It Wasn’t Me

Thanks so much to Dan, Danielle, and the Concurring Opinions crew for this invitation. This is all pretty new to me, but I am looking forward to a fun and interesting month.

In describing the job of law professor, Stuart Benjamin (http://www.law.duke.edu/fac/benjamin/) once told me that “We teach for free and grade for money.” I’m sure it is not his originally, but it’s particularly fitting for this time of year as we face exam and paper piles of various heights and teeters begging our attention. As someone who spent a few years in a PhD program, this feels to me a bit like being a pledge for life—to borrow a phrase from fraternity culture. I spent all those years grading blue books for others’ classes with the promise that some bright-eyed hopeful would someday clean up my messes only to enter law teaching, where we carry our own water. Hard to sigh too hard, of course, but the fact remains that few of us love grading.

It was while putting off grading that I read this interesting and timely article by Paul Bloom in The Atlantic Monthly, cum “The Atlantic,” on models of the self. Anyone with even a moderately complicated internal life is familiar with the subjective phenomenon of wars in our heads between competing goals and desires. Be it a battle between Dionysus and Apollo or André Soltner and Jenny Craig, we all experience the competing pulls of devils and angels, and so it is with grading. I should really grade ten more exams, but I want to see Virginia in the . . . no wait, Virginia wasn’t even Bowl eligible . . . but there are games on, and I’ll have plenty of time to grade once the dust settles from the holidays.


The Freudian account of these moments invites us to think of ourselves as more-or-less holistic beings with competing drives, goals, desires, and interests. I want to be a responsible professional and I also want to kick back with a beer and some leftovers from the New Year’s party. Most of us have been brought up to deal with the conflict by training our super egos to rank, order, and govern so we delay the gratification of our baser desires while nurturing and advancing our higher selves.

Bloom thinks this holistic view both unpersuasive and wanting for descriptive force. In his view, there is no single self, but, rather, a host of competing selves. Part of his account is temporal. There is my “now” self, which tends toward the Dionysian, and my future self, who is, frankly, a bit boring. Part of it is ethical. We all desire both achievement and pleasure. But what’s most interesting about Bloom’s account is his suggestion that there often is a real empathy gap among these various selves. I am happy to leave the grading to my tomorrow self because my today self will not suffer the consequences. And, of course, there are more than just two competitors. Bloom postulates a cacophonous meeting hall of different selves bouncing around and fighting for time on the dais and control of the pulpit, each of them ready to take what they want and leave others to suffer the consequences.

Most of us are fully aware that these many selves are mutually implicated and understand the consequences of choices made now on other valued selves, though varying degrees of dissociation are a given. Some of us have imaginary friends—here Bloom reminds us of a young girl whose imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli, was “a hip New Yorker whose defining quality was that he was always too busy to play with her,” god I love that—and others talk about our weakness for chocolate cake in the metaphor of a demon, but for the most part the self at the fore feels a sense of duty to and responsibility for other selves as a function of psychic and physical continuity. Thus blame and shame. But we also recognize that this continuity has its limits as metaphor. The concept of reform, after all, entails the idea of a new and different self. Similarly, most of us at some point shed the feelings of guilt for youthful indiscretions.

Ironically, it’s a huge indulgence to start thinking this way. To start, it leads to a host of fun reveries that are ever more engaging that grading. But it also suggests to us that the line between those who suffer multiple personality disorder and the rest of us who are only moderately dysfunctional is blurry at best, and mostly defined by how sympathetic we are with our other and future selves. Our current President was elected on a narrative of having been reborn, thereby leaving behind the youthful indiscretions of his teens, twenties, thirties, and early forties. He can’t be accountable for that conduct . . . it was someone else who got that DUI. Our current Vice-President suggested a similar entitlement to dissociate when asked about justifications for the War in Iraq after the 2004 election. You can’t blame us for that decision . . . it was made by other people whose existence was made moot by the intervening election and subsequent birth of a new administration. The more dissociation and lack of sympathy among selves we are willing to accept, the less responsibility that carries over between the selves that appear and wane at different points in our days and lives.

I’ll have more to say on these themes in later posts, but for now will simply leave those struggling for a reason to reach for the next blue book with the promise that it feels good to do something for someone else. True, the you grading the papers will get no benefit, but as with all acts of charity there is a pleasure in altruism. At least, that is what I told myself as I finished grades over the weekend. Now, of course, the self at the podium can indulge himself with this blog and reading and writing for his current article. He is not without guilt, of course. After all, classes start next week and someone has to step in front of two new classes. Luckily, it’s not me.

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7 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    When grading I divide exams into stacks of five or ten depending on the length of the exam question that I am grading. When I finish a stack, I get to diddle for little bit, checking email, reading an article, opening a book, watching an episode of the Office on hulu.com, etc. I just finished a stack of five, which entitled me to read your post. Maybe after the next five, I’ll let myself — or one of the other guys in there — read the Atlantic article.

