Intro. [Recording date: August 22, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is August 22nd, 2022. And, my guest is philosopher Kieran Setiya of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. He hosts the podcast Five Questions, where he asks philosophers five questions. His forthcoming book is called Life Is Hard.
His latest book in print and the subject of today's episode is Midlife. Kieran, welcome to EconTalk.
Kieran Setiya: Thanks for having me.
Russ Roberts: This is a short, lovely book on midlife crisis, but it's really about the nature of life and death and what philosophy has to say about all those things; and it's fabulous. So, we're going to start with: What is the midlife crisis? Is it a real thing or is it just something made up?
Kieran Setiya: Good question. And, I think that the jury is still out to some extent. So that this sort of--unlike a lot of cultural tropes, it has a definite point of origin, which is this 1965 essay by a Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jacques called "Death and the Mid-Life Crisis." That's where the phrase comes from.
The stereotype that we now sort of are familiar with really picks up in the 1970s. Then there was a wave of research by medical sociologists and psychologists and others, around 2000, debunking the idea of the midlife crisis.
And then, the idea kind of got a new lease on life in around 2008 to 2010s when economists working on well-being, happiness, started doing these, sort of, longitudinal studies or lifetime studies in which they found that around the world for men and women, life satisfaction--overall life satisfaction--seems to take the shape of a kind of gently curving U.
So, it starts high in youth; it bottoms out varies around the world, but roughly in your 1940s, and then rises again in older age.
And, while it's a kind of gentle curve, it is significant in that the sort of drop in life satisfaction is equivalent to that associated with losing your job or getting a divorce.
So, maybe not crisis for that many people, but there is some evidence that midlife is a period of unusual malaise.
Russ Roberts: And, how old are you, Kieran?
Kieran Setiya: I am 46. So, I'm right in the sweet spot.
Russ Roberts: And, your book has a lot of personal thoughts on your own demeanor and well-being, which are quite interesting. I should say, I'm 67, I think. I've lost track. It's fascinating. It's never happened to me before.
Kieran Setiya: Probably for the best.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It could be dementia. I'm hoping not. But, I think I'm much happier than you. So, it's interesting.
Russ Roberts: Even though I don't believe--
Kieran Setiya: Okay, good--
Russ Roberts: Even though I don't believe in--that you can compare happinesses. But I don't think I'm suffering for the midlife crisis. And, I do seem to be on the upward part of that, the right-hand tail of the U. I see--I'm happier than I was 20 years ago, at least. So, that's interesting.
Russ Roberts: Now, you write, quote,
The issues I have addressed apply to almost anyone, not just a privileged few. We all face loss and limitation, roads not taken, chances missed; we make mistakes, survive misfortunes, see our efforts fail, and in the end, we die.
Now, the book is lot cheerier than that. Why did you write it in that way, that sort of cheerless way?
Kieran Setiya: Oh, why did I open that way? I mean--
Russ Roberts: It's actually from the end of the book, I think.
Kieran Setiya: Oh, is it? Okay. Okay. Well, that goes to my--that's my senior moment of not remembering my own book.
Part of it is, I think that the--midlife is kind of a funny thing to take on as a philosopher. Because, on the one hand, part of why I embraced the midlife-crisis label was that it's sort of funny and it's self-mocking.
On the other hand, I think a lot of the issues that are preoccupying people around midlife are really quite profound issues about the temporality of human life. And, they do relate to mortality, the sort of inevitability of failure, the inevitability of regret and the kind of profound existential questions, really, about our relationship to time as we age.
And, so, I wanted to both address those serious issues and do it in a way that was slightly light-hearted. And the book, you know, on the one hand, I bill it as a self-help book. On the other hand, part of that was just the fun of sort of framing a philosophy book under the sort of structures and constraints of self-help--sort of forcing myself to try to think about how philosophy could, in fact, be useful for someone in the situation I was in.
And, partly, that was because I had found it useful myself, going through--I mean, I genuinely went through a period of pretty serious malaise. It was mostly career-focused, but in my mid-1930s, kind of, I was an early adopter. I had a feeling that I'd sort of made it to the point I had struggled for 20 years, 15 years to reach and that I couldn't--I hadn't got a plan that went beyond that, and that what I was doing seemed hollow, somehow.
And, that was a genuine kind of crisis for me. And also one that I found philosophically challenging, because I was doing exactly what I thought was worth doing and I was relatively successful.
And yet, at the same time, I thought something is deeply wrong with my life. And, that's puzzling. What could it be? What could be wrong with your life, if you're actually doing things that are kind of worthwhile and outwardly it's going well?
Russ Roberts: And, you start--early on in the book, you refer to John Stuart Mill confronting the feeling that if he had achieved everything he had hoped for--his deepest desires--he would not be happy. And, this is a paradox. You spend quite a bit of time talking about it. So, let's start with that. Surely, one would think, that if you get what you want, what could be better?
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. So, this is, in a way, that--there are some parts of the book that are sort of backward looking about regret and failure, but there's also a part that's about this sort of puzzle of how it can be that even success can seem like failure. And, I was an early adopter at 35. Mill had his crisis when he was 20. So, he was precocious in this, as in all things.
And, for Mill, I think, the way I diagnose it, he himself, it's interesting that in his autobiography he offers a philosophical self-diagnosis. And, part of his self-diagnosis is about the idea that--it gets called the Paradox of Egoism, that directly pursuing your own happiness can be self-undermining. Which is an interesting idea, although kind of a bad fit for Mill, since--I think what was going on him with him was, in some ways, the opposite of that, which is that he had absorbed the idea that what mattered--the only thing that mattered--was to reduce human suffering.
And, there's a way in which that reducing human suffering is intrinsically valuable. I mean, even if it had no further effect, even if nothing else came of it, reducing someone's suffering would be worthwhile. So, it's not that it's just instrumentally valuable, like money or some pursuing wealth or something. It's genuinely valuable in itself. But nevertheless, there is something limited about it.
And, one way to bring that out is to think it about the fact that it's sort of ameliorative. The value of reducing suffering is the value of taking away something bad. It's solving a problem or meeting a need that, really, it'll be better off if we didn't actually have to deal with. So, in a way, what you're doing is taking away bad things.
And, if that's the best you could do, it seems like the most you could hope for would be to sort of make life not bad, which is to say sort of reach some kind of zero level, and it wouldn't be positively good.
And, I think Mill's problem was that he hadn't really, at that point in his life, conceptualized what kinds of things in life would be good and valuable that weren't a matter of problem solving. And, in the book I call this existential value, because it is the kind of thing that makes life worth living in the first place--that makes it possible to have a life, in principle, that is positively good, not just not-bad because we've solved the problems in it.
And, that's my diagnosis of Mill. I think his version of it was radical, in a way that's often illustrative. It's helpful to take these kind of extreme cases of someone whose life was entirely and wholly devoted to relieving suffering.
