I think the issue of rational vs. sentimental decisionmaking is interesting, and didn’t necessarily get a fair shake when we were discussing all this in class -- in large part, no doubt, because I was trying pretty hard to stick to my guns and not concede a single inch in a discussion where it probably would’ve been productive for me to concede several inches, if not whole yards. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m more or less convinced that every decisionmaking process requires something like a sentimental push to get going, even if the mechanisms doing most of the work in the decisionmaking process are totally rational/non-sentimental. Take, for example, the hypothetical situation we discussed, where someone offers to give you a ten dollar bill or let you select a single bill from out of a hat that contains a one dollar bill, a five, and a twenty. It’s tempting to say that taking the guaranteed ten dollars is the rational choice, but strictly speaking this isn’t true. Taking the guaranteed ten dollars is only the rational choice if it’s the case that you’re looking to come away from the interaction with the highest chance of holding the most money. If, however, you don’t have any cash but really want to buy something that costs $15, picking a random bill from out of the hat becomes the rational choice because a $10 bill has zero chance of getting you what you want whereas you’ve got a 1/3 chance of getting what you want if you pick out of the hat. Neither motivation is rational (though both motivations can undergo rational operations), it’s just a matter of your particular desires.
This is not to say that there’s no real discussion to be had concerning the Ryan Gosling Sex Experience, just that such a discussion will necessarily involve a sub-discussion about we’re really after when we’re choosing between a brief moment of intense pleasure and a much larger span of time during which who knows what could happen. I think, for the vast majority of people, the first implulse in these sorts of situations is going to be to make the decision that will maximize the total amount of pleasure they’re likely to experience. And, in all honesty, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the total amount of pleasure you’ll experience in any ten year timespan is going to exceed the amount of pleasure you’d experience having sex with Ryan Gosling or taking part in some comparable activity. So, unless you can think of a brief experience so pleasurable it would outweigh all the good experiences you can expect to have in a ten year period, it would seem irrational to choose the brief pleasurable experience over ten years of regular life, so long as your choice is motivated solely by a desire to experience the most total pleasure.
However, I think the desire to experience the most total pleasure is far weaker in most people than the desire to experience the highest possible concentration of pleasure or the highest amount of total pleasure minus total pain and boredome. Consider what you would do if someone offered to let you start life over and live for thousands of years all while experiencing a barely perceptible sensation of pleasure (and no more). Such a life would afford you the opportunity to experience a greater sum of total pleasure than you would in your normal life, but you would probably rather live a normal life anyway. Even living a normal life for thousands of years is unappealing to a great number of people, which suggests that the total amount of pleasure experienced over a lifetime is less of a motivating factor than the desire not to be bored or lonely or what have you.
But say someone offers you a dollar for every second you’re willing to shave off your life. Losing ten seconds and gaining ten dollars sounds pretty reasonable. I suspect most people would willingly give up a little less than two minutes of life in order to have $100, and I think few people would blame them. Obviously, there’d come a point where you’d stop exchanging time for money since you need time to spend money, but the same isn’t true for pleasure. If someone offered to reduce your total lifespan by 1%, but promised that all the time removed would be time you’d otherwise spend bored and unproductive, would you do it? You’d be able to retain the same number of happy/pleasurable moments, and moreover, they’d occur with a higher frequency. I suspect some people would take this offer. More importantly, I suspect fewer and fewer people would take the offer if the percentage by which their lifespan would be reduced grew to 10 or even 50%. Even I don’t think I’d agree to reduce my lifespan to a single moment even if I could be assured of experiencing the same amount of total pleasure. But if it were really the case, as I suggested in class, that concentration of pleasurable experiences should be the driving motivation for these decisions, then it would be incredibly irrational of me to turn down any of the lifespan-reduction offers.
What I think is motivating my refusal to reduce my lifespan to a single moment (even if I can guarantee that I’ll feel the same amount of total pleasure) is a disbelief that I’d really be able to experience a lifetime’s worth of happiness in just a split second. I have no reason (i.e. logical motivation) to foster this disbelief -- I’m simply incapable of imagining a life that short or pleasurably dense. Whether or not the Ryan Gosling Sex Experience is really worth ten years of your life is only relevant if you’re capable of believing that it might be. In comparison with a ten year span of life, which we’ve all not only had but seen represented hundreds of times in various media, the Ryan Gosling Sex Experience is a relative unknown. Our reactions to the question Would you give up ten years of your life in exchange for a moment unlike any you’ve ever known? may have more to do with our respective imaginative capacities than any ability to reason.
1. Would you give up ten years of your life to have sex with Ryan Gosling? Which question, for broad discussion purposes, we basically recast as: Would you give up ten years of your life (in the future) in exchange for a brief but immensely pleasurable experience? Back to body
2. or at the very least a set of non-provable assumptions Back to body
3. This scenario isn’t very likely, but all that matters is that it’s logically possible, since I’m using rational and logical more or less interchangeably here. Back to body
4. Pleasure here includes things like fulfillment, joy, etc. Basically: good feelings. Back to body
5. This assumes that all increments of pleasure are equally weighted and can theoretically be merged into a total sum of pleasure. I’m not sure that’s the case. How many child’s drawings would someone have to give you in trade for the Mona Lisa? Back to body
6. Maybe. I suppose there could be a maximum number/amount of happiness chemicals your brain can release before it’s incapable of processing any more, but I’m not sure where the cutoff is. Back to body
7. As we were leaving the classroom, Jesse said something about preferring chick flicks over any other genre of movie, and her statement got me thinking about the sorts of stories we consume for entertainment and what they might bring to bear on this discussion. Something that I think contributes to my disbelief that ten years of ordinary life is really truly all that valuable an experience (if we’re being honest) is the fact that we hardly ever seek out accurate representations of life. Actors are almost always better looking than the people we interact with daily, and their characters’ lives are soundtracked and condensed (no movie I’ve seen is even close to ten years long) in a way that allows us to value their long-term accomplishments without experiencing the tedium it takes to acheive them. I might argue that a lot of the value people see in a ten year stretch of their life has more to do with the narrative arc those ten years enable to develop than it does the actual lived experiences that take place in that time. Back to body