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Episodic Ethics

  • Galen Strawson


I guess I wont send that note now, for the mind is such a new place, last night feels obsolete (Emily Dickinson, 1830–1886).

She said: ‘Rejoice, for God has brought you to your fiftieth year in the world!’ But she had no inkling that, for my part, there is no difference at all between my own days which have gone by and the distant days of Noah about which I have heard. I have nothing in the world but the hour in which I am: it pauses for a moment, and then, like a cloud, moves on. (Samuel Hanagid, 996–1056, Vizier to the King of Granada)



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1 Letter to Mrs. J. G. Holland, early October 1870. When I cite a work I give the first publication date or estimated date of composition, while the page reference is to the text referred to here. Dickinson, E., Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, Johnson, T. H. (ed.) (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1830/1971).

2 1915: 562–3.

3 I discuss Narrativity in ‘Against Narrativity’, Ratio 16, 2004, 428452.

4 The notion of Diachronicity is close to the special notion of consciousness of past events that Locke employs in his discussion of personal identity. Consciousness in his sense is essentially accompanied by ‘concernment’, a sense of ownership and involvement. See Schechtman, M., The Constitution of Selves (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 105109; Strawson, G., Locke on personal identity (in preparation).

5 Wilkes, K., ‘ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕΑΥΤΟΝ (Know Thyself)’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 5, 1998, 153165, 155, criticizing Strawson, G., “‘The Self”, Journal of Consciousness Studies 4, 1997, 405428 (my emphasis).

6 Cf. e.g. Flanagan, O., Varieties of Moral Personality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). One of the most profound differences is between those for whom the moral-emotional categories of resentment and humiliation are central, and those for whom they hardly figure.

7 Plutarch, , ‘On Tranquillity of Mind’, Moralia VI, Helmbold, Plutarch W. C. (trans.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, c 100 CE/1939), 214217 (473B–474B); my thanks to Richard Sorabji for showing this to me. Forgetfulness is not in fact a necessary part of Episodicity, but Plutarch's overall opposition to the Episodic life is clear.

8 Almost all of us assume that other people are more like ourselves, psychologically, than they are. In this domain we automatically employ something like the ‘argument from analogy’ and are seriously restricted in our capacity to imagine radical difference. We fail, as Murdoch (following Simone Weil) observes, to think of others with sufficient realism, imagination, and attention—where these three virtues are indissolubly connected (Murdoch, I., The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970)).

9 Still less should it. Consider people who subscribe to a morality of divine command and who all have an equal degree of religious belief. Suppose we find out that the Diachronics among them are somewhat more likely than Episodics to observe the dictates of that morality. That will hardly show that they are, intrinsically, morally better people. It may be that they are more self-concerned, or simply that the practical effects of self-concern are different in Episodics and Diachronics.

10 For a striking discussion of how adherence to Kantian principles can go wrong, see Annas, J., ‘Personal Love and Kantian Ethics in Effi Briesf’, Philosophy and Literature 8, No. 1, 1984, 1531.

11 See e.g. Strawson, , op. cit. note 4, 419–21.

12 It may also be accompanied, dangerously for some, by self-disdain, self-contempt.

13 Nietzsche attacks remorse, predictably, but fails to distinguish it sufficiently from guilt. See his ‘Against Remorse’ (1887), Writings from the Late Notebooks, Sturge, K. (trans.), Bittner, R. (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1885–8/2003).

14 Connolly, C., The Unquiet Grave (New York, NY: Persea Books, 1944–51/2005).

15 My father and eldest son once startled me by maintaining that there is nothing more to feeling guilty than fear of being found out. Reflecting on this view is a good exercise for those given to guilt, but it cannot be wholly right because one can feel guilty about actions performed in full view of others, and feelings of guilt can persist even when one's misdemeanour is discovered. We need to add fear of being ill thought of and punished, at least, to the fear of being found out.

16 Guilt in the Christian manner seems irredeemably obnoxious, but there is a Jewish cultural tradition that treats it as an object of rueful humour in a way that makes it seem positively charming.

17 It is an ancient idea that you have to like yourself—well enough—to live a good life, and similar ideas are common in present-day psychotherapy; but they do not usually extend to positive self-concerned emotions that are specifically moral in character.

18 ‘Pride’ names something good as well as something bad, but it is hard for us to think that ‘moral pride’ might be a good thing.

19 I'm interpreting the dictum narrowly and psychologically as a statement about the positive effects of virtuous action on one's subjective state. A wider reading finds rewards beyond any subjective effects.

20 Perhaps there are cultural differences at work here—American/ European differences, for example.

21 See e.g. Hobbes, T., Leviathan, Tuck, Richard (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1651/1996); Warnock, G., The Object of Morality (London: Methuen, 1971).

22 She may be equally likely to acquire a vivid sense that A-ing is wrong from being the victim of someone else's A-ing.

23 Strawson, P. F., ‘Freedom and Resentment’, Freedom and Resentment (London: Methuen, 1962/1974).

24 See e.g. Strawson, G., ‘The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility’, Philosophical Studies 75 (1994), 524, where I offer a further characterization of strong free will.

25 I differ from my father in suspecting that the most fundamental source of the continuing conviction of strong free will is one's experience of one's own agency rather than from one's experience of one's reactive attitudes to others (see Strawson, G., Freedom and Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), ch. 5). I will drop the word ‘strong’ from now on.