But, I think you do get versions of that on a more mundane level around midlife--that problem solving with your kids, with your aging parents, work can start to occupy more and more and more of your life. And, you kind of lose touch with the things that have existential value--the things that make it positively worthwhile to live life at all--because there's so much attention devoted to just keeping things together.
Russ Roberts: So, give us some examples of what you mean by existential value. It's a really beautiful distinction, by the way, which I've never seen. I've never thought about it. I found it quite thought provoking. So, on the one hand, you have problem solving, reducing of suffering, but there's something else on the upside. What is it?
Kieran Setiya: Well, so, for Mill, it was reading words with poetry. It was the contemplation of nature, and nature through art.
And, you know, Aristotle has a similar kind of distinction at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics--in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics. This is where Aristotle suddenly and surprisingly says, 'The life of practical virtue is really second best because it's a problem-solving life. And, the thing to go for is contemplation of the structure of the cosmos.'
So, there are these highfalutin' answers to this question: What has existential value? It's: contemplating nature, poetry, art, philosophical contemplation; and I think those are good answers. And, I think art is actually not that highfalutin' an answer. I think art is pretty central to most of our lives. Almost everyone has some kind of form of art that is deeply meaningful to them.
But, I actually think this phenomenon is much, much broader. There are much more mundane things, like going for a swim or joking with friends or having a wonderful dinner. Having this conversation. Things that are of value that are not just solving a problem, but seem sort of positively valuable.
The philosopher Zena Hitz has a nice phrase for this in--I'm not sure if it's in her book, Lost in Thought, or in some of the essays around the book--she calls these 'the little human things.' Like, the little things that in everyday you find a little space for that are forms of positive life affirmation.
And, so, I think there are these grandiose answers to the question, 'What has existential value?' But, there's also a lot of mundane things in life that have that value. Even hobbies have characteristically that value. They're not about solving problems. They're things that you don't need to do, but you just enjoy.
Russ Roberts: Wasn't meeting Harriet Taylor part of--
Russ Roberts: like, better for Mill? And wouldn't that be his--became the love of his life? Isn't that part of what redeems daily life as a shared experience with the person you care about?
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. So, loving relationships are another good example. And I think there's a kind of very subtle distinction there, that I think Aristotle is, in my view, kind of shaky on.
So, I said: there's sort of activities that are ameliorative and that they solve problems or meet needs that you'd rather do without.
There are also activities that solve problems or meet needs, like loneliness or the need for other people.
But, they're not needs or problems that, as it were, we would rather do without. Sometimes there are needs that we actually think, 'Yeah, I do need other people, and I don't wish I didn't have that need.'
So, that's something I would count as having existential value.
Aristotle, I think, is hazy on that, which is why Aristotle has this sort of weird discussion towards the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, where having said that contemplation is the sole thing that has existential value. He's very puzzled about why you need friends, or maybe the best life would just be you, solely--just solitary contemplation. I'm with you in thinking that relationships have this kind of positive value, even if they meet needs. Because the needs--what is the song--"People Who Need People"? I think there's something to that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. "They're the luckiest people in the world."
Kieran Setiya: I think that's right. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: And, that's your everyday way of saying that it's a plus that you have that requirement, that urge.
I would just mention that Zena Hitz is a previous guest on EconTalk. You can--we'll link to her episode on her book, Lost in Thought.
Russ Roberts: Now, you suggest art is something that is existential, has positive value rather than just reducing negative value. And, those little human things that Zena talks about--economists would just call those things that produce positive utility. What's interesting is, you're claiming that reducing harm is not the same as adding benefit, and that therefore, they're not commensurable. And, commensurability is something we will definitely come back and talk to.
But, I want to challenge something you said that seems a little inconsistent.
So, existential value can lift your spirits in a way you claim that merely reducing suffering doesn't achieve.
And, yet, when you finish a book--which is a great example of existential value--you argue at another part in the book--that that's ultimately a letdown. When it's over, it's like, 'Well, that's done. What's next?' Do you think that's true all the time? Don't you get some satisfaction from your books when they're done? Aren't you happy? I am.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. I don't know if we should get into this now or later. There's this other distinction between telic and atelic activities.
So, I think these are cross-cutting distinctions. I think they're easy: they're related, and they're easy to run together. Because Aristotle, who is one of my sort of guides here, is obsessed, I think, both with existential value and with what I call atelic activities.
So, the distinction here is between telic activities that have an endpoint to which they're completed, like writing a book or getting married or having kids. You strive towards it, and at some point you're done.
And, atelic activities are ones that don't have a built-in endpoint like that, like going for a walk or parenting or spending time with friends. And, it kind of cross-cuts with ameliorative and existential.
So, there are things that have existential value that are telic, like writing a book maybe, or producing a piece of art, or playing a game with a friend. It will end, you're done. You finish the board game or whatever--that was telic.
And, so, I think there's a problem both with lives that are too consumed by ameliorative value and don't have room for this sort of existential value that's positively good. But, then there's a further problem, which is the problem that when you're focused on telic activities--think of them as projects--what you're doing is sort of aimed at a completion. You're not there yet. And then the moment you're there, it's done. It's over. And, what you're doing when you engage with it is, in a way, trying to finish it. So, you're taking this thing that's meaningful to you. And, what you're, in effect, trying to do is destroy it. You're trying to say, 'Let's get that out of my life. Let's get that done.' And, there's something self-undermining about that. And, it's not that telic activities or projects or achievements don't have value, but that if you're exclusively focused on them, there's a kind of thing you're missing, which is the value of the process.
So, there's lots more to say about that. Let me try to connect it to the specific point you made about when you finished a book. Suppose you're writing a book. I think the writing of the book is a project. It will be finished; you'll be done; it will be over. But, then there are atelic activities associated with achievements. So, there are things like reflecting on your life or thinking back over what you've done in a kind of ruminative, appreciative way. That is an atelic activity. There's not a kind of particular endpoint to which you've exhausted that. You can sit and reminisce as long as you like.
So, I think what's happening there is that you've sort of--you springboard from a completed telic activity to find an associated activity that is in fact atelic. And that does have value--namely, sort of reminiscing afterwards about the great moments in your life, looking back on them.
And so, I do think, yes, you can find value in that. And, I think that is, that's sort of consistent with the idea that there's a kind of limitation in projects.
Russ Roberts: So, the 'telic' and 'atelic,' I assume come from--'tel' is goal, T-E-L, right?
Russ Roberts: So, yeah, just to help listeners who haven't read the book yet, help with the terminology. So, telic has a goal: I'm going to finish the book. Atelic--'a-' meaning not--doesn't have a goal, just the process: I'm in the middle of it.
So, an atelic part of finishing the book is the joy of writing when you're in--it's sometimes called flow and just ideas are coming forth. And, you think of something you haven't thought of before. And, it's literally exhilarating when it's unwell, or you realize you can get this John Stuart Mill thing about his words' worth into this book you're writing. And, you get excited and you tell people about it and it's fun.
