In this essay I will be attempting to answer the question ‘Is it irrational to care differently about some happening on the basis of whether it lies in the past or in the future, and (in each case) how far?’
When it comes to our past situations we certainly do care differently to how we care about the future. Although as with the future (which I will discuss later in this essay) it becomes more irrational to care about things which happened further and further into the past, and the irrationality depends on how much that past correlates and affects the future and present. I will expand on this view as I put forward several arguments, such as for distant-past, close-past, distant-future, close-future, and how all of these relate to the present and affect the rationality of how much we care and how rational the care is in relation to time.
As hinted above we care differently based on where in time those cares are and how much they affect our future and present. When the care is based on an event in the distant-past it does seem irrational to care about it as much as about the present, but is made complicated by how much it affects the present and future.
For example, let us imagine the event of losing your bike happened when you were five years old and now you are fifty years old. To care about that fact does seem irrational. However, if this losing of your bike impacts on your present or future situation then caring about it would be rational, even if it was forty five years ago. Let us imagine that losing your bike resulted in you never being able to learn how to ride a bike because you lost it exactly because you couldn’t ride it. Now you’re a fifty year old who is not able to ride a bike and for some unknown (and absurd) reason you haven’t had a chance to learn or have a bike around you until right now – your grandchild wants you to teach him how to ride his brand new bike, and your child wants to film it as a memento of your relationship with your child and your grandchild. For this to harm you and make you care about such a distant past is not irrational at all. Your distant-past is having an immediate affect on your present.
Looking at distant-past events which still impact on your life and caring about them is not irrational. But if such events no longer had any impact on your life, and were done and dusted, it would be rather irrational to care about such so far into the past events even which are irrelevant to you and your caring in general. They have no impact on your future and present, thus become practically irrational to care about.
This also applies to positive events as well as negative ones. If thinking into your distant past affects your current mood or how you’re planning to go into your future, then it is rational to care about. Caring about your distant-past when it affects your present and future plans and mood is rational, as it is a basic human motivating factor which we use to adjust our current self, and our future plans and life.
One could make the argument that all past events affect the present and future because of determinism, and how every action and event leads to another. This argument is based off a metaphysical assumption which is not what I am concerned with in this essay. I am concerned with the practical application of care and time, and how they affect each other and the way we live, and of course how rational (or irrational) that is.
When it comes to close-past it becomes significantly more rational to care because of the closeness to your current situation. Remembering what happened a short while ago is a key learning ability for rational beings who are going forward into the future. Forgetting or not caring about the close-past would create a circular behaviour pattern which could make you more prone to repeating mistakes and also successes over and over again. This could become so circular that one would come across like someone who cannot learn, or even ignorant or some kind of addict towards repetition.
To make myself clear, this same habit of repetition can form when we care too much about certain things in our close-past or distant-past. For example, in OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) we repeat our past safe behaviors in order to endlessly repeat the safe result. This becomes compulsive and detrimental. So, caring too much or too little about the close-past and distant-past are equally as damaging and should be avoided. We should thus care about the past which affects our future, and thus is worth caring about and rational to care about. Parfit expresses this in his Reasons and Persons: (1)
‘Our bias towards the future is bad for us. It would be better for us if we were like Timeless. We would lose in certain ways. Thus we should not be relieved when bad things were in the past. But we should also gain. We should not be sad when good things were in the past.
The gains would outweigh the losses. One reason would be this. When we look backward, we could afford to be selective. We ought to remember some of the bad events in our lives, when this would help us to avoid repetitions. But we could allow ourselves to forget most of the bad things that have happened, while preserving by rehearsing all of our memories of the good things. It would be bad for us if we were so selective when we are looking forward. Unless we think of all the bad things that are at all likely to happen, we lose our chance of preventing them. Since we ought not to be selective when looking forward, but could afford to be when looking backward, the latter would be, on the whole, more enjoyable.’ (2)
So, as can be seen it is not irrational to care about the close-past and distant-past, while it does become less rational to care about the past the further into the past it goes coupled with how much that past is now affecting your present and the future. Neither are irrational to care about, but the closer and more immediate the affect the past on your current situation and situations to be, the more rational it is to care about the past.
