Self-regarding responsibilities

Earlier I introduced the distinction between agent-neutral and agent-relative moral reasons. This distinction was first introduced by Thomas Nagel, but later reformulated and refined by Derek Parfit (see Reasons for Action). Nagel's version of the distinction is 'principle-based' in the sense that one must first look to the principle corresponding to a given reason to determine whether it is agent-relative or agent-neutral. In The View From Nowhere he says that,
If a reason can be given a general form which does not include an essential reference to the person who has it, it is an agent-neutral reason…If on the other hand, the general form of a reason does include an essential reference to the person who has it then it is an agent-relative reason. (Nagel 1986: 152-153)

As Michael Ridge points out,
It is easy enough to see that on this conception, ethical egoism is an agent-relative theory (and hence concerns agent-relative reasons) while objective utilitarianism is an agent-neutral theory (and hence concerns agent-neutral reasons). For egoism holds that there is reason for a given agent to do something just in case his doing it would promote his welfare. Whereas objective utilitarianism, (on at least one version) holds that someone ought to do something just insofar as it promotes welfare, period (no matter whose it is).

What I am calling special moral responsibilities are one source of agent-relative reasons for moral agents to see to it that certain states of affairs are brought about. But special moral responsibilities can also be divided into those which are self-regarding and those which are other-regarding, and also between those which concern near term or present ends or interests, and those which concern long term or future interests. In the first case they can be said to be "object neutral" or "object relative"; and in the second they can be said to be "temporally neutral" or "temporally relative." The class of special moral responsibilities that provide prudential reasons for acting in one's own long term interests can be seen as "fully relative" in that they are agent relative, object relative, and temporally relative. The duty to exercise prudence is a kind of special, agent relative, self-regard­ing, temporally relative moral responsibility. It arises because temporally earlier life stages, or selves at t, are in a position to exercise power over later life stages, selves at time t + n (where n is suitably large so as not be regarded as a present aim in one's present life stage), which cannot be reciprocated. One's later selves are then vulnerable to the actions and decisions of one's earlier selves, and are depending on one's earlier selves to care for and protect their interests. The interests of one's own later life stage are in many ways dependent on the choices and actions taken by earlier selves, and because later selves cannot causally influence these choices and actions, and in some cases, cannot remove, prevent, or compensate for their effects, they are placed at the mercy of earlier selves. To put it simply: I can, by my present decisions and actions influence the well being and happi­ness of my future incarnations, however, future incarnations of me cannot influence my earlier decisions and actions. This temporal asymmetry of power makes later life stages of oneself dependent upon and vulnerable to the choices and actions of earlier ones, and thereby creates a spe­cial responsibility on the part of earlier selves to protect certain interests of later ones. This fundamental asymmetry of power is created by the tyranny of time and cannot be removed. The nature of time creates this basic prospective re­sponsibili­ty the responsibility each person has to themselves to protect their future selves' from foreseeable and preventable harms.

I have spoken of earlier and later periods in the existence of a self, but I could also speak of earlier and later selves. Whether we regard successive temporal person stages as tem­poral parts of identical individuals who persist over time, or as a series of distinct individuals who bear some similarities to other members of the set, our account of the origin of special responsi­bilities still applies. For, in either case, an indiv­idual at t is still in a position to exer­cise unequal power over some of the interests of later selves in the temporal series which those later selves cannot reciprocate. The vulnerability model thus predicts that earlier selves have moral responsibili­ties towards later selves no matter which cri­terion of personal identity we choose, just as it predicts that moral agents have special responsibilities to others, no matter which theory of personal identity we choose.
However, I favor a somatic theory of personal identity in which persons are identical with their physical bodies. Individual human beings are four-dimensional objects in space-time who have both spatial and temporal parts as well as spatial and temporal coordinates at any time T, or place P. A living moral agent, A, is capable of acting at (T, P) so as to affect the causal structure of the universe. In particular, at any time a living moral agent is capable to acting in ways that will causally affect the interests and or well-being of his or her own later life stages, that is, of his or her own later temporal parts. This can perhaps be made clearer by some examples.

Consider, for instance, the claim that individuals have a special responsibility to themselves (or their future selves) to promote their own health, which, among other things, places them under a moral obligation not to develop habits or engage in activities which would be likely to significantly increase their risk of disease, injury, and early death. Such a claim can be defended on the vulnerability model of responsibility by noting that many diseases and injuries which lead to diminished capaci­ties and decreased life expectancy result from "lifestyle" deci­sions by individuals. Generally speaking, we normally accord individuals autonomy concerning such decisions, so that others are normally prevented from making these choices for us.

This implies that with respect to such causes of disease and dimin­ished longevity as, smoking, eating poorly, being obese, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, abusing drugs, and a variety of other lifestyle choices, individuals are, generally, in a better position to promote their own health and protect their longevity than are others. Since, for the most part, the effects of poor diet, smoking, etc. are cumula­tive over the long term and the harms of disease and early death are statistical not nomological consequences of lifestyles, individual selves at earlier life stages are in a position to prevent or diminish the vulnerability of selves at later life stages from the risks of disease and early death by now making lifestyle decisions which will tend to diminish these risks for their later selves.

