EconTalk |
Agnes Callard on Aspiration
Sep 28 2020

Aspiration-199x300.jpg Where do our deepest personal values come from? Can we choose those values? Philosopher and author Agnes Callard of the University of Chicago talks about her book, Aspiration, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Callard explores the challenge of aspiration--who we are versus who we would like to become. How does aspiration work? How can we transform ourselves when we cannot know how it will feel to be transformed? Callard discusses these questions and more in this provocative episode.

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Sep 28 2020 at 2:54pm

Interesting discussion.  Wanted to pass along the Bible verse that I think Russ was trying to quote about 30 minutes into the discussion:  “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24).  Jesus is the speaker, and versions of this quote/short speech appear in the other 3 gospels.

Michael W Joukowsky
Sep 30 2020 at 7:10pm

Great discussion!  Thank you.  I wish that you could have had others in the conversation as well, such as Jordan Peterson (I know that he is recovering right now, but maybe in the future) and Nassim Taleb in this conversation with Russ.  I think it would be cool to have their voices heard along with hers.

It is interesting that Keynes did not believe in an aspirational life especially and economic life where people had aspirations. “Love of money” is “the moral problem of our age.” Keynes, “A Short View of Russia,” 1925

As opposed to Hayek.  “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit

I vote for Hayek!

Ginza George
Oct 2 2020 at 3:01pm

It made a lot of sense to me when I reflected Agnes’ main points off my own aspiration which is an unusual one and not conventionally elevated. Thanks to both of you for making me super alert for over an hour! All the best, Agnes 🙂

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: August 25th, 2020.]

Russ Roberts: Today is August 25th, 2020 and my guest is philosopher and author Agnes Callard of the University of Chicago. I want to thank Plantronics for providing her with the Blackwire 5220 headset. This is Agnes's second appearance on EconTalk. She was here in June of 2020 discussing philosophy, progress, and wisdom. Our topic for today is her book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. Agnes, welcome back to EconTalk.

Agnes Callard: Thanks.


Russ Roberts: What is aspiration?

Agnes Callard: Aspiration is the rational process of value acquisition.

Russ Roberts: And, what does that mean in everyday life? Give us some examples.

Agnes Callard: It means--so, if you just think about like most of the things that you value right now, like in relation to your career, your kids, some hobbies you have, some of your, like, political values or ideology--if you just go back far enough, there'll be some point in your life when you didn't value those things. Like, before your kids existed for example, or when you had different political beliefs, or when you hadn't yet gotten super into some hobby or some novelist or something.

So, aspiration is how you got from there to here. How you came to care about the things that you care about.

Russ Roberts: So, an example I've used occasionally here is Faulkner. I hated Faulkner. I thought he was silly. I tried to read, The Sound and the Fury, read the first couple pages--I was 16, 17 years old. I thought 'This is awful,' and foolishly took a class on Faulkner and Conrad in college because I loved Conrad. At the end of that class, I didn't like Conrad so much and I loved Faulkner. But, in your language, I aspired--I could have; I got lucky in that case--but, a person could aspire to appreciate Faulkner even though on first glance they don't like them.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, actually I think that the--I'm less inclined to separate the aspire cases and the get-lucky cases. I think they tend to work together, aspiration and luck.

So, most of the things that we care about, there was an element of luck in how we got started. But I don't think that there's anything anyone could have done to you such that sort of all of the explanation of your appreciation of Faulkner is the stuff that they did to you. Right? There was some part of it where you were reading it, you were thinking about it. You were coming to see that there was something there that you hadn't seen before and wanting to see more of that thing. That bit of the process that you're doing, that's aspiration.

Russ Roberts: And, you contrast it with ambition. So, talk about--I mean, a lot of people aspire to be rich or to travel a lot or something like that. What's the difference between ambition and aspiration?

Agnes Callard: Yeah, good. So, one thing I point out in my book is that the English word 'aspiration' is a pretty good word for the thing I'm trying to talk about, but it's not a perfect word.

So, there are some ways that we use the English word 'aspire' that don't correspond to what I mean when I'm talking about aspiration, and one of them is that we sometimes use 'aspiration'--e use the English word 'aspire'--to talk about cases where the person isn't trying to learn to value anything new. They're just trying to satisfy a value or desire they already have. And, that value might be sort of quite large-scale and it might dominate their life, but they don't think they have more to learn in that respect about, like, what's valuable about the world.

So, somebody who, quote-unquote, "aspires" to make a lot of money already knows why they want money. They're not trying to learn why they want money. They're not trying to learn why money is good. Interestingly, money is like one of the few things where, like, sort of the knowledge of why it's good seems to be one that people take to be extremely available to themselves--to not in need of learning. Perhaps not correctly.

Russ Roberts: A mistake, I think.

Agnes Callard: Yeah, I agree. But, in any case, you know, they're not adopting an aspirational attitude. They just have a goal and they're trying to satisfy it. And that goal might require a lot of them, right? Require a lot of work. But, the goal is in itself value learning. And so, those are cases of ambition; they're not cases of aspiration.

I also distinguish aspiration from something I call 'self-cultivation,' which is a case where you are trying to learn to value something, but it's kind of a small thing where you know why you want to come to value that thing. You're not changing yourself fundamentally.

So, a case where it's like I want to start wanting to exercise, right? Suppose I don't want to exercise. But, I'm like, 'But, if I wanted to, then I would be able to get myself to exercise more.' And so, I'm trying to change myself, right? But I'm not--I'm trying to sort of add a desire to my repertoire because I have this other desire, say, for health; or I'm not learning with respect to that fundamental desire. So, it's not a fundamental change.

So, both ambition and self-cultivation are distinct from aspiration though people sometimes use the word 'aspiration' for those phenomena.


Russ Roberts: The reason I love what this book is about--and as I think I've told you, and as listeners know, I'm trying to write on some related issues myself--is that, to me, this is sort of the essence of life. It's not like a little corner here, or 'Wouldn't it be nice if I like, say, classical music? An example you use in the book. But most--much of life is of this character: that, there are things I don't know much about it. I might not like it once I know more about it, but I'm open to the possibility. And, as I explore it, my appreciation, my fundamental understanding of it, is going to change.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, that's a great point and I actually think--this is something I feel is missing from the book--but I actually think there are two, broadly speaking, two perspectives you could have on the way aspiration fits into a human life. And the one that you're gesturing at is sort of totalizing. You might think just most of what matters about life is value-learning. It's like learning to value to appreciate new things or to appreciate things more and more; and sort of life is this kind of process where we are always aspiring and where aspiring is the fundamental essence of who we are.

I call that the Platonic picture. Right? I think Plato thought of life as a kind of project of self-perfection.

Aristotle, I think, disagreed with that. I think he thought, 'No,'-- that the first part of your life is that. Maybe until age, like, 20, 30 or something. Like, 'Yeah, you're cultivating yourself, you're learning, you're learning to value new things; but, hey, life isn't all about you.' At a certain point, the point of your life isn't like that you come to value more things or that you come to value things more perfectly, but that you learn to activate and exercise the values that you have so as to achieve those things. Right?

And so, on the Aristotelian picture, aspiration is really relegated to a part of your life. And it may show up in other bits. Like, it's not that it's completely gone. Right? But this question of how fundamental is aspiration to human life is itself one that I think one could have an interesting philosophical dispute about.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, let's talk a little bit more about that for a minute. We'll get to other things, too, obviously.

But, I think if we're not careful, it's easy to confuse self-perfection with what you're talking about. It's not just, 'I'm going to get better and better at what I am.' It's that 'I'm going to strive, perhaps, for some ethical improvement,' that we want to make clear as part of your story, right? 'I'm going to be a better spouse.' 'I'm going to be a better teacher.' 'I'm going to be a better parent.'

Agnes Callard: That is self-perfection.

Russ Roberts: It is;; but it's not--to me, it's thinking about more, 'I want to value those things more than I already do.' That's what I'm thinking of as self-perfection.