But, the part about I'm kind of puzzled about is you gave three examples--marriage, having a child, and writing a book--as things that are telic. But, of course, all of them continue on as long as you're alive, right?
Your marriage doesn't end once on your wedding day, and your parenting doesn't--and, you mentioned parenting, but having children is, most people would say, 'It's not just the having: it's the whole journey going forward.' And, even writing a book, people who read it write you and tell you you're an idiot--no, I mean, they tell you how much they like it, if we're lucky. And, it actually--this comes up later and we'll get to it. But so, many things for me--and maybe this is not a healthy thing--but so, many things for me are--you mentioned, used the word you 'ruminative.' You ruminate on them. You think back, 'Yeah, that was good. I enjoyed that. That was important. That was satisfying.' There are things we savor.
There's a great line from Woody Allen. He says--he's trying to decide whether to get a divorce or go on vacation. And, he says--he decides to go for the divorce because 'the vacation's over after a couple weeks, but the divorce you have forever.' And I've always thought: That's a total misunderstanding--it's funny, but it's a total misunderstanding of why we go on vacation. We don't just go on vacation for the 10 days, two weeks, four days, whatever it is that we're experiencing--a new place, a new museums and meals, and so on. Ideally, with someone we care about. But, it's the memories. It's reflecting on them. It's going back and saying, 'Remember that jazz club in Paris? That was so much fun.'
And so, a lot of that pleasure is not short-lived. I would make a contrast between--as an economist, we don't do this; I think, it's in a way it's a mistake--between eating ice cream, which I enjoy tremendously in the moment, and 'It's over,' and, I look back on it with kind of horror sometimes because I don't have any memories about the ice cream. But, what I do have are memories about looking out from the veranda where my wife and I were having dessert; and that's a totally different thing.
Kieran Setiya: So, I think everything you said seems totally right to me. I think that part of what's going on here is that telic and atelic activities--and I'm probably guilty of this sometimes--it can sound as though you are either doing one or the other. But actually, anytime we're doing anything, we're almost with very rare exceptions doing both.
So, when I'm rushing my kids to school in the morning, I am also parenting. So, I've got this telic activity, atelic activity; I'm doing both. So, the idea that can't be do sort of atelic activities rather than telic activities, it's about which ones, your values, so where your evaluative focus is. So, I think, in the cases you're describing--getting married, having the wedding, signing the documents, that's atelic activity. But, it's obviously associated with this other thing, namely, being married, having an ongoing relationship of marriage with someone, which is atelic. Similarly, having a kid: there's a birth date, it happens, there's an event, but it's associated with this ongoing atelic activity.
And, similarly, I think--that's the other thing you're pointing to--is that lots of things that are finished, like going on vacation. They do sort of sponsor later atelic activities that are very significant, namely, reminiscing often with someone else about the past relationship.
So, the argument I'm making is not so much: it's not that telic activities don't have value. And, it's not even that you should stop engaging with them and engaging atelic activities instead, because that wouldn't really make sense. It's that the risk of a certain kind of midlife crisis is this sort of Type A investment, where the only thing you're really valuing is the projects. It is just of getting one thing after another done, checking them off the list, and moving on to the next one. And, if that's how you're living, then you're really missing something. And what you're missing is the kind of reorientation of focus that you're describing.
I mean, one way to make this sort of personal for me is, I think thinking about philosophy, thinking about philosophical questions, talking about them--those are atelic activities. Engaging in philosophy was this thing that I loved as a teenager. And then, I kind of got channeled into doing it professionally. Don't regret that; that was good. I've been very fortunate to be able to do it. But, there is a way in which the structure of academia, like the structure of many professions, sort of channels you into becoming more and more and more focused on these telic things. Namely: finish your Ph.D., get tenure, get an article into full[?] review if you can, teach the next class, teach this grad seminar, apply for this grant.
And, you start to find--at least there's a risk and it happened to me--that you are actually getting almost exclusively diverted into focusing on the telic activities, the projects. And, you are losing touch with the fact that, in a way, the point of engaging in all these projects is to be doing philosophy--is to be reflecting on these questions. And, that was the thing that I think I had really become detached from and had to really sort of struggle to recover around this, sort of, my early midlife crisis.
Russ Roberts: I think that's actually incredibly profound. The natural impulse we have to focus on the telic--to focus on the project, to focus on the next deal, the next book, the next grant, the next--and then you forget what it's for. And, not just you forget what it's for, you forget day-to-day to savor the parts of it that are important, meaningful, joyous, exuberant, whatever.
The other part that's hard is the project itself becomes the goal. The whole purposiveness of your day-to-day life becomes looking ahead. So, the ability to enjoy the moment, the ability to enjoy day-to-day life--so, if you're not careful, you're always in the past, either reminiscing or regretting. And we'll come to regret in a minute, because we're going to talk about your personal problems in a second. Don't worry.
Kieran Setiya: Okay, good.
Russ Roberts: It seems to me that the other side of it is the impulse to always look forward. That 'Oh yeah, I'll be happy; I'll have enough tomorrow. I'll have enough articles tomorrow. Sure, I don't spend enough time with my kids, but that's because I'm going to get tenure. I'm accumulating all these goals along the way in my professional life as an academic.' Or, if you're in business: 'Until--I've got to get this next deal and I've got to work up late and stay late,' and so on. And: 'I work over the weekend. Yeah, I miss the Little League game, but the kids--it'll be okay for them because they need to go to college.' You find all these rationalizations, and what's happened is that you've become possessed by the goal itself rather than by reminding yourself you're living. And so, you're either living exclusively in the past or in the future, and you're missing day to day. And, then you find out life's over and you missed it. And, that if you notice it too late, you're going to have a heck of a midlife crisis.
Kieran Setiya: Right. Yeah, there's two things come to mind here. One is this paradoxical-sounding slogan that Dostoevsky has, which is, 'It's not about happiness, but the pursuit of happiness.' And, there's something to that. That, if what you're thinking is there's this future state I'll get to, then I'll be happy, you're in for a fall. Because you are sort of aiming at a project-like structure, in which if you've structured it as a project, the moment you achieve it, it's done. So, not only are you now pained by the fact that you don't have it; once you've got it, it's gone.
And, this is sort of--the other thing that comes to mind is Schopenhauer on the futility of desire, which I talk about in the book, that he thinks this is sort of endemic to the structure of human desire and there's really no way out. And, I argued that it's because he doesn't really conceptualize atelic activities. But, his thought is: Yeah, if you don't desire things, you've got nothing to do. Life is empty. But, the moment you want something, you got to want something you don't have; and that's painful. So, you are always looking to the future and you're kind of doomed.