Moving away from the subject of past and onto the subject of the future. We have a very similar situation where caring about the future is not irrational, and caring about the future seems to be more rational than caring about the past because we have yet to deal with it, and use our care of the future to rationally construct contingent plans and thinking methods in order to make the future the way we like, or to avoid the future which would be Hell for us. Thus caring about the future as a whole is as rational as caring about the past, if not more rational because of its immediacy and its incomingness.
When it comes to the distant-future it becomes less rational to care than the close-past because of several reasons. One of the main reasons is because we simply can’t plan that far ahead without taking into account that it won’t play out that way, thus our plan needs to be loose if it is for the distant-future because of the nature of the future and its unpredictability.
Another reason is because it is so far in the future that we naturally find it hard to care, although this does not affect the rationality of caring. Planning your future and caring about what will happen in your future is a natural care that we have, and the reason for it is rational: because that distant-future will be our present eventually, thus we identify our distant-future with a coming-in-present which will have to be dealt with.
We care for our distant-future which is why we plan ahead and make long-term plans like our career, and educating ourselves so we can gain the distant-future that we would like to have in our present. This also includes other people, we care about the future of other people and our own future because we care now, and when we imagine the future becoming present we have a rational reaction which allows us to forge a plan and feelings about how that future will affect us, and how we can come up with contingent plans to help us in our present towards that distant-future.
The close-future is a more rational care than the distant-future because it is more immediate and presents itself to our present-self in a more real sense, than those which are distant. The rationality of the close-future is as rational as that of our rationality of the close-past. We use the close-past in order to make sense of what we are currently doing, how we got here and why we are here and what we are doing.
With the close-future we look at our present to see how we can go into our distant-future. Because of how close it is we seem to be attuned to a close-future bias where what will happen in our close-future is deemed more important and rational exactly because it will be presented to us so soon. For example, if we were to find out somehow that our close-future consists of torture we would rationally be bothered and care deeply about that in a way that our past torture would not cause. This care is mostly built out of an anxiety and anticipation for those events which we don’t want. This of course also applies to our close-future which we deem positive, but in a different way: we would anticipate and be anxious about our positive future but not in the same sense – but our care would be rational never the less.
When it comes to both the close-future and distant-future caring about both is indeed rational, however it seems more rational to care about the close-future than that of the distant-future for the same reason that caring about the close-past is more rational than caring about the distant-future. The same applies with how immediate and affecting the future is on you and how rational that care is. It is more rational to care about something which affects you in the present whether it is distant or close in time, and this is the case with all time tenses.
We care about the present for the rational and practical reason that we are always within it. Whatever is in the present is quite literally of great importance and should be cared about because it affects how the future will come about and how the past will look. Caring about the present purely for the present’s sake is a rational reason by itself because of the experience and importance of the now. Caring about the time which you’re within as you care about it affects how you go about the present. The care of the present is as rational, if not more rational than the care of the close-future and close-past, while the distant-future and distant-past are less obviously rational to care about, but still irrational to not care about at all. It seems caring about the present trumps our care for the past and future because of being in the present at all times, and because the past and future were both in the present and can only be dealt with and cared about in the present: such as thinking about the past, or planning for the future – we must deal with the past, future and present all in the present. Thus present care is the most rational form of care of all.
A good example is that if in the present you’re being harmed or pleased, you would care about it because it is in your immediate experience and will equally affect you in your close-future and close-past.
As stated above the present is important and a rational care for us as we are within it. The present is also important when it relates to the distant-past, which is why now I will discuss the present to distant-past relation. As I have hinted at before the distant-past is less rational to care about than the close-past, and when this relates to the present to distant and close-past, the case remains the same. The relation between the present and distant-past is not irrational to care about, but is less rational than a closer-past to the present, and how much that affects you.