Agnes Callard: Absolutely. Aristotle--

Russ Roberts: It's self-improvement.

Agnes Callard: Absolutely. Aristotle would think if you devoted your life to that, it would be selfish. It's not all about how perfect, how improved you are. Sometimes your life should also be about other people.

Russ Roberts: Right. But, if I'm improving myself to be a better friend or a better spouse or parent, that would seem to be okay. With both of them.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. I mean, I think that, even so, like there's something--at least, I think there is something--and in this I agree with both Plato and Aristotle though maybe not with everyone, maybe not with you: I think there's something self-focused about aspiration, even when it's moral, even when I want to be a morally better person.

And, here's a way you could bring that out. Suppose, I'm really aspiring to be--let's say I'm like a kid in school and I'm aspiring to be more courageous and to stand up to my peer group more, right? And, I see something where I really should intervene, but I don't--out of cowardice, okay? And then the question is, 'How do I feel about that?' Right? And, if I'm thinking of this fundamentally in terms of my own aspirational project to be more brave, I'll feel bad about what this means for my cowardice.

And I should feel that way. That's a good response, right?

But, suppose that I were not interested in my self-improvement project. I might just be like, 'I feel bad about that kid who got bullied where I didn't speak up.' Like, 'This is about them, not about me.' That's a kind of reaction where I forget the place of this event in my aspirational journey.

And so, I do think that Aristotle thinks that at a certain point, like, your character is kind of fixed and your life is no longer about coming to appreciate values more fully. You appreciate them to some degree. You should do as much good as you can with the appreciation that you've got.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I have to think about that some more, so I want to move on. It makes my head spin a little bit, because I think of--you know, improving my character is to some extent a selfish--a self-centered--activity. But it also seems to have a lot of impact on the people around me. So, I'm going to hold both of those, don't you think?

Agnes Callard: Yes. And, Aristotle thinks a big part of why you should improve your character is the effect on the people around you.

But, there is a question of, like, what is coming to the fore of your attention. And there is a distinction. If you think about anyone who is trying to learn anything, we don't fundamentally judge them on their achievements. We judge them on sort of their learning process and their progress in learning, right?

And I think Aristotle thinks, 'Yet, not all of life is that.' There's a part where you're done with that--where you're done with school so to speak and you're acting in the world and you're to be judged by the results of what you do, not by their place in your learning process.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Here's where I disagree with Aristotle, then. Easily said since I really never read Aristotle. So, let me take a crack at it. It seems to me that it takes a long time to be aware of how you do. I mean it's one thing to say you're a great football player and it's time to stop practicing and get on the field. But life isn't like that. I have trouble being aware of my--it's taken me 65 years to be aware of my character flaws. If I'd start at 30, I was way overconfident about myself--you know, abilities, and my self-righteousness. And I think I'm a better person now. Terribly flawed, still.

But, it seems to me that it's a lifelong process. How could Aristotle argue that it's something you just kind of, 'Time, now: Time to get into the game.' What's he thinking there? He's an idiot, Agnes. Obviously, overrated.

Agnes Callard: Heh, heh. I think that one thing that's interesting for me in terms of--I'm more drawn to Plato's view, as well, on this question, right?

However, one thing that I find myself sort of bound up in is: I think Plato's view on, their disagreement on this, is very closely tied to their disagreement about the immortality of the soul. Right?

So, Aristotle thinks that when we die, we die and we're dead, and we're gone, and it's over. He does not think that the soul can exist once the body is destroyed.

Plato thinks, 'No, not only can the soul exist when the body is destroyed, it can be reincarnated and you get future chances.'

There are interpretative questions over whether we are supposed to read Plato literally in the myths where he talks about this reincarnation. And some people don't. I'm sort of inclined to be like, 'He probably thought something like that was plausible if he said it a bunch of times.'

But, in any case, certainly whether you think whether you buy the reincarnation bit, Plato--or Socrates, I mean--he definitely thought the soul was immortal, right?

And you could see how the Socratic picture of infinitely perfecting yourself, at least to me it fits with the thought of the soul being immortal. Because it's like--but the Aristotelian picture is like, 'Look, at some point, you are someone. You are what you're going to be, and you should sort of like inhabit the world in your full standing self and do what you can with that self.' Because, it's something like that life is not a dress rehearsal. It's like some part of life is a dress rehearsal, Aristotle thinks.

And so, maybe one way to think about it would be to give Aristotle--it would be a slightly more charitable view of Aristotle: It's not that you can't in some ways keep learning, but the sort of learning-element of your life gets backgrounded relative to the doing-element of your life. And, the importance of that backgrounding for Aristotle is driven by the fact of death.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I see that.


Russ Roberts: Let's put this in some context for a 20-year-old listener who is listening to this thinking, 'Oh, this aspiration stuff seems kind of good.' Like, for me. But, I think it's partly because of my nature. I see it as sort of central aspiration. That's why I liked your book so much. For me, it's like the essence of how I think about my life story, my narrative, my personal arc. But, if I'm 20 years old, it's like, 'What is all this high-falutin' aspiration stuff? Is it going to make me happy, Agnes? Or is it just going to be a burden? I don't want to aspire to be a good person. Why would I do that?'

Agnes Callard: So, I think that if I were talking to such a person, the first thing I would say is: You already do aspire. I'd just find some area in which they--as a matter of fact, I've never met a 20-year-old who didn't aspire in some way. At the very least, romantically.

There's a kind of problem about selling aspiration considered generally. I'm not even sure we should do it.

So, one of the ways that people use the word 'aspire,' another one of these ways where the English word 'aspire' pulls apart from what I'm talking about philosophically, is, sometimes if someone goes to find themselves in Europe or something and they're just like wandering around, like, 'I'm finding myself.' We can call that aspiration sometimes, right?

And, I don't call it aspiration. Unless there's something more specific you're trying to find than yourself. That is, I think that it's pretty important that aspirational projects are tied to concrete values and we sell the aspirational project on the strength of the value, not on the strength of aspiration. Aspiration isn't a good thing. It actually kind of sucks. It often feels terrible. It means you're bad at something. You feel embarrassed and ashamed of yourself. You're learning instead of knowing. Like, none of that is good.

What's good is the improved condition that you're going to get to; and it's worth it because that value is important. And, if that value is not important or if it's not worth the effort you're putting into it, you shouldn't do it.

And so, what I'm saying is: It's both--on the one hand--impossible to aspire in a generalized way. There's no such thing that you're doing. And, also in a concrete way we would want to sell it on the strength of the particular value. But, if what I'm trying to do is just show someone sort of what this is and that it shows up for them, I would just find some arena in which they are already doing it and point out to them that this is something that they value.

Russ Roberts: I guess for me, the process itself has a lot of value and that's what I would--I would encourage young people to aspire, I mean, it's your word, your concept, your narrower focus.

But, it seems to me that the process by which, I would call it, by which we grow in both, not just mastery, although that can be part of it. Mastery is not really exactly in the wheelhouse of what you're talking about because mastery suggests you're already--if it's a skill, it's not really what we're talking about. You're really talking about something much deeper, which is: Often young people will explore different religions, because they aspire to have a spiritual part of their life; and so they're going to try different things and see what uniform, what clothing, what hat fits well with their self.

I think that's--again, I don't want to push too far that you should try that for 60 years. You probably want to wear some of it for a while and get into the game. But, I think that the search--the process, the tasting--that you refer to at various times--the beginnings of seeing the value of the value that you're aspiring to--seems to be a big part of what makes life meaningful for many people.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, this gets to sort of another one of my views, which is like I sort of don't believe in advice. And, I think that telling someone that they should aspire and try things out and be open to new things--like, that could be the right thing to say, if you knew the person. It could be exactly the wrong thing to say, right? You can easily conjure up situations in which it's the wrong thing to say. Like, what I want to say is like, 'Yeah, the right amount of that in a life is good at the right time.'