And, I think what he's missing is that when you're engaging--when you value an atelic activity, like, having a conversation with someone about philosophy--it's happening right now. There's no more--it's happening right now--there's nothing more to what you want than this, this very thing. And so it doesn't have--atelic activities don't have this problem that they're just always pointing you towards a future that's sort of deferred and then immediately archived. And, I think that is something we're very prone to miss.
Russ Roberts: But, I do think part of it is this difference between ice cream and a great conversation. Which is that I'm enjoying this conversation right now, and, it is going to come to an end, though.
Russ Roberts: It's going to end and I'm going to say, 'Oh, I wish we could have talked longer, but, you know, we had to finally end it.'
Now, I can say 'Well, but we'll talk again about his next book.' But, that's not the point. The point is that I can enjoy this conversation--I will enjoy this conversation going forward--because I'll remember things from it. Some somebody will hear something in it that I didn't hear the first time. I'll learn something I didn't know. Those are the--that's why it's so rich. It's not so much the ending, which as the ice cream comes to an end. When an ice cream comes to an end, it's remarkably unsatisfying. And, you think, why was I eating that? Why was I compulsively eating it? And, yet compulsively having a conversation is wonderful.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah, no, I totally agree with that. I think in the case of something your--I was about to say project, really I shouldn't call it a project. The part of what you--what's happening is, on the one hand, you've got a project to record a podcast--what, every week?
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Kieran Setiya: So, it's constantly structured by goals that have to be met, that require planning and organization and telic focus.
On the other hand, there's a way in which the point is to be having interesting conversations or at least conversations with people about interesting topics. And that is just a thread that runs through the entire--strings through all the projects. And, in a way, the point of having all the particular conversations is to be reflectively engaging with other people, and sharing it with your audience, and so on. And so, yeah, I think that's exactly the way I'm thinking about it.
And, I think this is a good example, because it again brings out that it's not an either/or situation.
So, when I valorize[?] atelic activities that don't have end goals, sometimes people ask, 'Well, are you saying we should give up on being ambitious and just kick back and relax?' And the answer is, 'No. It doesn't involve that at all.' You could be driven to produce a successful podcast and record every week and it could be a relentless project of hard work in which you have to keep focused. Nevertheless, the question is, you can still ask yourself, what am I getting? Where is the value of this?
And, the question can still arise: Is it purely in checking the boxes or is there a value in the atelic ongoing interaction here?
And so, I think you can make this shift without sort of deciding to give up on projects. It's about how you relate to them.
Russ Roberts: Which is weird, right? Because often we don't have a choice in how we relate to things. And, one of the things I loved about your book is that you don't pretend that you have a magic formula. And, sometimes the formula you do have means thinking about something differently than you thought about it before. And, part of that inevitably fails. I get anxious on the way to the airport and my wife can say to me as many times as she'd like, 'But, you never miss a flight. And so, why are you so anxious? And, you know there's no traffic and you know we've got plenty of time. Why are you anxious?' And, it'd be lovely to say, 'Yes, it's irrational for me to be nervous, so I won't be anymore.' Doesn't often work that way.
But, I do think writing like yours--and you write beautifully--writing like yours, reminds you to be aware of it. It may not solve it. In a couple of cases you give examples of how you might play--I think you call it cognitive therapy. So, cognitive therapy doesn't always work, but sometimes it does. And, the reason it does is it's like saying, 'Hey,' knocking on the side of your head, 'Wake up. There's something else you can think about. Try it.' And, maybe you can, sometimes.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. No, exactly. This is something I've thought about a lot, continue to think about since writing this book about the question: How can philosophy help?
And, one kind of answer, I think not the only kind of answer, is exactly that it's a kind of philosophical cognitive therapy. And, this is kind of an idea that--cognitive therapy itself goes back to Stoic thinking about the emotions. But, whereas a prototypical ordinary cognitive therapy might focus on your mistaken beliefs about whether other people like you or why your mother did what she did or something, what I'm focusing on are mistaken beliefs about how you relate to time or where the value of your activities lies.
And, I think you're right that sometimes the cognitive correction by itself can make a significant difference. And, in some cases that was true of me.
In others, you're right. There's a kind of--you can make the cognitive shift and then the affective follow-through is not immediately forthcoming. I mean, that was certainly--that was true of me, in that I think it really is being too project-focused--that is my besetting vice, at least when it comes to having a midlife crisis.
And, I think recognizing that was important. I don't think I would have got very far with my own midlife crisis without recognizing that.
On the other hand, simply recognizing it is not enough. So, you can say to yourself, as I said to myself, 'Remember, you love doing philosophy just as an atelic activity. Not just--it's not about getting the next article into print or whether you get two articles finished this summer or only one, or you don't get anything finished. That's not the right way to focus.' But, once you've been trained for 20 years in academia to focus on getting things done, you can't just switch off.
And so, I do think there's a challenge there. And we could--I mean, for me, a certain kind of mindfulness, meditation has been helpful in--this goes back to something you said about not looking to the future, just trying to give up on and get away from asking what will come of this? Where is it going? What will it achieve? And, I have found that helpful. But I think there's also a lot of kind of structural problems here, that in the book I don't talk about so much. In the new book I talk more about the way in which there are kind of social pressures and cultural pressures to be achievement-oriented. And, those also, you can't just opt out of: It's not just coming from us, it's coming from the way in which we're valued by other people and the way in which we're shaped by, you know, economic activity, professional activity--those kinds of things.
Russ Roberts: A sense of pride and dignity often comes from how other people view us. And, that can be challenging.
Russ Roberts: I was going to ask you actually about the role of culture. You said something--25 seconds ago--something like, 'There's so much emphasis on getting things done.'
Russ Roberts: Well, a lot of people say, 'But, that's the whole goal of life. The whole goal of life is to accumulate either money or happiness or just, come on, multitask. That's why you have to multitask and give me life hacks for me.' And, my new book, Wild Problems, I point out that that's just--it's a terrible way to live. It's really not--
Kieran Setiya: Yes, it's not--
Russ Roberts: But, yet I think so much of our culture pushes us in that direction, toward what I call optimizing, which is the economists'--literally, the economist's model of human behavior. You optimize your happiness, you maximize your happiness. Subject to constraints, you're always looking for the optimal this, the optimal that, the best buy, the best spouse, the best child raising technique, the best movie you can watch tonight.
And, some of those things--it's not a bad idea to try to find a movie you're going to like than a movie you're not going to like. But this whole idea of maximization, which is the credo of my training, is, I think, leads us badly astray.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah, so I agree with that. And, I think one way to sort of bring out--one of the formulas that made my midlife crisis vivid to me was related to this, which was the thought: 'I want to max out my productivity.' So, how many articles--in my career I could write 40 articles, but if I work really hard, it could be 41, or 42, or 43. Or hold on: this is just an open-ended, upward thing. And, no matter where it goes, there's always another one I could have done if I'd sacrificed a bit more of other things. And, I think you could think: Right, the challenge here is just to figure out what is the optimal number of articles in a career given that you also want to optimize your relationships and your family and other things.