There are of course cases where your distant-past is rational and important to your present relations because your present relations would be impossible to care about, or even exist if you did not have those distant-past cares in relation to your present.
For example, your childhood was a very long time ago but it greatly affects the way you treat your own children. Let’s say your childhood was terrible, abjectly horrible. Because of this and how terrible your childhood was, and how your parents treated you, you are now affecting your present care and rational actions based on that distant-past relation to those horrible memories. You treat your children with kindness and care deeply about how they react to those acts of kindness because you know that you yourself lacked such kindness and how important that lack of kindness was to you when you grew up, and how important that lack of was to the detriment of your life-value.
This rational care for your distant-past in relation to your present is based off yourself and your current loved one. There seems to be nothing more rational to the human mind than to care about oneself and another based off your past and what kind of present you wish to live in for both yourself and the other human being. This is rational and morally virtuous, although the ethics of the rationality is not what I wish to go into.
As we can see, caring about our distant-past in relation to our present is rational, but is it as rational as present to close-past? It seems that the present to close-past is more rational as the relation is more immediate and present.
For example, if I find out that I was violently attacked yesterday I would rationally be concerned with that fact. While if I found out I was violently attacked several years ago, I would be less concerned, or maybe even shrug it off all together. With the violent attack that happened yesterday I would have a concern with the event itself, how it happened and whether I was injured and the people around me were also injured. What would also trouble me is why I don’t remember it.
While with the event that happened several years ago I would be far less concerned because it doesn’t seem to have affected me enough to make me even remember it. I may rationally put that care to the back of my mind because it simply seems irrelevant to my present situation, memory and sense of care.
This is complicated by the attack of a loved one. If I found out that my mother which I love and adore had been attacked yesterday I would rationally be distraught and wish to know how she is and how I can visit her as soon as possible. My care for her would be rational and immediate as I need to know she is okay. The fact that she suffered yesterday is deeply important to me. If the person who tells me my mother was attacked yesterday said “Don’t worry. Although she was attacked yesterday and did suffer. She is no longer suffering and she is fine.”, although this may help me to calm down and worry less, I would care about her all the same and want to make sure myself. Finding out she was attacked yesterday, but is no longer suffering today is not enough to make my care about her and yesterday’s situation irrational.
However, if the same person was to inform me that my mother was attacked years ago and doesn’t seem to be suffering from that memory or event anymore, that wouldn’t put my care into irrationality either. Although it would be less rational to care more about the distant-past suffering to the close-past suffering. It would still be rational to care either way. Although it seems that it would be more rational to care more about the close-past, rather than the distant-past, but neither are irrational.
When it comes to the present, in relation to the distant-future, we have a very similar case to the relation between the present to distant-past. The only difference is that the distant-future needs to be dealt with and is inevitable. While the distant-past has already been dealt with (at least in the literal sense of its happening), and thus can be easier for us to care less about.
The present to distant-future is very similar to the distant-past in the sense that it is rational to care about so long as it still affects us now, or still affects how we care about another person. For example, finding out your loved one will be tortured in a few years will greatly distress you, and it would be irrational to call that distress irrational. However, if you were to find out your loved one was tortured a few years ago, it may distress you and be rational to be distressed about, but you would not care as much as you would about knowing they will be tortured in the future and have yet to bring that torture into their present.
In this sense the future care seems to push the past care into a space of being less rational, although not removing its rationality completely. So, for our present to be affected by the distant-future and to care about that is rational, although we do seem to have a closer to the present bias in our care and thinking. However, being biased does not imply rational sovereignty.
When it comes to the present to close-future we seem to be most biased towards it. By this I mean that we naturally seem to have a close-future bias where we care the most and think it is rational to care the most about the close-future. While this makes sense it also has a problem which I will go into later on in this paper.