But, you know, I think--I mean one thing I guess I think I can say--so when I wrote the book, I had this view that is kind of open-ended as aspiration, where there's nothing in particular: You have no value that you have in view. You're just almost hoping something will hit you and you're just like--like, the finding yourself idea, I thought that was just empty and that that was not aspiration.

I then actually, like, refuted my own view in another paper I wrote after the book, which is to say: I think that you can actually set up very special contexts in which that kind of open-ended aim of growth, in a certain institutional context, actually can become productive.

And, I think that's what a college is. It's an institution that exists in order to make open-ended aspiration not be pointless. But, you need a lot of structure in place for that to be possible, right? You need there to be things like classes, right? Where a class is a good example of something where you're selecting things and you're trying them out and you're seeing what resonates with you. But it also--and it's not just seeing what resonates, right? There's a structure inside of it that allows you to try, and to strive, and to work. There's a kind of--there's a manner of work that is laid out for you within the context of a given class; but then there's also all these other aspects of yourself that are being addressed by--you know, there are romantic opportunities, there are sports, there are cultural opportunities, right?

So, I actually think that we are lucky enough, so, far, that we still do live in a world in which there exist institutions for this purpose. So, it's a contingent fact that it is possible now and it wasn't at a certain time.

Russ Roberts: Or not for many people anyway.

Agnes Callard: Yes.


Russ Roberts: I want to talk about this idea of giving advice for a minute. We're going to come back to aspiration in a second. But, you point out it a number of places in the book, that an aspirant--a person who aspires--often will use a teacher or a role model to help them. You're kind of saying you're a little uncomfortable being such a role model until you're asked--is the way I take your statement. That, proselytizing is not generally a good idea because you could encourage somebody to aspire to something that they might not like or be harmful to them, but otherwise the doctor is in. I'm sitting at my table on the sidewalk and if somebody comes by and wants to know what's great about say, economics, or Judaism, or being a Red Sox fan--three things I'm involved in--then I'm happy to tell them why it speaks to me, those things speak to me. But, I shouldn't be out there telling people what they should aspire to. Even aspiration. So, you're going to tell me, Agnes, you're not even going to tell people that philosophy is a good idea? that thinking is a good idea? that they ought to aspire to be thinking?

Agnes Callard: So, I want to distinguish, first, between giving people advice and saying why something is good. So, I think--like, I have an academic paper, okay, on aspiration in Elena Ferrante, this novelist whose next novel is coming out in a couple days--I'm really excited. And when I write about Elena Ferrante, I'm actually, trying among other things, to convey my own love and enthusiasm of the novels. I want to convey that to people. I think that's a good thing to do. Like, show people what's beautiful in something: because it helps them aspire. Including aspiration, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Agnes Callard: Absolutely. But, I think that's very different than telling someone what to do. It's not telling them, 'You should choose this over something else,' because I don't know that they should choose it over something else. It's not giving them a recipe for how they might succeed in that domain. It really is in no sense telling them what to do. It's just showing them that here is a good thing that is in some sense available to them.

Now, it's not that I want to deny either telling people what to do. I do that all the time. I'm totally comfortable telling people what to do, but the issue is not whether I know them. So, the issue is not whether they've asked me, it's whether I know them. I don't think I can productively tell someone what to do unless I know them pretty well.

And so, when people ask me for advice who are strangers, I fear that I will give them bad advice--because I don't know them.

But, something I can do for them is just explain why something is good or beautiful in such a way that it might hopefully resonate with them and they'll be inspired to pursue it. That's absolutely a thing I can do--including with aspiration. And I try to do it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Adam Smith says, 'We care that our friends--we like that our friends like what we like and dislike what we dislike.' And we care a lot more about the latter. We really want them to hate what we hate. That's really, essentially, he argues. It's an interesting argument.

But, I'm just curious--when you were telling me how beautiful Elena Ferrante's novels are, which, who I've never read, and now, of course, I'm going to check her out. Her book is out. Is that a selfish--is that a self-centered goal? Or is that an altruistic goal? Are you doing that for me, or for you, or for both?

Agnes Callard: So, Smith has this fascinating passage--I think it's towards the end of Theory of Moral Sentiments--where he says something like the basic function of, like, language is people want to be believed. Like, they want to shape other people's opinions. So, they want to in some sense be followed. And language is like a tool for being followed, right? And, that's related to the thing you said about wanting your friends--in some sense, we all want to be influencers--right?--is the thought there.

So, now, so one thing is like that you could say that's a fact about us and then you can ask is that fact selfish or selfless?

I suppose, I think I agree with him that that's a fact about people. Whether it's selfish or selfless, I actually think depends on how you do it. Right.

So, there's a distinction in Plato's "Gorgias" between two kinds of persuasion: the kind of persuasion where you will do whatever it takes to persuade the person and the kind where you will only persuade them so long as you think what you're persuading them of is true. And, Gorgias, who is an orator, who is a famous respected orator, is like, 'I'm a master of persuasion.' And Socrates is like, 'I want to know which kind. That's really super important to me. Is it the truth kind or is it the anything kind?' Right?'

And I think that being really committed to persuading people and it being super-important to you to persuade people of the truth of what you're saying and of the value of the things that you value, I think is not--it's at least not selfish in a blameworthy way so long as you are subjecting yourself to the constraint of doing the right kind of persuasion.

Russ Roberts: So, hard to know, though. For each of us.

Agnes Callard: Yes, I agree--

Russ Roberts: My wife has a skepticism about charisma, which I really appreciate because I'm a sucker for charisma, charismatic speakers. My first response to a charismatic speaker is to dive in. 'Yeah, take me. I'm yours. I love what you're saying. Yeah, I'm going to take it really seriously.' Her first reaction is like, 'Whoa, charisma. I don't want to be drawn in just by that.' But, of course a lot of great influencers are charismatic. I suspect Socrates was more than just logical. I suspect he was charismatic.

Agnes Callard: Yeah, I mean there's really interesting places in which he sort of tries to deny that. At the beginning of the "Apology," which is his speech of self-defense in his trial. He's on trial for his life, for impiety and for corrupting the youth, right? And he opens his speech by denying that he's good at speaking. And it's like, 'Wait, what, Socrates?' And he's like, 'Look, what I do is I just say the words in the same order that they come into my head. I'm not, like, arranging them.' Which is kind of true, because you get these other examples of speaking, people like Gorgios and company where they are kind of rhyming. They're talking rhymes or they speak in an overly ornate way, etc.

But, there was something super-charismatic about Socrates's simplicity, about the fact that he always talked about cobblers and use these everyday examples.

And, so, I think it can be very difficult to dissociate yourself from that. And it's something I think about very much, because I think I am a charismatic speaker and a charismatic writer. And, I worry about persuading people for the wrong reason. So, it's absolutely something I think about.

I had a Twitter thread this week about how for me that's part of the real value of assigning, like, great books: is that the book, in a way, is a kind of test and a kind of something independent of me that's in the classroom, like another voice.

And, if I say something that sounds super-plausible or appealing about the book, a student will often raise their hand and be like, 'Wait, that's not how I interpret it.' Or, 'What about this bit of evidence?' It gives them this sort of ground to use to push back against me.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I love that Twitter thread. We'll try to link to it. I thought that was very thoughtful about how dead people--it's harder for dead people to be charismatic. They only have their language. They only have their thoughts. They don't have their oratory skills, their physical appearance as a way to enhance their argument.


Russ Roberts: It's a very deep issue for me. And just thinking--I think we like to think we're reasonable--meaning rational. But the role that charisma plays in getting us to decide what we aspire to is not unimportant in our parents'--like, some of us were blessed or cursed with--I don't know which is better a charismatic parent or an uncharismatic parent. But, those parents, those teachers--and there's a handful that all of us have in our lives. If we're lucky, it's more than a handful. But, people that we remember who created a set of values for us and those aspirations that we're dancing around right now.