But there's also the thought--something is--I'm compelled by the thought that something is confused about this way of approaching life.
And, in a way for me, I think insofar as, it's death in the midlife crisis, I don't think I really got anywhere with my fear of death. I remain terrified of death. But, the thing that death made vivid to me was this sense that it's going to be a finite number--of articles--and the difference between a career where it's 72 and a career where it's 81 is actually, once I think of it in those terms, it's pretty clear to me that that is not important to me. Even though in the moment, it can seem like that's where I should be focusing my energy.
Russ Roberts: And, my claim is that you're sitting around thinking, 'Well, what would the optimal number be given that I care about my spouse or my children, or my ability to play the flute, or master a different language?' And, the problem isn't just that that's hard to do. It's actually impossible. But, the harder problem is: your brain is not going to let you evaluate that in an objective way. You're going to think it is. But, in fact, your ego is working away saying, '80 is not enough. You need 90. So, yeah, you could still get by. And, okay, you won't spend as much time with your kids, but it'll be quality time. So, it won't be quantity time.' Or, 'Oh, my spouse will understand. She knows I really need this. Because otherwise I'll be kind of grouchy around the house because I won't have published enough this year.' And, there's so many ways you can rationalize pursuing a set of telic goals--projects--that are actually not good for you and are leading you astray.
So, I'm open to the possibility--I don't have any problem with--I can't judge Steve Jobs. Maybe he was not the best father. There's some evidence that that is the case, but who knows? It's really hard to be a father. I'm not going to judge him on that at all, actually. But, I'm really glad he spent a lot of time on Apple. It was nice; it made my life a little better. And, he put, as he would say, a dent in the universe. There are some people who should spend time denting the universe--great scientists, great artists, and so on.
But, as we look into our own souls, it's so easy to convince yourself that what's good for some higher purpose is actually just good for you really, or your own crazy needs that are due to the fact the way your mother treated you, or whatever it is.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. I mean, this is something I don't talk about in Midlife so much--I do a bit more in the new book--which I,s the way in which an element of the midlife crisis, but also this kind of distortion you're talking about, has to do with positional assessment or comparative assessment.
So, one of the problems with the kind of how-many-articles metric is that it's very naturally allied to competition. To thinking, 'Well, what are my peers doing?' And, 'Where do I want to rank myself alongside them?' And those--it's not that those are never worth caring about or that it's always misguided. And, sometimes it's instrumentally useful. Sometimes you can leverage your own competitiveness to get yourself to do things, and you can sort of strategically exploit it. But, in itself, it's very often a way of allowing your sense of what's valuable in your own life to be determined by how you think other people are going to perceive you. And, in general, it's both unreliable--people are mostly not thinking about you at all--but also there's a kind of inauthenticity and a lack of autonomy to it.
And so, going back to John Stuart Mill, again something that I mention in the book but don't dwell on, is: Surely one of his problems was he was brought up in this hot house way by his father to be a kind of utilitarian machine. And, one problem was, it's all just about reducing suffering; where's the positive value? Another problem that he had in some way to kind of come to terms with, was: His life plan had been decided on by someone other than him. And, he had to kind of decide: Am I going to own this? And: In what form can I decide that this is my project, as opposed to just thinking 'I've been designed by James Mill as a kind of utility-maximizing instrument'?
And so, again, in Mill's case, it's an extreme version of having your values determined from outside. For all of us, that's something we grapple with, and it's extremely difficult, and raises deep philosophical issues, because there's a way in which the idea of inventing your values from scratch without any input from anyone else is kind of a fantasy. Like, in some way or other acculturation into values is part of the best-case scenario. And, the challenge is to figure out when is this going well? And, when is it a matter of cultural values that are toxic, or in some way or other oppressive to me? And, there isn't a formula for that. There isn't a kind of formal test from whether it's coming from you or outside, but it is a thing that people have to struggle with.
And, you might struggle with that around midlife. I think a lot of people struggle with that around the kind of quarter-life crisis, where they're thinking 'I've got to separate from my parents,' for instance, and to think 'What is my path in life?'
And, yeah, I think that's another part of grappling with our own wellbeing and our own vision of living well that midlife can make vivid.
Russ Roberts: Occasionally on this program, I talk about Homer and how much I like The Odyssey and--I'd love to read it in the original Greek. I can't read any Greek. And yet, lucky John Stuart Mill learned it at three. And, yet that was a mixed blessing. True, he could appreciate The Odyssey in the original. But, at 18 he could not have said, 'I wish I'd spent more time playing stickball and less time learning Greek.' Or, 'More time becoming a normal human being with an ability to relate to the people around me,' which he struggled with.
In fact, why isn't his life the best indictment of utilitarianism ever made? I mean, I've become increasingly hostile to utilitarianism. We did a recent episode--hasn't aired yet--with Will MacAskill on What We Owe the Future. And, you wrote a recent review of it; we'll put a link up to that. But, I've become increasingly--I increasingly believe that utilitarianism, which is in many ways at the root of the economist's view of, say, social welfare, I think is an error. And, I'm bringing up John Stuart Mill's biography now, or his autobiography which he wrote, as my--what's the word--evidence? What the word in a courtroom? It's about--Number One, what do they call it?
Russ Roberts: Not 'episode'--
Kieran Setiya: Exhibit. Exhibit A.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm making John Stuart Mill's autobiography Exhibit A.
Kieran Setiya: Yes, there's something amazing about the literalism with which his father, James Mill, took over Bentham's ideas and thought, 'Okay, maximize utility. I'm having a kid, great opportunity. This is a whole life.' And, there are milder versions of that in--
Russ Roberts: Every day--
Kieran Setiya: utilitarian concern with spreading utilitarian values. The thought is, 'Well, one of the things you could do is proselytize for utilitarianism,' and imagine all the people who will then go on to behave in more utilitarian ways. I'll be very interested to listen to your conversation with Will MacAskill.
I mean, I think one thing that the Effective Altruism movement and the kind of new long-termist paradigm has done is to try to say--even if you're not a utilitarian--that's to say you think some degree of harsh reality to oneself and one's loved ones is permissible. And, even if you think we've got to respect people's rights--I mean, the kind of pure utilitarist thinking, if you could kill 1,000 to save 2,000, go ahead and do it as long as there are no other bad consequences. The kind of newfangled Effective Altruists are much more circumspect about that kind of thing. But still they say: there is a part of life in which you should be ruthlessly maximizing--namely, altruism.
And even there, I think it's a very complicated issue, in part for a reason that you alluded to earlier, which is the incommensurability of values. So, I think once you're thinking there are just different kinds of values that are not measurable on a single scale, the idea of maximizing value in your altruistic endeavors looks complicated. When you're dealing with the same metric, if you could save 1,000 people from malaria or 2,000--okay, save 2,000. But, when you're thinking about malaria versus charities that bring arts education to kids who otherwise couldn't get arts education, the idea of a single metric where you can evaluate these things is, I think, an illusion.
