Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Rawls and Slote on the pleasures of memory

John Rawls wonders why it is that we might prefer a life in which, given a fixed amount of goods to be distributed over its duration, the goods occur later than a life in which they occur earlier. He wonders whether it has to do with the relatively greater pleasure to be had from increasing expectations.
Other things being equal, we should arrange things at the earlier stages so as to permit a happy life at the later ones. It would seem that for the most part rising expectations are to be preferred. If the value of an activity is assessed relative to its own period, assuming that this is possible, we might try to explain the preference by the relatively greater intensity of the pleasures of anticipation over those of memory. (A Theory of Justice, p. 421). 
Michael Slote (Goods and Virtues, p. 24) mentions Rawls’ suggestion, not to question the relative preference for pleasures of anticipation over those of memory but rather to wonder why Rawls does not think that remembering past goods might at least sometimes be a source of pain instead of pleasure. When we remember a past good, why does Rawls not think we do so with pain? After all, we are ipso facto reminded that the pleasure is past and gone.  This would be another reason why it is better for pleasures to be in the future rather than the past.

Well, it depends I suppose, particularly on the context in which one is doing the remembering and the kind of good that is being remembered. (Aristotle is quite sensible about this kind of thing. I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about his and the Epicureans’ differing approaches to the pleasures and pains of remembering and anticipating pleasures and pains. I think Aristotle is right to say that we can sometimes remember with pleasure even a past pain.) And Slote’s point might have a mirror image in anticipations too. Similarly, I suppose, when we anticipate a pleasure, might we not feel pain at the thought that the pleasure being anticipated is just not yet here? I think some young children anticipating a birthday or Christmas might find the thought of the pleasures to come not itself pleasant but perhaps rather painful. Looking forward to Christmas just reminds you that it’s not Christmas yet.

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