And, I'm very grateful for them in my life. And I've tried to tell them so. I think it's a great thing. And, so--but, there's a tension there, between the power of that to open the world for you--right?--versus steer you down a path that maybe it's not so good for you, but you're seduced.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. It's interesting when I think about it, because I think I am charismatic, say, in relation to my students and to, you know, people who read what I've written. And this could be my own illusion. But my experience is that my children find me not at all charismatic. Like, not even slightly. Like, it's almost like, 'If you try any of that on us, we'll see through it in an instant.' Like, especially my 16 year old. And so, it's like this--for me almost a very jarring realism that I hit when I come home of people who don't find me charismatic. And I really kind of appreciate that. It's almost like the home world is a little bit of a--I mean, sheltered from something.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. There's an expression in Hebrew that I think most people assume comes from the Bible, but I don't think it does, but it's a deep expression. [30:32]It's 'ayin n'be bin komo': Not a prophet in his own place, or in her own place.

So, when you're out on the mountaintop talking to the masses, people are going nuts. Then, you're back in your hometown. It's like, 'Isaiah? Oh, that was that kid who had trouble with algebra. He's a nobody.'

So, I think it's a--when we come home, it is a time of humility, right? I think that's painful but healthy.

Agnes Callard: Yeah.


Russ Roberts: Well, let's talk about rationality, which I think is overrated but as a philosopher you're kind of stuck with it. You say the following. I'm going to read two quotes from the book. "Aspirants--those who aspire--aspirants exhibit a distinct form of rationality that is not a matter of decision at all."

You also write, "I propose that the large transformations in people's lives are rational though their rationality is not best captured through the framework of decision-making."

Talk about what that means. What do you mean by that, those two expressions?

Agnes Callard: Great. I think that's a really important claim in the book.

And, so, maybe one way to frame this whole thing is like: You might think I'm not such a big fan of rationality. It's overrated. Etc. That's one way you could respond to a certain set of phenomena.

And I think I'm looking at those same phenomena. What I'm saying is, 'Let's stretch the concept of rationality,' to cover some of that territory. Because part of the function of the idea of rationality is that it ought to cover a lot of what's important to us.

Okay. So, here's how I'm doing it. What I'm saying is that there's a way--there's a kind of classical way--to think about rationality and that is something like rational choices, right?

And, once I say 'rational choice,' you're immediately in the framework where somebody has like a few different options. Those options somehow are magically pre-articulated for them. Like, we're automatically in the supermarket somehow, right? A supermarket of choices.

And, the question of their rationality is the question: Which of those things do they pick? Right?

And, in addition to the choices being given to them, somehow magically, all the information that they will ever have about these choices is given to them somehow magically. Okay?

And, some of that information might be information about what they don't know, right? But that's also given, fixed. Everything is fixed there, right?

And, the question is just, okay: Given these choices, given this information, given what they desire--which is also fixed, right? All those things fixed--what should they do? Right?

And, the theory of rational choice is the theory of how to navigate that situation.

And, what I'm trying to say is that there are situations in life that require rationality where not all those assumptions can be met. Not all those things are fixed.

So, there are--there's a kind of rationality that we're expected to exercise when our information about a situation is in the process of changing. Our desires are in the process of changing. And, our mode of thinking about the value of the thing--in some sense what would correspond to deciding--is itself also changing.

And so, the thing that marks what is happening as rational isn't the decision, there. In some sense, there isn't a decision. There is a process, a temporally-extended process, which is something like learning that involves changes in the information structure, the desire structure, of the person. And, in order to sort of pick out what is happening and see its rationality, you have to see a stretch of time. You can't just look at an instant, which is how you look at decision.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm going to [?] economics because obviously your opening, somewhat satirical, portrait of human being in the supermarket is the economist's view of human behavior. Which is: We have given preferences; we have a fixed amount of income or constrained by that income; and we choose those products that maximize our so-called utility. If we recognize the fact that the utility or pleasure we're going to get from our choices is uncertain, we solve that with either saying, 'Oh, and I'm doing it over a lifetime. It's intertemporal utility maximization.' Or I might say, 'I'll do expected utility,' which is a really sterile, narrow concept.

And, I think that the view of the economic project is--I used to like it. I don't like it so much anymore. I think it's a--there's something robotic about it that I only appreciated after I read James Buchanan, at my friend and former colleague Don Boudreaux's encouragement, where he says that's not economics, that's just engineering. You give me my preferences and tell me my relative values of these different things and then you show me the prices and then I've got an engineering problem. That's not what life is about. Life is so much richer and more complicated. And, my view is--I don't know if this is Buchanan's view--but my view is: You've got to embrace that. You don't have to say, 'Oh, I got to narrow the uncertainty. I got to figure it out.'

Like you say, just figuring out what's on the shelf is a huge part of the challenge of life.

And, the economic view, by the way, of the firm, of a company, is: Given that it's making widgets, how many widgets should it make? That's the theory of the firm. When in fact, if you ask anybody in business or think about it for a minute, the real goal of, the challenge a firm faces, is trying to figure out which market it's in. Which kind of widget it should be making. Not how many. How many is a narrow, sterile problem. And similarly, it's not, 'Oh, I've got these N goods and this relative value of them.' I don't know the value. I don't know how many goods they are. And I don't know which goods are on the shelf--that I ought to be pulling out of the shelf.

Agnes Callard: Right. So, maybe my view about the economic agent is a little higher than yours, which is that I think that that's a real and legitimate form of rationality. And, I'm sure you don't deny that--right?--to figure out how many widgets you should make. And, I describe it as reasoning from value. Right?

So, suppose you do have all the information. What should you do? Suppose you do know what your options are and you have these desires. Like, then, often, the answer is very easy, okay? But, you know, what I'm trying to bring out is, like, I can grant all that and I can grant that that covers an important range of phenomena, but there's still this question, like, 'Where did we get these preferences? Where did they come from?' Right?

And it's not true that they just pop into existence full-grown like Athena from the head of Zeus, right? There's a story that can be told and telling that story, and managing that story is super-important to us.

And so, there's another thing called reasoning towards value, and that's the process I'm trying to describe. One of the sort of projects of my book is to say, 'Don't assimilate these two things. They're not the same.' We can't understand reasoning towards value as a special funny case of reasoning from value. There really is an important independence; and that independence has to come from the fact that reasoning towards value is a learning process. It's not a process you make from whatever information you have. You make it towards a better informational state. Right? You're trying to learn, and you're trying to come to value. You're moving towards having preferences. You're not moving, sort of jumping off from them.

And so, I think that we--I want to hold on to both forms of rationality, but I also want to hold onto the thought that they're importantly distinct.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's a great point.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk for a minute about self-creation, which is a concept you mention in the book. There's a certain paradox here, which is: I want to become something more than I am, but how can I do that? I already am what I am. So, how can I aspire? It's already in me. So, talk about that.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. I think this is the deepest part of the book; and this is a puzzle that I've been puzzling over basically as far back as I can remember, which is: it looks like, suppose that I become someone new--suppose that I do it, okay? Right? There's some fundamental change in me. Well, it looks like there are two possibilities. One of them is that the antecedents of that change were already buried in the old me. We often talk this way when we talk about talents or innate predispositions or whatever. It's like the statue being hidden in the marble or something, right?

Russ Roberts: Mm-hmm.

Agnes Callard: So, that's one possibility, which is that I didn't really change. That other thing was there at the beginning; we just didn't see it. Right.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Agnes Callard: The other possibility is like : No, there really is this radical shift. But, then we want to say, 'Okay, but then I didn't do it.' That that change is just something that happened to me that came from the outside. And so, it looks like self-creation, where, what you mean by that, is turning yourself into something that really is substantively new and different from what you had before is impossible. It's like a logical contradiction, right?

So, that's one of the puzzles that I try to address in the book. And, what I say is that the mistake that we make when we set up this puzzle is that we assume that what it means for the later self to sort of have antecedents in the earlier self, what it means for the fact that there is some kind of continuity between the two, is that in a certain way you can sort of derive the later self from the earlier self.

Where, and, here's a real example of how philosophers have actually talked about this. You could think of the earlier self as making a promise: like, this is what I'm going to be like; and then the later self is keeping that promise. Okay. And, the problem is: why did the earlier self make that promise, right?