26 By the same token, people who are naturally low in the feelings that most powerfully underwrite the Diachronic outlook may be less Diachronic for that reason alone.

27 It is worth noting that fulfilling legitimate expectations is for many people a pleasure and is not experienced as a burden.

28 The intended reference of ‘I’ in everyday thought and talk is sometimes oneself*, sometimes the whole human being that one is, sometimes both these things, and sometimes indeterminate. It is a common mistake in analytic philosophy to think that it can only be to the whole human being (see e.g. Strawson, G., ‘Postscript to ‘The Self’’, in Personal Identity, Martin, R. and Barresi, J. (eds.) (New York: Blackwell, 2002), 363–70).

29 The re-bite of conscience, ‘re-bite’ deriving from Latin remordere, from which we get ‘remorse’, a word which has since (like ‘poignant’) acquired a softer meaning. James Joyce famously uses this phrase eight times in Ulysses (Joyce, J., Ulysses (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1922/1986)).

30 In French ‘conscience’ still means ‘consciousness’ as well as ‘conscience’ in the English sense. The ‘con-’ prefix introduces the reflexive element. See e.g. Locke, J., An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Nidditch, P. (ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 16891700/1975), 2.27.9.

31 This use of the doctrine of the eternal return as a technique of moral guidance is of course strictly speaking incompatible with its status as a deterministic metaphysical doctrine to which the appropriate ethical response is amor fati, for one is already just repeating one's forever unalterable pattern. (There are obvious connections, here, with the psychology of strict Calvinism.)

32 Yeats, W. B., ‘Vacillation’, from The Winding Stair and Other Poems in Selected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1933/1950), 284.

33 One might say that the [A or B] form is best understood to abbreviate the following more complex form: [[A or at least B] or [B or at least A]].

34 It is a striking fact (neutral for the purposes of the present case) that intensely powerful feelings akin to feelings of loyalty can spring up almost immediately in human beings who have been divided into different teams for a game.

35 For some people, resentment is balefully cumulative, but this is no part of its essence. In others resentments are intense but short lived, vanishing on the air as if they had never been.

36 ‘Semper et infirmi est animi exiguique voluptas Ultio’, Satires XIII: 189190; ‘vindicta bonum vita jucundius ipsa nempe hoc indocti’, Satires XIII: 180. See Blumenfeld, L., Revenge: a Story of Hope (New York: Washington Square Press, 2003) for some remarkable stories of vengefulness.

37 Alas for cultures that say ‘revenge is a dish best eaten cold’, or that a person who has waited thirty years to take revenge has been ‘hasty’. The fundamental ground of chronic vengefulness is boredom: as a specifically cultural phenomenon it dates back to a time when there was far less to entertain people outside their work. This is vividly observed by Gorky in his Autobiography, Schneider, I. (trans.) (Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Fredonia Books, 2001).

38 de Montaigne, M., The Complete Essays, Screech, M. A. (trans.) (London: Penguin, 1563–92/1991), 32.

39 Ibid, p. 33.

40 Nietzsche, quoted in Sommers, T., ‘The Objective Attitude’, Philosophical Quarterly 57, 2007, 121. Some are less able to forgive a wrong done to someone else—whether or not it is someone they know well—than a wrong done to themselves, but it is not as if something good lies behind this. It is rather something extremely dangerous, very ugly, and very human, the most dangerous force in all human public affairs: righteous indignation in the pejorative sense, righteous indignation felt on behalf of others or on behalf of the group of which one is part. Righteous indignation of this sort often incorporates a sense of absolute justification precisely because its object is not oneself—a sense of purity of justification that seems to those who feel it to license absolute violence. Its deep root, no doubt, is anger felt about one's own life or situation, anger that, once disguised in this way, is able to express itself without any inhibition.

41 The word ‘gratitude’ is not only used to denote a feeling—one can say truly that one is grateful to someone without any feeling of gratitude—but I will put aside this other use. (It is a question whether one can really feel gratitude to someone one doesn't like. It seems so—at least at first.)

42 It is perhaps diagnostic of the emotion of gratitude that it can persist, in t he face of disagreeable behaviour on the part of its inspirer, in cases where mere liking does not persist.

43 There are also those in whom reasons for gratitude become causes of resentment. Some fear that this process is inevitable and universal; see e.g. Conrad, Joseph as described in Ford, F. M., Joseph Conrad, A Personal Remembrance (New York: Ecco Press, 1924/1989), 131ff.

44 See Sommers, T., Beyond Freedom and Resentment: An Error Theory of Free Will and Moral Responsibility, PhD Thesis, Duke University (2005).

45 Some have suggested an association between Episodicity and depression and dissociation (Lampinen, J., Odegard, T. and Leding, J., ‘Diachronic disunity’ The Self and Memory, Beike, D., Lampinen, J. and Behrend, D. (eds.) (New York: Psychology Press, 2004)). It may be, though, that while this is characteristic of depressed and dissociated Diachronics, the reverse is true in the case of Episodics—in whom greater Diachronicity could be a form of dissocation.

I would like to thank members of the audiences at Union College, Schenectady, NY, St Olaf's College, Northfield, MN, and the 2005 Royal Institute of Philosophy conference on ‘Narrative and Understanding Persons’ for their comments.

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