Saturday, May 19, 2012

Carpe Diem! and Other Bad Advice

Prophets, poets and even philosophers often say that we should act only for the present moment and not to consider the future. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (Matthew 6:34) Carpe diem! Seize the day! Because the present is all that is real, neither the future nor the past exists, we must find meaning in our actions themselves. [This is a paraphrase of Moritz Schlick.]

What’s startling about this advice is that it is so clearly terrible, shocking advice. If I care nothing for the morrow, then why not get drunk every night, use heroin, have unprotected sex to orgiastic excess? If all that exists is right now, why not go skydiving without a parachute (after all the landing is in the non-existent future)? Obviously, no one follows the Carpe Diem advice, or even could do so rationally. So why do people give it?

There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, this is extreme advice that compensates for an opposing harmful tendency. Reaching the middle ground sometimes requires an excessive pull in the opposite direction. If I try to bargain with my employer about my future wages, I don’t offer my actual worth but I name a higher wage. If I ask only for what I am worth, the amount resulting from the bargaining will be less than that, and I will be underpaid.

Second, sometimes focus on a goal can actually interfere with one’s ability to achieve that goal. I call this Mill’s Paradox (which isn’t really a paradox but a counterintuitive fact about human psychology—still ‘paradox’ is catchier). John Stuart Mill, as he explains in his autobiography, tried for a part of his life to make himself happy, and found that the more he focused on the goal of being happy, the less happy he was. He only managed to make himself happy by ceasing to think about being happy and instead doing things that he thought were worthwhile. Then, he found, without realizing it, that he had become happy. If you try to steer by watching your hands, you’ll jitter all over the road, but if you look down the road, you keep a smooth, even course. Trying to live only for the day may help people’s focus so that they pay some attention (one hopes an appropriate amount) to the day itself rather than the future.
This advice is a useful corrective to an existing opposite tendency. As part of a general humanist movement that encouraged people to attend to this world rather than a future afterlife, “Carpe diem!” is useful advice. There will be no future afterlife (I think), and failure to enjoy yourself and do good in this world means a failure ever to enjoy yourself or do good. But, even after the middle ages, people will still undervalue themselves in favor of benefits they can give to others, especially for their own retirement or to benefit their descendants. My own parents worked throughout their lives in order to leave things to their kids, and if their kids work throughout their lives in order to leave things for their descendants, there will be a potentially infinite series of people who fail to enjoy themselves or do anything useful with their wealth. If the lives of our descendants are worthwhile, if it matters whether they are happy and enjoy themselves, then it matters whether we are happy as well. Many people need encouragement to live for themselves now and not just for a future that may never come.

People also sometimes worry unnecessarily about the future. Not all worry about the future is unwarranted, of course, but many people worry unproductively. And thinking only about the present can help one release one’s concerns about the future. My guess is that the goal of worrying less about the future isn’t served well by encouraging people only to worry less. How much less? Does this replace worrying about the future with worrying about worrying about the future? The easiest thing is to try not to worry about the future at all. One will almost certainly fail, but the advice might encourage movement in the right direction.

So, while I think the advice to seize the day is objectively crazy advice, “Carpe diem! Gather ye rosebuds while ye may! Think not of the morrow!”

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