So, that kind of model where the earlier self makes a decision or a commitment or in some sense shapes or governs or is in charge of the later self, that's going to get you into one side of the dilemma, which is to say, it's both like, 'Well, then, there was not a real substantive change. And then there's also the question how did you get to that position?' And, there's a regress, right?

But, what I want to say is that you can conceive of the continuity between the earlier and the later self less like somebody making a promise and then living up to it, and more like, something like--here's another way we use the word 'promise'--seeing something as promising. Right? Seeing that there is something out there and you don't get it or grasp it. You don't master it. You're not in charge of it. And you have this sense that if you work your way there, it's your later self who's going to be authoritative. It's your later self who will judge you. You don't get to judge her, right? She's going to be, like, 'Yeah, when I was younger, I totally'--just like you said about earlier stuff. 'I used to screw this up, but I didn't quite get it.'

And so, the big mistake that sets up the paradox and makes it seem like self-creation is impossible is that we assume that if there's going to be any relation of continuity between the earlier and the later self, the earlier one has to be the authoritative one. And, what I want to argue is that the later one is the authoritative one, and we're sort of working our way up. We're not in charge of or shaping or governing or molding or making our future selves.

Russ Roberts: And, I think past EconTalk guest, L.A. Paul, is more agnostic about that. Is that fair to say--that, before I'm a vampire, it seems kind of grotesque to me, but after I become one, I'm thinking, 'Why was I that pitiful little human before?' And that there's just no way to solve that problem that, before I make this transformation in her language and in your language, before I achieve an aspiration, I've got two different decision-making selves; and they're not compatible. They can't be made whole. What's your reaction to that?

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, I think that's a good characterization of how Laurie [L.A. Paul] sees it. And, notice that you used the word 'decision-making selves'.

So, I think the really big disagreement about between Laurie and I is sort of whether or not we think there is some alternative to the framework of decision. And I think she doesn't.

So, let me say how we agree, and then how we disagree. Okay. How we agree is: Laurie and I both want to resist a tendency to assimilate what some people call, like, small and big decisions. So, a small decision might be like what car to buy; and a big decision might be do I get married, or do I go to college or what job do I want to have. So, a big decision would involve a change in your core preferences. Right? Do I become a vampire or not, okay? That's a big decision.

Russ Roberts: Or a parent.

Agnes Callard: Or a parent, exactly. Right. So, the standard decision-theorist's response is we want to treat all these cases the same. It's just like, you know, the preferences are just bigger or more fundamental.

But, what Laurie and I are noticing is that in these big-decision cases--which I don't want to call that--but the decision straddles two different preference spaces, and that is super weird. Decision theory does not tell you how to navigate that situation because which set of preferences am I supposed to maximize? Right?

And so, like, if I make this choice, I'll have different preferences, right? And that's the puzzle that Laurie really expresses I think super-well in her book. And we both agree that that's a big problem and we both agree that that problem stands in the way of giving the standard decision-theoretic analysis to these big decisions.

But, where I part ways with her is I think, 'Yeah, but we don't have to think of them as decisions.' Right? She thinks we do have to think of them as decisions; and then we essentially end up in a situation where it's very hard to see any rational way to navigate them. I think, they're not decisions; and we are capable of navigating them rationally.

So, the fundamental disagreement is whether we take the framing that we use for the choice of which car to buy--namely, you're standing before two options and you need to at a certain moment make a decision about what to do. Do we do that for, like: Do I become a mother or not? Do we do it for career choice? Or do we think about those cases differently? And, the way that I propose to think about them is that the choice or decision is essentially spread out over time in the form of a learning process.

And, so, it's like--it's not right to think that becoming a mother is like this thing where like one day you find yourself a vampire and you have all these values that mothers have, and it's like you've been transformed. You know, it starts well-before you even really think about having kids--when you're babysitting for your--you know--and you're thinking, 'Oh, what would it be like?' That's the beginning of the aspirational process.

And then when your kid is born, it's not done then. It's far from done, right? You're still learning what it's like to become a mother; and you have to keep learning because it's different to be a mother of a teenager and of a toddler.

And so, the process of acquiring these values is, on my view, not something that happens to you or is inflicted upon you by a decision that you make, but it's something you're working for as part of a learning process.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I really like that. I think the only footnote I would add to that is the role of fiction and poetry to help us taste something that we can't taste. We can't--we don't know what it's like to be a vampire. I would suggest we don't know what it's like to be a parent until we become a parent. Which leads to some smugness--on both sides, by the way. The non-parents look at those parents and say, 'I don't ever want to be that person.' And, the parents look back and say, 'Oh, I'm so glad I didn't stay there.' Which, of course, is part of the vampire paradox.

But, it seems to me that fiction, great fiction and great poetry, is a way to get a hint of how that learning might turn out.

Agnes Callard: I think that's right. Like, I wouldn't want to restrict the function of great fiction to that, because--here's one way that I think about the role of fiction. I only get to live one life. Right? And, that life is filled with contingency and weirdness of, like, being born at a particular time, particular gender, in a particular society with certain set of things available to me.

But, what fiction allows me to do is, like, pretend I could live as a lot of different people. So, it feels hugely expansive of my life. It's like instead of just one life, I get to live so many different lives.

And, I get to carry some of those lives with me--you know, the really memorable bits I carry with me, and they inform how I react to things, because I can sort of react as me and then I can react as Lila in one of the Ferrante novels. I feel like how would she--it's not like I ask myself how would she do this or how would she respond. It's almost like, she just gets called to mind somehow.

And so, I think in a much more fundamental way, fiction just broadens the metaphysical space in which we live.

And, then I think you're absolutely right: that that has aspirational implications; that because it does that, it opens us up in that way as well.

Russ Roberts: That's a fascinating idea. You ever worry about inauthenticity? You're leading this sort of fictional, imaginary life rather than the real one you're in for that fixed time. Assuming you're not like Plato, worried about the immortal soul, but reincarnating itself. Is there anything inauthentic about that imagination of inhabiting those different metaphysical spaces?

Agnes Callard: I think I worry a lot about authenticity, in general. So, it's a worry that speaks to me.

Maybe I worry about at least when I'm reading fiction because there isn't a demand to be authentic. I'm, like, not in the story. There's no me there to be authentic to, when I'm reading anyway. That's one of the things I like about fiction. Like, I'm a very self-absorbed person. I think about myself a lot. But when I'm reading fiction, I don't do it at all; and that's just awesome.

I take inauthenticity to be--the worries about inauthenticity to be a form of self-absorption. So, that's why it speaks to me, because I'm a self-absorbed person.

And, so, the question: Am I acting or am I being real? Right? That's a question of authenticity. And, I think that--I actually would tend to think that fiction helps, even when you're not reading it sort of helps with that. Which is to say it's like there's this thing that happens in life where you end up playing yourself. Like, 'Everybody knows who so-and-so is,' like, right?

And, it's like they kind of know it, too, and they're playing the part of themselves.

Russ Roberts: Sure.

Agnes Callard: And I think that this kind of broadening where you like break up, you resist the boundaries of yourself, you resist the thought that this is who I have to be and what I have to act like, can actually help you feel sort of more authentic in that it sort of like gives you the opportunity of not playing yourself; and thereby makes you feel like the things you do and say and decide are sort of like the product of what you think is good rather than the product of this character that you're playing.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, at the risk of opening a Pandora's Box, I want to mention free will. Because it strikes me that--I'm now going to go back to some of the distinction you're making between you and Laurie Paul's work.

I think--and, whether you yourself can jump out of yourself into a new self, that seems like a paradox. It may be a paradox. But it's who we feel we are. We may not have free will, but we feel like we do. And so, while it's maybe true that we can't really re-make ourselves, create ourselves out of whole cloth--we're not blank slates: we have all of the baggage of our genetics, our upbringing, our teachers, our mentors, our role models, people we want to stay away from.