And so, I think it's very complicated. And so, there's a way in which the effective altruist mantra of 'Do the most good,' is very, very hard to apply in practice.
Russ Roberts: Well, to pick on another example that I don't care for, Peter Singer says I should feel guilty throwing a birthday party for my child, which of course is a remarkably extravagant event compared to the lives of people, say, in the bottom billion. And he argues: Therefore, I should take that money; I shouldn't throw the birthday party. I should instead give it to fight malaria or deworming or something that they've allegedly measured, I think imperfectly, but okay. Let's give them their due for a minute. I can have a bigger impact on world happiness. And, there's an assumption, there's a commensurability there.
But, there's actually a more insidious--I haven't thought about it before. Not only should you not throw your kid's birthday party, you should stay late at the office because you're going to have more money to give to charity--
Kieran Setiya: Oh, yeah--
Russ Roberts: And, you become then a tool. You become an object of--you're a serf, actually, for the wellbeing of others.
Now, I'm a big fan of altruism. I'm a big fan of tithing. I try to give 10% of my after-tax income to charity. And, I love effective altruism's emphasis that it's not just the giving: it should have an impact. And, I think there are many good things that have come out of the movement.
But, the idea that there's this metric of world happiness that I'm morally obligated to fulfill, is really endorsing slavery. He said--not exaggerating at all with hyperbole, but okay. A little bit perhaps. But, there's some truth to it, I think.
Kieran Setiya: Well, yeah, slavery is hyperbole. But, it is kind of the modern version on a smaller scale of the John Stuart Mill paradigm. Namely, how could your life make the most difference to the greater happiness? Yeah, it will be a longer conversation to really think through exactly what's right and what's wrong with Effective Altruism? Because, I agree with you that many of the--some charities are ineffective and the money is being wasted. And this is a very big problem.
And, having people give some percentage of their income, there's nothing bad about that in itself. I do think there are some counterintuitive features of Effective Altruism.
So, the argument that's in the vein of what you're describing is the argument that you might think, say, the effective altruist, that you might think working for an NGO [Non-Governmental Organization] is the thing to do. But, actually if you can work for a hedge fund, the chances are if you don't work for the NGO, someone else will. But, the chances that the next hedge fund guy will make as much money and give as much of it to charity as you would--much, much lower. So, the impact of devoting yourself to a job you don't like to make lots of money is much, much greater. That's kind of counterintuitive. And, I think there's something John-Stuart-Mill-like about that, that you're pointing out, about the kind of life-path that's being envisaged there.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Let's shift gears. I want to get to regret and fear of missing out, or looking back on and regretting missing out. And, I think there's some interesting parallels to economics. But, let's start with your life path. You, in the book, talk about the fact that when you were younger you thought about being a poet, you thought about being a doctor, and you became--eh--a philosopher. And you look back on it now and think, 'Did I do the right thing?' Does that torment you and how should you deal with it, process it? Talk about that.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. So, I think it's very closely related to the issues of commensurability we've been describing, because I think--I take my own example partly because it's ready to hand, partly because it's so simple. I really did have this idea at 16 or 17 that I should pick a vocation. My dad wanted me to be a doctor. I had been really devoted to poetry. I'd written a lot of embarrassing poetry as a teenager, and some not so embarrassing poetry as a teenager. But, I was falling in love with philosophy and I went off to do philosophy, and I've been very fortunate.
But, what I experience now, and I think this is something many people will relate to, is even when things have gone pretty well, it's still possible to experience regret--sometimes intense regret--in a kind of nostalgia form for all the things you didn't get to do--the band you never started, the person who you dated who you could have stayed with and you didn't, and now you're with someone else who you really love, but it's hard not to recognize that there was another life you might have had.
I think part of what that is a function of is precisely the incommensurability of values. It's precisely a function of value pluralism.
So, the way I put this in the book is that there are cases where you make a choice and it would be bizarre to regret the choice. So, if someone says, 'Do you want $50 bucks or $100?' you think, 'Is there some trick here?' 'No.' Then you take the $100 bucks and you don't afterwards think, 'Oh, what if I'd taken the $50?' Because there is a common currency--literally, in that case.
But, most decisions are not like that. Even decisions where you're just picking pleasures, if they're pleasures of different kinds, like the example I have in the book is going to a party where you've been invited to by someone you just met. Or, going to hear a lecture on an interesting topic that is one night only. And they're both just for fun; but, nevertheless, on a small scale you can then experience when you do one of them that there's a kind of uncompensated loss in the other one. So, it's FOMO [fear of missing out].
A lot of the sense of missing out and nostalgia is basically sort of existential FOMO. It's FOMO writ large. It's the sense that there are whole lives that I've missed out on, and that's just a fact. How to come to terms with that? Well, part of how to come to terms I think is just recognizing that it's inevitable and that it's a function of something good.
Again, if you flip to the opposite, it's helpful. If you think, 'Well, what would it take for me not to face this problem of missing out?' it would have to be that instead of a diversity of different things worth valuing, all of which I appreciate, it was all just kind of a homogenous buzz of pleasure where there's a single currency of it, and the only question is, how much did you get?
So, in other words, the only way life could avoid missing out is if it was tremendously impoverished, as if there weren't this diversity of things worth wanting, or you just weren't able to appreciate them. And on balance, that is a very kind of dystopian vision. The vision of a single currency is kind of bland, flattening of the evaluative landscape.
So, there isn't, as it were, a solution here to missing out. The thought is you're going to miss out. But, it's a function of something that is in one way disappointing but in another way, and overall, not regrettable, namely value pluralism--the richness of value in the world.
Okay. So, that's about cases of missing out where you don't think, 'This was really bad. I really regret this.' It's a harder problem when you get to cases where you think, 'No. This was just a mistake. This was a misfortune. Something just went terribly wrong.' We could talk about that, too. I think that's a harder case to come to terms with.
Russ Roberts: This is the 'grass would have been greener' problem--that if I only made that decision, chosen that path. I think it's mainly a philosopher's problem, and a philosopher's solution for some people. I think many people are good at not looking back. They don't think about it. They're leading the unexamined life and it's working well for them and just leave them alone, okay?
Russ Roberts: You[?] a couple of times said, 'Close the book. Don't read.'
Kieran Setiya: Yeah, yeah. No, I'm not opposed to that. Right, yeah.
Russ Roberts: But, the idea--it again comes back to this cognitive idea that I can find succor--I don't know how to pronounce it: suck-er, sook-or--comfort, solace from the idea that--which I love this idea. I just love this idea. Again, as an economist, we tend to go the other way, but this idea that you actually can't make this trade-off most of the time in life. You're not making a trade-off. You have to make a choice.