This same power cannot be exercised by one's later selves, and later selves cannot exercise similar and reciprocal power over any of the interests, let alone important interests, of one's own earlier selves. Therefore, according to the VCP, because later selves are vulnerable to harms which earlier selves have the capacity to reasonably foresee and pre­vent, earlier selves acquire a special responsibility to protect later selves from the risks of disease, diminished capacity, and early death to the extent they are able to do so. In most cases, this will mean that earlier selves will have duties to refrain from participating in lifestyles or behaviors which are known to have significant, likely, and serious adverse consequences for their later selves. To fail to take these steps would be irrespon­sible, and therefore immoral.

Self regarding responsibilities are like other special re­sponsibilities in licensing the agent to show partiality towards certain interests, namely certain of one's own long term interests. Under the conception of these responsibilities given above, I have more reason to save money for my own health care in retirement than I have to save money for your health care in your retirement, because, under the conventional division of moral labor accepted in my society, I have a special responsibility to provide for my own health care in old age.

This is not to say that we cannot question or criticize the existing division of moral labor for allocating special responsibili­ties. Goodin, writes that, "Whether or not the existing alloca­tion of responsibility has any moral warrant, it has made some people vulnerable to others; and that fact, if no other, pro­vides a moral warrant for discharging those responsibilities" [p.121]. Thus, given current social arrangements in American society, since I cannot depend upon national health insurance nor social security to provide for all of my needs, I must, perforce, depend upon myself.

In some cases, self regarding responsibilities may override other re­sponsibili­ties to others. For instance, I may have a general social responsi­bility to contribute to the care of the needy and sick, or to provide funds for famine relief, or to combat injus­tice. But such general responsibilities are generally weaker than special re­sponsibilities borne by myself uniquely. Thus, it would follow, that I should not use money needed, say, for my own health care, to care for others who are also in need. While others may indeed be as vulnerable to sickness as I am, it is my responsibility, under the division of moral labor currently ac­cepted in American society, to provide for my own health care insofar as I am able to do so.I would thus violate this self regarding responsibility if I failed to adequ­ately provide for myself by impoverishing myself through charitable contribu­tions. As in the case of the two children needing a life saving opera­tion, I do not commit a moral wrong if I decide to arrange for such an operation for myself, but not for another with the same medical condition, and would commit a moral wrong if I did the converse, for doing so would violate a special responsibility which I owe to myself.

While I believe that the vulnerability theory of responsibi­lity would predict that a person's earlier selves have special moral respon­sibilities to protect some of the interests of their later selves or life stages, this claim must be clarified and qualified in several ways.
First, we have to clarify what is meant by later selves or later life stages. These notions have been the subject of extensive discussion by Derek Parfit and John Broome. My own view of the matter is close to Broome's view which sees a person's life as divided up into temporally extended parts that he calls life stages. Each life stage is defined by a certain finite interval of time, n, which is usually a matter of years, rather than days or weeks. While the number we choose for n is somewhat arbitrary, it does matter whether it is very large or very small for the following reason: if n is very small, say a matter of hours, then an agent at t may usually presume that the agent he will be at t + n will consent to participating in actions whose consequences may not be realized until t + n, that is, ones whose causal initiation and whose causal fruition occur within the same life-stage.

For instance, suppose I decide to get drunk on Saturday night knowing that on Sunday morning I will awake with a hangover. In deciding to get drunk at t, I presume consent on the part of my later self to being involved in this plan, and so, while I harm my later self, I do so on the assumption that I will later agree to being harmed in this way. On the other hand, when n is large, say on the order to 20 or 30 years, we cannot presume at t that ones later selves at t + n consent to, say, having lung cancer, and so, by smoking in our youth we would in effect be treating our later selves as means only. Because we cannot presume that our later selves will consent, the long-term self-regarding case is similar to other-regarding cases in which one cannot morally do things which will potentially harm others without their knowledge or consent. One's later life stages relation to one's will at earlier life stages is similar to that of an alien will. On the other hand, when n is very large it becomes more difficult to accurately predict the effects of one's actions and choices, and consequently one's present responsibilities are limited
. In keeping with the principle that "ought" implies "can" earlier selves can only be held to acquire long term self ­regarding responsibilities to the extent that they are, in fact, able to prevent, remove, or diminish harms or provide benefits to their later selves. If I cannot by my present actions prevent some one of my later selves from, say, contracting Alzheimer's disease, then I cannot be held morally culpable by my later selves for failing to have done so.

Earlier selves can only be held responsible to prevent, remove, or diminish harms which they can reasonably foresee. It may be that I shall one day be blinded by a freak accident in which the video monitor which is attached to my computer unex­pectedly blows up in my face. This sort of occur­rence is, so far as I know, extremely improbable, and I have no reason at present to foresee such an eventuality. I, therefore, have no responsi­bility to protect my later selves from such an accident.