But, it feels like we can be reborn. It feels like we have that choice before us. And when we make a leap, even when it's a small one like going on a diet, or a big one like converting to a religion or leaving a religion or becoming a parent--it feels like we're in charge.

And, we haven't mentioned Harry Frankfurt's name, but he had this idea that you're drawing on, which is that--and I've mentioned before here that human beings have desires about their desires. That seems impossible, almost by definition. I mean, 'How can you have a desire about your desire? That's your desire.' But, we feel like we can have desires. We can grow, like you talk about. We go through that process. So, how does that--how does your perspective--aren't you taking kind of a radical embrace of the opportunity, of the belief in free will?

Agnes Callard: I think what I am saying is quite radical, and it's pretty important to me as a philosopher. Like, there might be a set of things I want to say. Like, we feel like we have X or whatever. I want to make sure I kind of have the right to say them. Even if we want to say it, if it's not true, we can't say it.

And, on the other hand I think, if we strongly want to say it, we should look at the things that are making us feel like we can't say it and that it's not true and try and examine how we got here from there.

So, in particular I think where you said, 'Look, none of us is a blank slate. We're all influenced by other people.' I think that's absolutely true. And so any theory of aspiration has to take that into account.

And, the way that I do is to say, first of all, that in terms of the role of your agency in aspiration, it grows over time. So that you're doing less aspirational work when you're younger. That is, you're more under the sway of all the forces that are influencing you, right?

So, I think we need to acknowledge that we're not blank slates and that we are influenced in our aspirational trajectories by outside factors more so when we're younger than later on. So, when we're younger, a lot of what is happening in the aspirational journey is to be explained by parents and sort of basic forms of care. And, even along the way at every point, there are mentors. There's a lot of help. Aspiration requires help.

But, I think it's consistent with saying that I needed a lot of help to do something, that I'm the one who did it. And I think it's consistent with saying, 'If I hadn't had certain kinds of origins, I wouldn't have done it,' to say 'I'm the one who did it.'

The story of aspiration has to be a story that makes a place for human agency inside a field of other agents and of also other kinds of forces on us.

To maybe say something about Frankfurt. You know, some of what I'm doing in a certain part of my book is actually sort of criticizing the Frankfurt framework as being too narrow. In a way, I think it's clear that we have desires about our desires, in the sense that a drug addict might desire not to desire the drug. Right? So, we can take this meta-stance towards our appetitive urges, but I think that comes really far from capturing the whole field of phenomena that we call valuing.

That is, I think what Frankfurt is doing in introducing desires about desires is trying to take a step away from the economic model where we just have this flat field of preferences and some of them might be stronger than others. He's like, 'No, no, no. We need more architecture of the self than that. So, let me iterate it.'

And, I'm saying that's not enough. That's not what architecture of the self is. You actually need something other than desires in your story. You need values. And, values aren't just urges to do things. Values involve a cognitive component where you evaluate the thing as being really genuinely good. They involve an emotional or affective component where you feel a sense of loss if the thing is destroyed, and you feel anger if it's threatened or infringed upon in certain ways. And, then they do also involve motivational components, desires.

And so, part of my response to the sort of free will problem is to say that that problem is more intractable with a more impoverished version of the self.

Russ Roberts: Explain.

Agnes Callard: So, like, if the self is just a bundle of desires--imagine that it's a bundle of desires--and then you've got one bundle over here and then later you got a different bundle, it's like: what is going to connect those two things if it's really a different bundle. Right? It looks like that's just two selves.

Or, you want to say, 'Oh, no; it's the same because the core bit is the same here.' And here you're like, 'Okay, then it didn't change.' Right? And, there's our puzzle about self-creation.

But, if what the self is these value structures that are organic wholes that have cognitive parts and desiderative parts and affective, like, emotional parts, and those things can slowly change over time and grow--right?--then that's like the way in which a baby and an adult can look really different, but be one person--right?--because the organs can grow. And so you can see the thing changing radically, but nonetheless being one thing.

Russ Roberts: Well, as a Hayekian, I like the idea of an organic emergence to the adult self or the new self. I'm a big fan of that.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk for a minute about tradition. After I read L.A. Paul's book and after I read yours and got involved in Twitter on some questions about whether it's--how we would rationally decide to have children--one thing that struck me is that tradition solved that problem until recently. Through most of human history--maybe we talked about this the last time; I don't remember. But, through most of human history, it's not a decision to have a child. It's what you did. It's what your religion pushed you in that direction or your culture pushed you in that direction.

And, we live in this interesting, fascinating time now where a lot of the strictures and constraints of tradition are either gone or not felt by the aspirant. And, I feel like a lot of people are struggling with this saying, like, 'Well, I don't know where to start in aspiring because everything is open to me.' It's like--it's not just: you know, in the economics view, everything is on the shelf. There's a certain set of things on the shelf you have to choose from. And we know that's too narrow.

But, now it's like we're in an infinite supermarket--which is a little bit like Amazon actually, by the way. You know, 'Any book you want. Take your time.' And, it's like, 'What do I do now?' And, the answer is we evolve. Things emerge to help us make those decisions. And they'll do the same for child-bearing as well.

But, I find it fascinating how free many of us are from those traditions of the past.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, one thing that's super-interesting about that, that I hadn't ever thought of until you put it this way, is there's a way in which an aspirational culture is going to be a little bit in conflict with a childbearing culture. There was a time when having children was just what you did, right? And for women that was pretty much what your life was devoted to. And, it wasn't like, 'Well, in what area do you think you feel you can aspire?' Right?' It was like: This is how you live.

And, we've moved towards a more aspirational culture in the sense that we think people ought to pursue their talents and ought to try to engage in this process of finding what they should value. But then that removes this kind of default option of child-bearing.

Russ Roberts: Well said.

Agnes Callard: And so, it pushes the whole system a bit away from childbearing. Yeah, that seems right.

And I think that this problem, the problem of to open aspiration is one that I'm sensitive to. As I say in the book, I thought it was a more decisive problem than I now think it is, because I thought you can't aspire in a situation where you're not tuned into some values. I still think it's pretty hard and you need an institutional structure.

But, I do think that's one of the one big reasons people are drawn to college--is that it's the answer to the question: What should I do, if I have no idea what I should do with my life? And, we've put people into a position--our culture has put people into a position, for better or worse, where they don't know what they should do with their lives when they graduate high school, because tradition doesn't tell them what to do.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. You don't just become the blacksmith's apprentice or work in the factory like your parents did downtown in the town where it's a factory town. And, that's liberating and exhilarating and scary, which is part of life.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. Like, so, Sartre, who Laurie Paul picks up on, I actually think in her thinking about this, thought that like we all want freedom but freedom is also unbearable. We can't tolerate our freedom.

Russ Roberts: It's hard.

Agnes Callard: And we need to constantly produce stories of how we're caused, and determined, and forced, because we can't handle. We want people to tell us what to do instead of having to figure out what to do.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.


Russ Roberts: Before we leave Laurie Paul, can you talk about her example, which I'm fascinated by, of the Mediocre Chess Player? So, in the Mediocre Chess Player, the mediocre chess player can only look ahead two or three moves--which is life: if we're lucky, two or three. And, therefore, she suggests, though, that there's still room for rationality because you know that a rook is more valuable than a bishop, and so on. What are your thoughts on that, as a way of thinking about the uncertainty of life? And, if you disagree with that, which I suspect you do, how do you think we should cope with that uncertainty about where we're headed?

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, I think that the sort of--the space that the Mediocre Chess Player clearly sees--like, where he sees the relative values of certain pieces--that's like the small decisions of life. And what Laurie is using that example to express is: Other than a chess genius, people don't--and in life there are no such people--people don't see with that kind of clarity, like, the end of the game. Right? They can't.

And so then the question is: What is the importance of that kind of clarity? And, that's where Laurie and I disagree.