How this bias seems to make sense and is rational is by the fact that caring about our short-term future is immediate compared to any other time except for the present. The close-future’s relation to the present, and thus your rational care is not only reasonable, it is natural for a being which is going forward with care and rationality for self-preservation. Self-preservation and naturally built bias is not rationality in itself which leads me onto the core problem with the rationality of the close-future care.
This problem is pointed out by Parfit. Parfit expresses that the bias towards our close-future is based on our urge to ensure our self-preservation, thus our self interest. While it makes sense to us naturally to be short-term based in our biases, it also includes some irrationality. This irrationality is that if we are concerned with our self-preservation and concentrate on our short-term bias, we actually sacrifice our long-term self-preservation by becomes too concerned with the short-term future, rather than simply our future in general.
If instead we consider both our close and distant-future concerning our self-preservation we can save the rationality of our care. However, Parfit also points out how we sacrifice our short term self-preservation, or even our long term self-preservation for someone else’s. This cannot simply be refuted by stating that sacrificing one’s own self-preservation is irrational, because the irrationality becomes rational because you are concerned with someone else’s self-preservation.
This is where the rationality of care in relation to time becomes complicated. When we are concerned with our self-preservation caring about our close-past and close-future are the most rational to care about in terms of relation to our present. However, this does not remove rationality from our care of the distant-past and distant-future. Although it does make rational sense to us as self-preserving beings that our distant-past and distant-future are not quite as immediate a concern, nor can be cared about in the same rational and immediate way that our close-past and close-future can be.
Furthermore, our care of our present in relation to all time is rational in terms of self-preservation. While our care of our present is the most immediate form of rationality in relation to care because if self-preservation is our rationality measure, our present is the most important time for the self and its self-preservation.
But as suggested above, this rationality of care in relation to time is complicated when we include other people. When we find out our loved one was harmed or made joyous in the distant-past or will be in the distant-future, our care is certainly rational and concerns their preservation. It seems our care, and rationality of that care in relation to time is an example of timelessness – by this I mean we seem to care about our loved ones no matter where in relation to our present they were harmed or made happy, and we find it troubling and don’t consider it irrational to be timeless when we consider other people who mean something to us.
However, we seem to find that timeless care less rational when it is ourselves. Although I do agree with Parfit that timelessness concerning care in relation to time is actually rational, although would be extremely difficult because of our short-term bias, which is why we may consider it irrational when it is not. Thomas Nagel offers a reason to be concerned with our future: ‘A person’s future should be of interest to him not because it is among his present interests, but because it is his future.’ (3) I think this same argument can be used to argue for timelessness, and rational care about ourselves, as well as those we care about. A person’s past, present and future ought to be of interest to himself, thus be cared about, and thus be rational to care about because it is exactly his. This makes self-preservation rational, and caring about all times within which you were in, are in and will be in because they all have affects or are effects of your life. Exactly because it is your life and all time affects that or is the effect of that, it is rational to care about all forms of time in a rational way, and thus timeless rational care is the most rational form of care of all.
If when we talk of rational care we are merely talking about ourselves, and thus self-preservation we can defend self-preservation and the ownership of our own lives to ourselves as a reason for the rationality of care. Nagel puts this forward, although it is worth noting that he does not make the rationality of timeless care argument that I am making, but he is defending the concept of timeless values, which I am using to turn a timeless value into a timeless reason, and thus a timeless rationality, which in turn makes timeless care a rational concept.
‘[T]he influence of reasons is transmitted over time because reasons represent values which are not time-dependent. One might even describe them as timeless values. So if a given condition creates a reason for something to happen, there is not only a reason to bring that thing about when the condition is present; there is also a reason to promote its future occurrence if the condition is expected to obtain later on. An expected reasons is a reason nonetheless.’ (4)
To conclude concerning the present-towards every tense of time (close, distant, past and future in relation to the present), we have rational reasons to care whether it be for the close or distant-future, and we also have rational reasons to care about the close and distant-past. We get the rational care from the present however, which is how the present in relation to all time manages to be a rational form of care.