You're not really saying, 'Well, I'm giving that up, but this is worth more than that.' You're saying, 'I'm giving this up and I don't get that. And, I don't get that: That's the end of the story. I don't get it. I don't get to enjoy it. I'll never have that chance again.' Whether it's the woman you dated, the lecture you miss, the career you didn't pursue. But, to recognize that that very fact underlies what makes life in many ways worth living.
I can't know what animals feel, but I have to assume that the variance in the kinds of pleasures we have from ice cream, to deep love, to the sunset that we'll never forget and so on, it's so much of what makes life rich and wonderful. And the only way to really avoid that is to not have that. We wouldn't want that.
Kieran Setiya: Right. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: So, we should be able to talk ourselves into not feeling bad that the grass would have been greener.
Kieran Setiya: No, no, exactly. Plato has a lovely line about this, or Socrates, in the Philebus, where he's talking about hedonism and the idea that there's a single currency of pleasure, and describes the life of a hedonist as being like the life of a mollusc or a creature living in the sea. Now, again, I don't know exactly what the life experience of a mollusk is, but what we're supposed to imagine is something totally homogenous, just a simple stream of good/bad experiences with no variegation to them at all. And the thought is that would not be a desirable life for a human being.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The mollusk is just looking for warm water, and it gets a little cold and moves to the warm water, and that's good and he's happy. The mollusk is happy.
Russ Roberts: Did Bentham not read Plato? Did he not get it, or did he disagree?
Kieran Setiya: I don't know Bentham as well as I should. It's certainly true that the way Bentham is typically interpreted, he's--this is a John Stuart Mill paraphrase of Bentham, but the slogan is:pleasure for pleasure, 'Push-pin is as good as poetry,' where Push-pin is some Victorian parlor game that's like a trivial activity, and poetry is the paradigm, at least for Mill, of the most profound pleasure.
One of the big shifts from Bentham's hedonism to Mill's hedonism is that Mill thinks there's not just differences in quantity of pleasure but differences in quality. He has a kind of simplistic seeming theory of this, but the idea is there, that even if all your valuing is pleasure over pain, different kinds of pleasures are not to be measured on a single scale. So, I think Bentham did seem to have a very simplistic, single-currency view.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That there's some amount of Push-pin that would compensate you.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. Right. Exactly. Exactly. Like, how good was the poem? How many hours of Push-pin would it take? Exactly. There's something confused about that, yeah.
Russ Roberts: Let's go to the second kind of regret, which is: you made a choice. Your example is--poor guy--you're an MIT professor. True, it's in the philosophy department, not medical school somewhere. So, you have a good life. You concede it in the book; I'm not giving anything away. But, sometimes you make a choice and it turns out badly. What do you do then?
Kieran Setiya: I wish I'd had the nerve to talk about real regrets in the book. What I talk about in the book is my periodic feelings of, like, really I should have been a doctor, and I kind of decided not to be a doctor in order to disappoint my father--which is not the best of reasons in retrospect. I sometimes think I should have just done it. And there are other regrets that I could talk about that are more serious except that I want to protect the other parties. So, I won't do that.
But, the idea there that I found very interesting, although it has limits, is--this comes from a Derek Parfit thought experiment in which he argues that sometimes even when you make a bad decision or something goes wrong, in retrospect you rationally can and maybe should affirm it.
Here's an adaptation of his example: You have a temporary condition that means that if you get pregnant now, your child will have some kind of health condition--like celiac disease or recurrent migraines. If you wait or take some vitamin supplements, in a few weeks it will all be over and you can conceive without having that health risk. But, you get pregnant now. You go ahead, you have the child.
The thought is you look back and think, 'Well, in one sense that was a mistake. I should have waited. And I don't retract that. But, nevertheless, now do I wish I'd waited?' Many people have the response, which seems perfectly reasonable, that actually: I don't wish I'd waited, because here I am holding my baby in my arms, or my looking at my kid who's now, like, having another stupid migraine. And I think, 'Well, yeah, I would have had a different kid who didn't have migraines, but little Mary would not even exist. And I don't wish for that.'
So, there's this phenomenon whereby attachment to particular people can rationally switch your preferences so that what you should have preferred back then you now don't prefer, and what you should have dis-preferred back then you now prefer.
So, I think that's a real phenomenon. And that's one way in which you can mute regrets.
And I think, for parents, this is the thing that I think actually a lot of people do, is they say to themselves, 'The marriage blew up, but if I'd never met--whoever it was--I would never have had my daughter or son. So, I can't really regret it, even though there were many painful years and the relationship ended up being a disaster.'
So, I think that's a familiar thought. The question is, how far can you generalize it?
And so, what I suggest in the book is that there is a kind of broader phenomenon here, which has to do with attachment to the particulars of life. So, there's a kind of tendency--and I think, a kind of psychological tendency and maybe a rational psychological tendency--to be more strongly moved by all the particular ways in which something is good to desire or affirm it, even when you know in the abstract that some other outcome would have been better.
So, even if I think I'm pretty sure I should have been a doctor--it was a mistake--I think, 'Well, what would that life have been like? I guess I would have, I don't know, pulled long hours as a medical resident and talked to patients and saved lives and lost lives. I don't know. I've watched ER [Emergency Room, TV show]. I have a vague vision of what that would be like. And I think that would have been better than being a philosopher.'
But, if I actually think about my life as a philosopher, there are ever so many particular things--like, particular students I've known or worked with, particular insights that I've shared with colleagues, particular moments of teaching or reading or learning. And I think: Would I give all that up for something better that I don't really know and can't even really imagine?
I think that psychologically it's possible and, in fact, commonplace to attach to the particulars more than the abstract better alternative. And I suggest, more tentatively, that that's actually a reasonable structure of preferences--that it's actually reasonable to be more strongly moved by the intricate texture of how life has gone, if it's gone reasonably well, than the abstract consideration that something else would have been better. That we can rationally affirm our lives by just attaching to the particulars of our lives in a way that sort of echoes the way in which you might attach to the particular life of your child, although it doesn't literally involve the existence of a valuable thing, like a child, that wouldn't have existed otherwise.
Russ Roberts: It strikes me as kind of a Jedi mind trick that's not really real. Let me try something different. The reason I like it is that--you're Kieran, and Kieran is the soup with which all these textural things happened in day-to-day life. If you'd have been a doctor, you'd have had a bunch of that. You'd have had a huge amount. Maybe more, maybe less. There's uncertainty that's unavoidable.
You could have been a horrible doctor. You could have made a terrible mistake and ruined someone's life, and their loved ones, and that would have been horrible. You could comfort yourself saying you haven't done that, and you can pretend that those handful of students that are special make up for the hundreds of lives you could have saved and the immense amount of satisfaction you could have had from it. And I'm teasing, of course, to some extent.
But I think--it seems to me that the healthier way is to say, 'That was then and this is now.' What's wrong with that? What's wrong with saying, 'I made what appears to be a mistake, but I can't know and I couldn't know then. And therefore--.' And, this is what I say in my book, Wild Problems: Mistakes in these kind of environments are really bizarre words to use--a bizarre word to use for when you're totally in the dark. You have no idea what life's going to be like. You have no idea what the texture's going to be like.