So, I think we're all mediocre chess players in the sense that we can't with clarity see 20 moves ahead. And, what we clearly see is just one move or two moves ahead. But, there's one another part of the story which is what we unclearly see; and that's a really important part of the story. And it's part of your vision when you're playing chess of life--that there's a lot that you unclearly see. And, it's not just that you unclearly see it, but that you can work your way towards seeing it more clearly.

And so, a lot of life isn't about trading pieces, but about getting that vision into view.

Russ Roberts: Beautifully said. I don't think--by the way, a great chess player doesn't look ahead 12 moves. A great chess player uses a different approach: Looks for territory, looks--and, she alludes to that. I don't want to suggest she's not aware of that. But I think that's really the difference.

And I think it--I don't know how to say it so I won't try--but I think it has to do with this rationality argument. It's sort of a, too-narrow a definition of rationality and playing chess that you look ahead further. You get better and better at chess by looking more and more moves ahead. That's sort of like the economist's view of chess. I think it's the wrong way to think about it.


Russ Roberts: Let's shift gears. Let's talk about weakness of will. There's a Greek word for that which I want you to talk about the two ways--say the word, and then the two ways to pronounce it.

Agnes Callard: Akrasia [ack-ri-see'-a]. Also, you can say Akrasia [ack-ray'-jee-ah]. There's also the Latin word. There's a lot of words for it. It's also called incontinence, because it was translated into Latin as incontinentia. It's also called weakness of will. So, it's interesting--

Russ Roberts: Spell it, Akrasia. I'm going to say it.

Agnes Callard: A-K-R-A-S-I-A. Because in Greek it comes from the word Kratos--strength--and it's the alpha primitive is the absence of strength: So, weakness.

Russ Roberts: So, talk about weakness of will and how you or akrasia--akrasia--how that fits into your framework. Because, I've talked about a lot on this program: my tendency to eat peanuts in the middle of the day. And, I realize, by the way, that I can blame my dad for this because he was a great reader and he used to curl up with a bowl of popcorn, and I thought, 'I like that. I'm going to do that too. I'm going to be a reader. I'm going to eat popcorn when I read.' And, I do. I eat nuts or whatever it is.

And so, when I'm starting a book or an article online, I have this incredible urge to get up and grab something to eat. Mindlessly. While I'm reading. And, I'm trying to break that habit.

So, talk about aspiration in that context. Of course some things are more important than peanuts. Go ahead.

Agnes Callard: That example actually fits my theory really well. So, maybe first of all I'll just give a little background which is that this whole book, Aspiration, started out as a book about weakness of will. Or not a book--it started out as a theory of weakness of will.

And, I wrote my dissertation on weakness of will. I've been sort of fascinated and obsessed by it for a long time. But, how can it be that somebody acts against their better judgment? Like, if they know that something is the better thing to do, why don't they just do it, right?

It's super puzzling. Puzzling for economists, puzzling for philosophers. Everyone puzzles over it.

And, so, I wrote my dissertation on it. But then I--you go and you give job talks at different schools when you're on the job market. And, my dissertation just got totally refuted. So, I was, like, 'Okay, starting over.' And like I started over the new theory of weakness of will. And, I was really pleased with this new theory. I thought it was much better with my old theory. But it was still getting refuted. I was giving talks. I gave a talk at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], in particular, where this person just came up with this great counter-example. I can't remember the details of the counter-example right now, but maybe I'll be able to I thought of it long enough.

But, in any case, but here's the problem: People kept giving these really good objections. And I kept being like, 'I know these are good objections, but I still think this is a pretty good theory. I want to hold on to my theory even though the objections are correct.' And, then I had this epiphany. I'm like, 'Oh, it's not a theory of weakness of will. It's a theory of something else that philosophers haven't yet talked about.' And, then eventually I came to the word 'aspiration,' which is totally the right word for it. But it took me a while to, like, find that word. So, anyway, the weirdest way someone ever came up with a theory of something is try to make a theory of something else and then just keep the theory, but shift the topic. So, that's how this book came about.

Russ Roberts: It's like off-label drug use. It's the same idea.

Agnes Callard: Yeah, it's kind of like that. So, but it does sort of entail a picture of weakness of will. It's just that that picture doesn't generalize to being the whole theory, which is where I was getting into trouble.

So, the way that I want to think about weakness of will is sort of like Arrested Development--like Arrested Aspiration--where, like, if you think about something that you're weak-willed about, you can sort of go back to a time in your life when that was just your way of doing things.

Like, the nuts is the perfect example, because it's kind of like you actually aspired to be like your dad and to do this thing with eating nuts, right? And then, like, the aspiration got sort of stopped at a certain point, in that you never came--like, you sort of continued to have the tendencies associated with a certain form of valuing, but you sort of developed this other form of valuing as well. And so like, a way to think about it might be when you were a kid, you just wanted to eat as much yummy stuff as possible, right? And then you aspired, at some point all of us to try to eat and think in a more healthy way. But, that didn't complete. Like it didn't do a total takeover of the earlier point of view.

And, it's like your past self is still in you. The self that--maybe a better way to think about is like aspiration-resistant. There's an aspiration-resistant self in you that didn't get fully transformed. So, there's a kind of recalcitrant point of view that is still part of who you are and you still see the world from that point of view. It's not someone else. It's not compulsion. It's not external. Right? It's the old you that you have only partly sort of developed out of.


Russ Roberts: So, when I am--the part that fascinates me about this besides the economist part of me. By the way, I think the way most people in the real world when they hear that, 'Oh, economists and philosophers are really troubled by this,' the average person goes, 'Well, they're idiots. They've got these silly models that they're stuck with that they're trying to reconcile.' 'What do you mean? Life is full of hard things and it's hard to do the right thing. What's the mystery?'

But what I find fascinating about it is that the--as you get older, if you're lucky or not, but I notice that as I get older, I get to glimpse both of my selves. So, I get up to get the nuts and I realize, 'Oh, I'm doing this compulsive thing, I've developed a habit over. I don't really like this habit and I'm going to eat the nuts anyway. And what I'm exploring right now in my personal improvement project called me is using a little bit of your language. And, when I get to the shelf, where the nuts are, I say, 'Well, I aspire to be a person who's not a nut eater, while he's reading.'

Now, I still often going to eat the nuts. But I think that language, or 'I want to be the kind of person who' fill in the blank, does the right thing--helps the neighbor across the street, rather than does the thing that's convenient for me, reads to my kid even when I'm busy and have stuff I rather do. I think that language is helpful--in thinking about the first level is, 'Oh, I step back and I see I have two selves.' The next level is: which self do I want to be? Oh, I'm stuck in that old one. But if I learn enough--is your language--maybe I can get to be the self I aspire to.

Agnes Callard: Yes. So, I have two thoughts about that.

So, one of them is just, it reminds me of a colleague of mine who, like, once told me one of her--or maybe I even heard it second hand or through someone else, third hand. One of the ways she talks to her students about, like, not cheating, like, 'Why shouldn't you cheat on a test?,' say. It's not because you'll be punished. It's because if you cheat you'll be a cheater and you don't want to be a cheater.

And that, I was like, that's pretty effective psychologically. Like if someone is going to motivate me, like that would really motivate me. I would be like that's not who I want to be.

So--and I think it may, like, maybe it won't motivate everyone. But I think that it shows a certain kind of faith in your students to be like, 'This is how you should be motivated. This is how your motivational structure should work.'

But, that said, and I think that's a worthwhile project and all of that. I also just think--I'm a little bit of a realist about Akrasia in the sense that there's just a lot of battles with myself. I've given up on fighting, where, like, I'm sort of like okay with the fact that in a bunch of ways my behavior is not maximally efficient in terms of like I'm pretty distractible.

I am--like, I don't always eat great. I find it hard to keep myself on schedules. And like, I've tried to change those things about myself and my self just keeps resisting. And, on a bunch of fronts, I'm like, one of the ways in which life is a learning process is you also learn like who you are in your limits. Even something like there can be sort of advantages to being really, really distractible, which is like I think it's connected to creativity in ways like even if you could have had this fixed idea about yourself that I'm going to sit here and I'm going to do this and I'm not going to think about something else. And, if that doesn't work for me--so, some of it is also feedback of, like, the self doesn't just let you mold it into whatever you want it to be.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think that's a rationalization, Agnes, that you should be worried about. Maybe.