Similarly, my present self can now only be specially responsible for protecting those in­terests of my later selves which I can reasonably foresee my later life stages will not be able to protect themselves. In determining precisely the nature of the particular special responsibilities which one owes to one's future selves it is necessary to consider the particular sorts of power which earlier selves can exercise over later ones, and the particular sorts of vulnerabilities which these powers can pro­duce, prevent, compensate for, or otherwise address. Not all future interests involve vulnerabilities. Responsibilities to oneself, like some other kinds of special responsibilities, are thus also goal relative. Let me explore this claim by means of an example.

Consider the person, who at age 18, decides that it is prudent to buy enough shoes to last him for the rest of his life. He reasons that, what with inflation, the price of shoes will cer­tainly go up considerably during his lifetime, but that his foot size will remain pretty much what it is now. Since he has some spare money on hand, he decides to buy several dozen pairs of shoes of various kinds for himself so, in later life, he shall never have to go barefoot. Is this a prudent action? Would one be acting irresponsibly if one failed to follow his example?

I would say that this action is not (in most cases) prudent, but merely eccentric, and that one would not be acting irre­sponsibly if one failed to follow his example. The reason for this judgment is that, unless there is reason for him to believe that his later selves will be unable to afford to buy shoes for them­selves, there is no sense in which his later selves are "vulner­able" to having the presumed interest of their's to be shod harmed by the actions of earlier selves. If the person in this example has reason to believe that in later life he will be unable to afford to buy shoes, then such an action would be a prudent and responsible one, however, lacking this reason it is merely eccentric. The boy's action is eccentric not only because it is unusual, but because it runs counter to a policy which most of us would want to subscribe to, namely the policy which says that in mat­ters of taste one's present aims should override one's past tastes. When I was 18, I had a taste for high top construction boots, but would not be caught dead wearing such shoes today. Had I followed the boy's example, I would have laid up a life time supply of such boots. From the point of view of my present aims with regard to footwear, had I followed his example, my past desire would now tyrannize over my present tastes in a way that I would now re­gret. Assuming that tastes in shoes tend to change, a better policy would be to leave such decisions to later selves. I earlier suggested that the general reason for there being special moral responsibilities arises from a moral "division of labor" which we participate in as members of socie­ty.

Under the scheme for dividing moral labor accepted in most modern Western societies, individual persons are granted autonomy concerning the management of their own lives, in the sense that we have the right to determine how we shall live our own lives. The right of self-management include the right to resist outside interference in ones self regarding decisions and actions. Personal auto­nomy is a kind of "moral power" which we grant to competent moral agents. But, as I have argued, personal autonomy, even in purely self regarding cases, is limited by a kind of special responsi­bility. Autonomous individuals have special responsibilities to protect the interests of their later selves to the extent that these later selves interests are vulnerable and dependent on the choices and actions of earlier selves. In keeping with the doc­trine that rights entail responsibilities, if individuals have the right to determine how they shall manage their lives, then have a coordinate responsibility to manage them prudently by taking account of the special vulnerabilities of their later selves to their present choices and actions. It follows, then, on this view, that failure to act respon­sibly with respect to one's later selves is a kind of moral wrong.

If we accept to general proposition that society as a whole, through the state and its laws, has a duty to help to prevent or discourage immorality of various kinds, then there is no reason why it should not also have a responsibility to prevent individuals from harming their own future selves. Merely saying that paternal­istic legislation violates our notion of personal autonomy is no argument here, since the responsibilities in question arise because we are given autonomy over self regarding decisions, and this autonomy gives us rights which entail corresponding responsi­bilities. Just as the state may sometimes legitimately challenge and interfere with parental autonomy, for instance, in cases of child abuse or neglect, it may also intervene in certain self­ regarding decisions in order to prevent persons from doing harm to their later selves. The fact that others may share or come to share some of the responsibility for protecting our later selves interests does not remove my own present responsibilities towards my later selves. If, at some later time, I become incompetent to care for myself, then (I hope) others who are in a position to do so, will accept the responsibility for caring for me. While under our present scheme of dividing moral labor, I have the primary responsibility for caring for my own long term self interests, others may share in this responsibility because of their power to assist me, or my dependence on them created by my later vulner­abilities. But, this does not remove my responsibility. As Robert Nozick has said, "responsibility is not a bucket in which less remains when some is apportioned out." (Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. (Oxford: Black­well, 1974), p. 130. Quoted by Goodin, 1985, p. 135).

The vulnerability-care model thus predicts that earlier selves have special responsibili­ties to protect at least some of the interests of later selves. Because, in many ways I am now uniquely in a posi­tion to influ­ence the happi­ness and well being of my own future selves, my later life stages, and my later selves are in many ways vulnerable and dependent on my present choices and actions, under the VCP I now have a special moral responsibility to exercise prudence in the management of my own long term interests.