Your Rational Self vs. Your Irrational Self
Last week, I talked about Hegel’s odd view that freedom consists of service to the state, and an earlier column discussed a problem with the use of behavioral economics to support “libertarian paternalism.” Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the main libertarian paternalists, get into difficulties that Hegel would enable them to avoid. As we’ll see, though, if they were to accept Hegel’s help, they would pay a heavy price.
Thaler and Sunstein think that measures like high taxes on cigarettes and restrictions on the size of soda cans don’t restrict your freedom. They aren’t interfering with what you want to do. You might think at first that they are interfering. You want to smoke, and the high taxes make it more difficult than before to do so. It is more inconvenient now to drink large amounts of soda, because you have to buy more cans than you did before the ban.
Thaler and Sunstein say that appearances are deceiving. You also want good health. Smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases, and drinking large amounts of soda can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. Part of what they are saying seems reasonable. Probably almost no smokers or soda drinkers want poor health. Controversies about the medical effects of consuming these products we can ignore.
Now comes the crucial step in their argument, which is a cruder version of the principle Kant advanced: "Whoever wills the end also wills (in so far as reason has decisive influence on his actions) the indispensably necessary means to it that is in his control." The authors reason in this way: because you don’t want lung cancer and not smoking is a way of avoiding lung cancer, you don’t want to smoke. Thus, making it difficult for you to smoke isn’t making you do something you don’t want to do.
There is a problem with this argument that I’ll set aside. Kant’s principle says that if you are rational and you will a certain end, you will also will the “indispensably necessary means” to that end. In other words, if you don’t want to get lung cancer and smoking will always give you cancer, then you won’t smoke. In that case, not smoking would be an indispensable means to not getting cancer, and a rational person who didn’t want cancer wouldn’t smoke. It would not be relevant to note that avoiding smoking does not guarantee that you won’t get cancer. It is irrelevant, because although not smoking is not sufficient to avoid cancer, it is on our supposition a necessary condition. If you smoke, you will get cancer, even if other things cause cancer as well.
But in the actual world, smoking does not guarantee that you will get cancer. Many smokers don’t get it. You can’t invoke Kant’s principle that it is irrational to smoke. It is safe to predict that if smoking did guarantee that you will get cancer, there would be many fewer smokers than there are today.
But this point, as I say, I will set aside. Thaler and Sunstein argue that if you don’t want cancer and you are rational, then you won’t smoke. But you do smoke, so therefore you are not rational. How can they go on to say that when they make it more difficult for you to smoke they aren’t interfering with your freedom? They are only entitled to say that if you were rational, you wouldn’t smoke.
They are able to get to their conclusion by adding this premise: you are (or have—I won’t distinguish between the two) a rational self. With that premise added, their conclusion follows. The rational self doesn’t smoke, so the higher taxes don’t interfere with the rational self’s freedom. You might think this is obviously silly. Our starting point is that you do smoke and are irrational. How could Thaler and Sunstein say at the same time that you are rational and don’t smoke? Isn’t this a blatant contradiction?
Matters are not so simple. They aren't claiming that you are a rational self and nothing else. On the contrary, in this view you are two selves, a rational and an irrational one, and that view, however bizarre, is not a contradiction. Thus, the high taxes interfere with the freedom of one of your selves, but not the other.
By the way, there is another complication that I want to set aside. (Isn’t this fun?) If we accept Kant’s principle and also that you are a rational self, it doesn’t follow that the taxes don’t interfere with what you want to do. Kant’s principle says that someone who is rational wills an indispensably necessary means to what he wants. It doesn’t require him to have no conflicting wants. It wouldn’t say that it is irrational to want to smoke, as long as you don’t smoke. (We’re assuming here that the end of avoiding cancer outranks the end of smoking.)
Putting these complications aside, we can thus make sense of how Thaler and Sunstein arrive at their conclusion: the smoking regulations don’t interfere with the freedom of one of your selves. Actually, Thaler and Sunstein don’t in fact get to their conclusion in the way I’ve suggested they might. They just assume without argument that you want what they think you would want if you were rational and fully informed. If I attributed to them the premise that I claim would make sense of their view, because it would be rational for them to do, I would be making an unjustified assumption similar to their own.
But let’s leave the extra premise in. We now get to two additional problems, and this is where Hegel comes in. First, why should we accept that people have rational selves of the sort needed to make sense of Thaler and Sunstein’s argument? Second, even you have a rational self as well as an irrational self, how does it follow that higher taxes don’t interfere with your freedom? They do interfere with the freedom of your irrational self. Why should this be disregarded?
If we bring in Hegel, these questions can be answered. According to Hegel, in what I think is the most plausible interpretation of him, your irrational self is a mere appearance. Only the rational self is real. As he famously said,
What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational.
In that case, all conflict disappears. High taxes become just another way to enable your rational self to obey the state in perfect freedom. What could be simpler?