If we did not have this care towards the future then we would be irrational in our care (or lack of). Nagel points this out with his argument for why not caring about the future is irrational.
‘Suppose I shall be in Rome six weeks from now; then in six weeks, I shall have reason to speak Italian. If I regard this only as a dated reason, then, even granted my present ignorance of the language, I cannot conclude that I now have reason to enrol in an Italian course, since my reason for speaking Italian will not come into existence for six more weeks. I am forced instead to wait for its arrival, fatalistically, as for the onset of the effects of a drug—wait for it to galvanize me into action.’ (5)
While when it comes to our care towards the past, we become irrational when we care about what has no immediate affect on our present or future. But because these experiences are in fact ours, we have a rationality to care about what is our experience and life exactly because we own it and experienced it, thus caring about it doesn’t need to stem purely from the affect it has on our present and future. This makes care about our future, no matter how far past in time rational.
While when it comes to our present, it is the most immediate and thus the most rational to care about because of the way it is the effect of the past and will affect the future. Caring about our present is rational for many reasons: we are currently experiencing it, it will be our past, and it will bring in our future. Care about our present is rational exactly because it relates to our past and future, while care about our past and future are both rational exactly because they are effects and affects of our present.
From this I conclude that it is not rational to be biased towards the future in relation to our care, but more rational to be biased towards all time in relation to our care with an attitude of present-to care. This would mean we would consider care which is related to the present as rational. Parfit expresses this succinctly.
‘I have claimed that, if we lacked the bias towards the future, this would be better for us. This matches the pleasurable claim that it would be better for us if we lacked the bias towards the near. There is no ground here for criticising the latter bias but not the former. Both these attitudes to time are, on the whole, bad for us.
Since I believe that this attitude is bad for us, I believe that we ought not to be biased towards the future. This belief does not beg the question about the rationality of this bias. On any plausible moral view, it would be better if we were all happier. This is the sense in which, if we could, we ought not to be biased towards the future. In giving this bias. Evolution denies us the best attitudes to death.’ (6)
So to conclude, our care is rational when it is timeless because we own our past, present and future. By virtue of it being ours it is a rational care. When we care about someone we also care in a timeless way because we are concerned about their ownership of their past, present and future. While the care itself remains rational by being relevant to our present, no matter its place in time. This makes us more biased towards the immediate such as the close-past and close-future.
But, as discussed above, the most rational form of care in relation to time is that of timeless care. Where we only care about what is relevant to our present, and what will affect or be an effect of our present relation to our past and future. Thus the placement of that event we care about in time is irrelevant. Whether it be past or future, the rationality of the care is unaffected when our care is timeless. The rationality of our care is untouched by time: time is not the relevant factor; immediacy and ownership are.
1. Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons. (Oxford University press, 1984.)
2. Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons. Part two, Rationality and time. Chapter 8, different attitudes to time. 67, Why we should not be biased towards the future. (Oxford University press, 1984.) Pages 174-175.
3. Thomas Nagel, The possibility of altruism. Part two: Subjective reasons and prudence. VI, Prudential motives and the present. (Oxford university press, 1970). Page 42.
4. Thomas Nagel, The possibility of altruism. Part two: Subjective reasons and prudence. VI, Prudential motives and the present. (Oxford university press, 1970). Page 46.
5. Thomas Nagel, The possibility of altruism. Part two: Subjective reasons and prudence. VIII, The interpretation of prudential reasons: Identity over time. (Oxford university press, 1970) Page 58.
6. Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons. Part two, Rationality and time. Chapter 8, different attitudes to time. 67, Why we should not be biased towards the future. (Oxford University press, 1984.) Page 177.
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