On the Willingness of Past Selves to Let You Buy Them a Beer

Steven Berlin Johnson writes:

But sitting here at forty, for whatever reason, I’m imagining it the other way: would 1985 Steven have happily had a beer with the current model? I think he would, and that the pair of us would have hit it off. That’s one measure of success, right? Your continuity with your past selves; their willingness to let you buy them a beer.

Yeah. That’s one measure of success. It’s also one measure of failure. My secret theory is that the point of personal continuity is to solve assurance problems. Stability in personality, values, and aims is to a large degree a function of the nature of our iterated games. If not for those ongoing games, continuity matters very little. (You are then free to be “authentic” in the Sartrean sense.) If you are deeply socially embedded, enmeshed in a web of thick obligations, you can’t just turn on a dime and become a whole new person. Change has to be gradual and semi-imperceptible in order to bring along gently one’s ongoing cooperative partners. You know a relationship is about to end when someone says: “I don’t know who you are any more.” So we remain more or less the same to sustain our relationships, to enable the mutuality of lovers, family, friends, and community.

So whether or not continuity is a sign of success depends on the worth of those relationships. If you find yourself after twenty years as submissive, superstitious, and hidebound as ever, then continuity may be your greatest failure. Who cares if this was an “effective” strategy in your particular ongoing social tit-for-tat. That might not have been a game worth playing. Pathetic continuity is no success.

When I was the age Johnson was in 1985, I didn’t drink beer.

[Via PEG.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center