But, I think the--at the root of this issue to be more serious is the question of habituation. You spend a little bit of time on it. I wish you'd spent more. Dan Klein, in his discussion of honest income on the program a while back, talked about this importance of becoming habituated to what is higher. To what is less selfish. And that once we--the way he phrased it, I think, is that we should try to turn our virtues into things that--we should start, we should find, we should do good things because eventually we'll get pleasure from being less selfish. And, then we'll just be self-interested.

And so, there's this sort of tautological way of saying, 'Well, that's in yourself.' But, you say you feel good when you're doing the right thing.

But, that takes work. And, I think that's the connection between his claim and your framework, which I find very beautiful. The peanuts and popcorn are a trivial example, but the grander projects of helping others and being a good parent, friend, child, etc., I think it's about habituating yourself to the good things that we want to aspire to and then they just become self-interested.

Agnes Callard: So, maybe at this point it's actually really important to introduce a distinction that I feel the book should have made between two different kinds of aspiration--moral and non-moral.

So, I think it's very important that we aspire in both of these ways. They're both full-fledged cases of aspiration. That is, we aspire to be morally better people and we also aspire to do things that have nothing to do with being a morally better person, like to appreciate classical music, right? I mean, even there, it's nothing. Nothing to do with it--I'm not doing that in order to benefit anyone or because there's a genuinely valuable thing out there and I want to appreciate it.

Those are both kinds of aspiration; and I think that, like, you're absolutely right that sort of accepting your limitations when it comes to moral aspirations is rationalization. And that's a fact. There's a really super interesting fact about morality, which is that it's just written into morality that you can't be prohibited from it through a dispositional fact about you. So, I can be prohibited from appreciating music through a dispositional fact about me. I could be deaf, right?

Russ Roberts: Tone deaf. Yeah.

Agnes Callard: Exactly, right? But, I can't be prohibited from being a just or generous person through any dispositional fact about me.

Russ Roberts: What? Why do you say that? Why can't it be the case that I was brought up badly, cruelly, without love, and therefore it's hard for me to be a kind person; and I'm not just like a tone deaf person?

Agnes Callard: I think it can be hard. So, I'm not denying that. It could be a lot harder for you.

But, I think that, like, supposing that someone--what we're imagining here is the case of somebody engaged in an aspirational project, but sort of like coming to realize potentially that this is not going anywhere--as happened with me and music. And, like there can be cases where it's reasonable for, like, an advisor or a mentor to say to you, 'You are not getting anywhere with this. You just suck at it. Give up.' Okay? Maybe not in those words, but, like, that can be a reasonable intervention.

And what I'm saying is: if somebody is in a moral, aspirational project--which already presupposes they have some grip on the moral concept, because aspiration means you've already made some progress--it never makes sense, I don't think to say, 'Well, you just don't have it in you to become any kinder than you are. You should just give up.' And, I think that's kind of a conceptual fact about morality that we don't accept that that could be true.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, but I think, yeah--I agree with you. But, I think Dan Klein's point about habituation and making your virtues a form of self-interest--I think your virtuous acts, self-interested--I think it's easier for some people than others. I think some people just, like, they're spiritually or musically tone deaf. They're emotionally tone deaf. They don't get even the taste of satisfaction of that human connection that sometimes a good deed will produce that you can then build on.

So, I think--one of the lessons I get from our conversation is that, even though I'm a big believer in free will, at the same time I'm a big believer in not judging other people for not living up to my standards that I hold myself to sometimes or try to hold myself to. Because I think we vary so much in how easy or difficult it is to make those actions, to do those actions.

Agnes Callard: Oh, absolutely. So, I didn't mean to be denying that there are constitutional differences and that those differences make things easier or harder.

Aristotle actually has a nice discussion of this. He called this natural virtue. So, but, what he sort of means is that some people are naturally such as to just like be brave. So, I have a one son who is naturally courageous. And, by that, I don't mean rash or reckless. I mean, like, he kind of gets what the courageous thing to do is, and he does it. I have another son who is naturally incredibly empathetic, and kind, and compassionate. And, it's not learned. Like, he just was that from a tiny kid--that he thinks about other people. And, they're not the same kid. So, like people have a--and my third kid is it naturally extremely judicious. and just, and fair-minded. So, I think that's absolutely right that we have--there are constitutional facts about us that make the path towards virtue in one area easier than in others.


Russ Roberts: Let's close and talk about Neuroscience, which I don't think you talk about in the book. I don't think neuroscientists in general would like your approach. I think they would say the brain is a committee. The brain has these different pieces that evolve for different reasons through our evolutionary history; and they don't all get along. Heh, heh, heh. They'd say, 'That's just life. That's biological.' It's not a question of all this stuff about Aristotle and Plato: that's just so much chin music. I don't even know what that means. But it's a phrase that I think--I got it from Woody Allen a long, long time ago. Or somebody else. I don't know. But, meaning, that's just nonsense. It's an intellectual game, not really relevant. We're conflicted through our equipment, our hardware and our software, and that's just the way it is. You want to respond to that?

Agnes Callard: Sure. Let me first say what this reminds me of is almost like macroeconomics. Like, you could say, 'Well, look, all there is, is these individual economic exchanges and we can study those, right?' But, we can't study the whole economy, right? And it's like, 'Well, some people think you can, right?' It wouldn't follow from the fact that the system is composed of a bunch of individual things that there is no possibility of studying at the higher level. That's sort of an abstract point.

But, more specifically I think the way that I would talk to the--the neuroscientist is a human just like anyone else, and so they have ways of talking about themselves and their lives. For instance, how they got interested in Neuroscience.

And, when they do that, they can either speak about themselves in a way that is like coherent or incoherent. And I can sort of help them with that. I can be like, 'When you talk about how you got interested in neuroscience,' like, you have one way of talking about it where you say like, 'Oh, well, there were these truths.' You have this other way where, 'I met these this charismatic professor and I was at this place.'

And then you could also talk about your brain, I guess. Right? Though that's not usually how you present it to people when you're explaining yourself.

And so, there are these different ways we have of speaking and communicating about ourselves. And, if you just want to dismiss them, you can and there's nothing I can do to prevent you from doing that

But you're going to keep doing it. Like, you're not really dismissing it. You're not sincere. Because you're going to keep talking about yourself using all the language that I use in my book. And what I'm trying to do is help you to do that in a way that is consistent and coherent and makes sense.

And, like actually, you just don't believe. You don't study the thing I'm talking about. But, it's not true that you believe that it's valueless because you just use it all the time.


Russ Roberts: Yes; I'm going to agree with that and then disagree with that and let you get the last word. I agree with you that no neuroscience is going to say when asked, 'How did you get into it?' They're going to say, 'Well, I guess my brain just kind of--some things fired over here and I ended up going over there and like who knows?'

But, at the same time, I think one of the challenges I think we face as economists and philosophers is the narratives we tell ourselves and that we convince ourselves to explain why we did what we did. And, you know: We want to make sense. We want causation to be there. We want to tell a rational story. And a lot of times we're just playing with words. That strikes me. How do you answer that?

Agnes Callard: I think that's true, but not all the time.

So, philosophers are people who believe that there's a hope of getting that right. And, that if we think about it, like, clearly and systematically, and we draw the right distinctions, and we attune ourselves to influences that are important even from literature and from inspiration and all of that--that we can do a better job of that.

I think that it doesn't make sense to dismiss that whole practice on the fact that we routinely screwed up. We have this kind of tendency to tell the story that we want to hear. That is true. But, it's not true that that's not a thing we can--we can fight that. And, that's what philosophers are trying to do. They're trying to make the story that humanity tells of itself better.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Agnes Callard. Her book is Aspiration. Agnes, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Agnes Callard: My pleasure.

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