There's been some talk in these pages about vices. Non-moral vices, I guess, are habits that are fun in the short term and bad for you in the long term.
There are two elements to vice-resistance. First, you have to judge that, all things considered, it is in your best interest not to indulge. Second, you have to exercise your powers of "delayed gratification," or "the ability to wait in order to obtain something one wants."
With respect to this second element, the classic experiment is the so-called "marshmallow test." Give a bunch of four-year-olds one marshmallow each. Tell them they can eat it, or wait 20 minutes and have two marshmallows. Watch what they do. Wait 14 years, and check on their progress in life. In a result I find depressing for some reason, the kids who waited for the second marshmallow will be better off all around, and even score higher on the SAT.
But what about the first element, the judgment part? The marshmallow test assumes that two marshmallows in 20 minutes is clearly better than one marshmallow now, but that doesn't seem quite obvious to me. Even if it is obvious in this particular example, it is certainly not better to have 3,944,616 marshmallows in 150 years than one marshmallow now. So the principle can't be "more later is always better."
Are two marshmallow peeps in twenty minutes better than one now? Photo by Deanna Nichols. (All rights reserved; used with permission.)
The problem isn't just death. Ask me about 657,436 marshmallows in 25 years versus 13,1487 in five and I have no idea what my preference is.
Of course, all of these problems arise even after you assure yourself that the marshmallows are really forthcoming, that the lab assistant won't get crushed by a falling piano on her way back, that the study isn't really intended to test "incidence of rage and depression among the marshmallow-deprived."
It seems like we ought to prefer more pleasure later to less pleasure now. And presumably this why we're supposed to give up our vices: so we'll be better off in the future.
But, as economists tell us, we're also supposed to have transitive preferences: if you want A more than B, and B more than C, you ought to want A more than C.
Put these together and you get the four million marshmallows problem: you want two at 12:20 more than one at noon, four at 12:40 more than two at 12:20, . . . and so on. By transitivity, you must want 4 million marshmallows in 150 years more than one now. But even if you weren't going to die, it would be crazy to save up *all* your marshmallows.
Maybe all this means is that there is something wrong with transitivity. As Larry Temkin argues, it seems one ought to prefer to suffer at a certain intensity for a certain amount time than to suffer just a little bit less for twice as long. But apply transitivity to this preference over and over, and it seems one ought to prefer two years of torture to a life-long hangnail. Which would be madness.
Maybe transitivity is the difficulty here. But I think there's a harder problem in the vice case. There seems to be no right answer as to how to compare the pains and pleasures of our future selves to those of our present selves. Especially when the nature of the future experience -- health vs. sickness -- is so different from the nature of the present one -- indulgence vs. abstinence.
The further I go into the future, and the greater the qualitative difference, the more I feel at sea trying to weigh future pleasures against current sacrifices.
So I don't think judgments about what is in my long-term self-interest can be justified by appeal to a principle about more pleasure later being better than less pleasure now. At least for me. I seem to need more immediate benefits. Like Captain C., I quit smoking when I could no longer "make it up a goddamn hill." As she says, sad, all very sad.