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    The philosophical conundrum here, of course, is with all those selves wandering around in there, who is making all of the decisions? Is there a “decider” self? And if so, wouldn’t the decider be the real self? But if the decider is the real self, then it would seem to be prone to the exact same problem that prompted us to theorize the decider self into existence in the first place, namely, conflicting desires, wishful thinking, underestimating present value of future events, etc. So maybe the decider self has a mini-decider self…. And there we fall down the rabbit hole of infinite recursion.

    OK, back to work.

  3. One self has simply to bind the other selves (self-binding: with Elster, think Ulysses and the Sirens) by way of protection agains passion, preference change and time-inconsistency. One does this, in Elster’s words, “by removing certain options from the feasible set, by making them more costly or available only with a delay, and by insulating [ourselves] from knowledge about their existence.” (For those understandably sceptical about the possibility of the latter think carefully about the ubiquitousness of self-deception, which is not always a liability). In short, and assuming the absence of severe mental pathology, there are techniques of self-management and character planning (ask the Stoics, Buddhists, among others) that might get us around the problem of multiple selves before they, in turn, become fruitful and multiply exponentially or descend into the recursive rabbit hole.

  4. Sean M. says:

    Speaking as a law student:

    Back to work! Mush! Mush!

  5. Bruce Boyden says:

    Looking for something else entirely, I stumbled across this last night:

    Sandra Blakeslee, Old Accident Points to Brain’s Moral Center, N.Y. Times, May 24, 1994

    IN 1848, Phineas P. Gage, a 25-year-old foreman for a New England railroad, met with a horrible accident. In laying track across Vermont’s rough terrain, Mr. Gage routinely drilled holes in large rocks, poured in blasting powder, laid fuses and covered the explosives with sand. After tamping these miniature bombs with a long metal rod, he would light the fuses and run for cover from the explosions and shattering rocks.

    But one September day, Mr. Gage was momentarily distracted and began tamping the blasting powder before his assistant had added sand. There was a powerful explosion. The tamping rod, measuring three and a half feet long and an inch and a quarter in diameter, flew like a rocket into his face, just under his left cheek. It shot up behind his left eye, destroying it, and exited the top of his skull. The rod landed many yards away.

    Momentarily stunned, Mr. Gage stood up, began talking normally, and was able to walk away with the help of his men. He was taken to a tavern, where he was given a room. He recovered within a couple of months, but as a different man: he could no longer make ethical decisions.

    The gist: there is a section of the brain that analyzes ethical and social dilemmas, and another that analyzes mathematical or logical problems. Gage’s accident destroyed the former. I wouldn’t say he was incapable of making decisions; he just started making really bad ones.

  6. David Gray says:

    Thanks for all of these comments. I suspect that someone who knew what he was doing could respond individually by some trick of movable type, but that guy is yet to be one of the “me”s.

    Sean is right to crack the whip, but will be pleased to know that a former and altruistic self denied himself the pleasure of guest-posting here until grades were in for fall courses. He’s a wonderful guy, or so I hear–I’ve never met him (not to mention the suspicious fact that we have never been seen together either).

    Patrick too is dead-on, and, in fact, self-binding features in Blooms’s article, including reference to an alarm clock that runs away from you when it goes off so have have to get out of bed and track the damn thing down before you can turn it off, and some adorable studies done with young children. One involved delayed gratification, where the kids narrowly outperformed pigeons in their capacity and willingness to invoke self-binding measures to prevent their eating a treat now when waiting would net them more treats. Another revealed that kids could understand why adults would put a game out of reach of a child in order to prevent her playing with it until chores or studies were done but could not fathom why someone would do the same thing to themselves.

    It’s relatively clear that the cognitive gap exposed by these experiments is bridged by maturation or neural development, but the question is what is absent and what is developed . . .

    Which brings me to Bruce (full disclosure, Bruce and I have a familial relationship through the Haight chambers network). The beauty of Bloom’s view is that it does not need at all to posit a persistent or supervening self. Rather, the question of when and why anyone would self-bind is answered by reference to the same moral and inter-subjective ethical capacities that allow us to function in the community outside our-selfs and lead us to sacrifice our interests and desires out of respect for others. I compromise my immediate interests because I identify with my future self through a set of shared ethical commitments that can only be achieved by collective action. I empathize with other selves, do not want to harm them, and can even garner some selfish pleasure from altruistic conduct with respect to them. Further, consistent with all the evolutionary work done on group normativity I have read, I privilege the interests of other selves relatively highly because they are intimate members of my immediate community.

    Destruction of a brain center implicated in these capacities is equally destructive to internal and external normative relations. So, we would expect Gage to manifest not just an incapacity to make ethically consistent decisions, but also a diminished ability to make at least a certain band of morally intelligent decisions.

    Of course, if I am wrong, I can always disavow this guy . . . I will be so much smarter then.

  7. Howard Wasserman says:

    This is late and slightly off topic, but if you have time for another read, check out the Charlie Ravioli article that Bloom mentions (it was a piece by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker about 3-4 years ago). Now that we have a toddler whose play often reflects what she sees and hears us do, it resonates.