Anyway,it wouldnt be irrational to wish for such a change,even if it was inadvisable or immoral or whatever.Just like the person who chooses Nozick’s experience machine is not irrational i would say.

  6. Lime says:

    Have I kept you in suspense for long enough, David? Sorry, I haven’t been able to get back to my computer often lately.

    Actually, I am not sure that I disagree with you David. It appears that Jon Elster does, however. In a recent lecture at the College de France, Elster describes what he calls the “principle of non-indirection.” An indirection is an operation that makes it possible to arrive at a certain result through two successive actions, the first of which functions only to make the second possible. For example, for many finding their keys requires first finding their glasses. In this case, no person would object to finding her keys without putting on her glasses; she simply can’t do it.

    In the case of the pill, the situation is different. The person I describe (not David) could begin to take care of his health and finances immediately, they simply choose not to. The principle of non-indirection states that a rational agent will not do in two steps what he would not do in one step.

    Any further thoughts?

    • David says:

      That’s interesting, Lime. But I don’t think I was imagining a person who simply chooses not to take care of his health and finances. Clearly, if someone–let’s call him ‘David’–sees no reason to take care of his health and finances, then he won’t see any reason to take a pill that will enable him to take care of his health and finances. I suppose I was imagining that David DOES see a reason to take care of his health and finances, but he lacks the motivation to do so. When he chooses to do so, his will soon falters and he finds himself spending money on expensive desserts and cigarettes. David would see a reason to take a pill that would curb this irrational behavior, and (it seems to me) it would be rational for him to take such a pill.

      Of course, this isn’t a counterexample to the principle of non-indirection, because if David’s reason for taking the pill is ONLY that it will enable him to take care of his health and finances, and David could do this without taking the pill (by making an effective choice, say), then he would indeed have no reason to take the pill and ergo it would be irrational for him to take the pill.

      I’d like to hear more about when Elster thinks we violate the principle of non-indirection…

  7. Lime says:

    Thanks David, I was curious to hear your insights and intuitions on these issues. Actually, I don’t think that Elster would claim that it is irrational for David to take the pill. What this example illustrates is the subjectivity and complexity of rationality – as well as the importance of distinguishing reason (what ends one ought to have) from rationality (the best way to achieve those ends). Normative economists generally refuse to make this distinction, because reason so understood involves moral philosophy.

    In an effort to be scientific rather than philosophical, economists lump morals, desires, inclinations, reasons, etc. into a broader category of “preferences.” It is not the purview of economics to judge an individual’s preferences. Instead (and I’m moving very quickly here) normative economics provides a cost-benefit analysis regarding which policies will best allow more individuals to achieve their preferences. How does an economist determine an individual’s preferences? By their choices, called “revealed preferences” (what they actually do). Any other notion of rationality relies upon moral philosophy (he should have wanted X rather than Y). On this understanding, it simply makes no sense to say that David chose to do what he didn’t want to do. In turn, it is irrational for him to do indirectly what he could have done directly. The principle of non-indirection presumes a coherence between ends and actions.

    Elster, on the other hand, tries to combine insights from rational choice theory with work in moral philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience to present a more plausible view of reason and rationality. Myself, I am a bit more concerned with institutional sources of preference-formation, but that is for another day.

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