And so, you made a leap and it turned out okay. Maybe it turned out badly, by the way, if that's the case we're talking about. It didn't turn out so well. You didn't get tenure at MIT. You ended up at a not so great place and you weren't happy and most of your students weren't very good. But, isn't a healthier way to deal with it to just say, 'Well, I can't change the past. So, why am I trying to fix that? Leave it alone. Put it down.'
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. It's a good point, good question--
Russ Roberts: If I'm going to play a mind trick, let's play that one.
Kieran Setiya: So, I don't object to that at all. It's not that I think you should spend lots of time thinking about it or that you'd be making a mistake if you just didn't. And I think you're right that a lot of the cases I consider have this sort of philosopher's thought-experiment quality where I say, 'Let's stipulate that you know it would have been better.' Realistically, we mostly don't know and we can't know.
So, one thing that's going on that I do talk about in the book is that there's a kind of risk aversion structure where you think, even at the time, if the gamble would have been better to be a doctor, what I'm looking at now is a pretty good life as a philosopher. And even if I think back then, the gamble would have been better to be a doctor than a philosopher. Looking back, what I'm comparing is not those gambles. It's a pretty good payoff for the second gamble; and who knows what with the other gamble?
So, even if the expected value of being a doctor in 1996 was greater than the expected value of being a philosopher, I'm now comparing the actual value of being a philosopher with a risky thing in the past. So, I do think that's an important kind of psychological phenomenon that can make this shift.
I mean, I just think there are cases where we are in a position to--we know we made a mistake because we betrayed someone or lied to someone, and we look back and think, 'I really just should not have done that. I knew at the time that it was a stupid thing to do.' The clearest case would be: 'I knew at the time that I shouldn't do it and I went ahead and did it anyway. And there's really no question that I just behaved badly.'
In cases like that, I think it's very complicated for two reasons.
So, one is: there's the issue of how far affirmation of the particular way your life has gone really works to counterbalance that--whether this attachment to this particular thing is real and whether it's rational.
There's also a further problem, which is: the cases of regret that most clearly involve identifiable mistakes are ones where the mistake was sort of moral. And there's an extra complication that I think makes it very hard, which is: if it's you've messed up your own life, attaching to the particulars of your own actual life and saying, 'Well, look at all the things I do have,' seems a perfectly okay way to try and reassure yourself.
In cases where what you're saying is, 'I made a terrible moral mistake,' reassuring yourself by saying, 'Well, look at the particulars of how my life went for me,' somehow seems to miss the point. So, I think that's another case in which I think the strategy I'm describing is limited.
So, in a way I sort of agree that this strategy has limits, and if you're not thinking about the past in a way that involves regret, you're just thinking, 'That's the past. Don't worry about it,' you're not making a mistake. It's more that, when you do start thinking about the past, apart from just telling yourself, 'Stop doing that,' what can you do to reframe your relationship to the present?
I think that there is a kind of mistake I'm pointing to you, which is the mistake of when you're in this mode of looking at how your life went and how it could have gone, making abstract comparisons, saying, 'Well, I could have had a great life as a doctor rather than this okay life as a philosopher,' or, 'I could have married my childhood sweetheart and I don't know why I was too afraid to make that commitment then. And now, ehh, my marriage is this.'
And I think the mistake I'm warning against is the mistake of staying at that abstract level and not exploiting the kind of psychological resource of focusing in on all the particular ways in which your actual life, if pretty good, is good, even if another life would be better.
But, in a way it's consonant with your thought that we shouldn't think too much about it, because one of the corollaries of the idea that knowledge of the particulars and attention to the particulars is a counterweight to regret is that you'll risk undermining this both in two ways.
One is if you just look at abstract visions of two different lives.
The other is if, as well as focusing in on all the particulars of your actual life, you start to imagine in vivid particular detail how much better the life would have been. As soon as you start getting those particulars into view, you'll start, I think, triggering the same psychological mechanism of attachment.
So, I sort of agree with you, in a way, that there's a mistake of thinking in too much detail about the alternatives that you've foregone because you risk triggering a kind of regret that is, at the very least, rationally optional. Like, you don't need--there's nothing mandatory about thinking in that kind of detail about all the ways your life could have gone. So, yeah, why do it?
Russ Roberts: And I'd also add that, there's your brain doing the thing that you're not really in control of that you think it is. The things that come to mind are not always a very full picture of what actually happened or what could have been. And it's another reason to say, 'I'm only pretending. I'm playing back the tape of what my life could have been.' In fact, we're prone to both imagining only the good parts, or worse, only focusing on the mistakes.
Russ Roberts: I want to try something--I'm going to try a trick I learned from you on this problem, I think.
Russ Roberts: Never thought about it before and I really like it. So, I have four kids, and there are a number of times when I've said things to my children I regret. They were said sometimes with, I was going to say, no malice aforethought--meaning they were measured. I'd thought about them. I'd thought what I wanted to say. The other times I blurted out things. I have said both of those kind of things, to my shame, to my children, and I regret them. I may be the only parent like that but I suspect not.
Russ Roberts: And so parenting--my joke is, when you come home from the hospital there's no manual. Really big mistake, actually. Everything else you get a manual: you can scan it, you can find it online. Here's one of the most important things you can do and there's no guidance. So, you're in the dark. You wander around. You make a thousand mistakes. I'm talking about remarks you made. There's 10 other categories of mistakes besides remarks you regret.
So, that hurts me sometimes. I have remorse about it and regret and pain. But, I'm now going to use one of your cognitive tricks, which is: there is no parent who has ever parented perfectly; and, there's nothing shameful about blurting out things, because it's human. It'd be shameful to do it all the time, to say hurtful things to your kids intentionally, unintentionally--doesn't matter. But, the fact that there are some moments that I remember that are not my greatest moments as a father really should not bring me--it does bring me down sometimes. And it shouldn't, because it's the human enterprise.
It comes back to your point about the reality of the nature of life. We really wouldn't want to live in a world where the children came with a manual and all you had to do was follow it faithfully and then you could congratulate yourself.
So--and, the last thought I have on this is that we just had our first grandchild, and a friend of mine said, 'Oh,' when they were expecting, he said, 'Oh, your son's coming over to your side.' I said, 'What do you mean?' 'He's going to be a parent. He's going to make a lot of mistakes and he's going to find out it's really hard.'
And I do think that that's one of the virtues of having children, by the way, is to give you a chance to forgive your parents, because you realize that all the things they did wrong--it's not just, 'Oh, but they did so many things right.' That's not the point. And, it's not this sort of commensurability argument. It's the nature of the beast. It's human. It's okay. You shouldn't do it on purpose; you should try to make them fewer than common. But, I think it's okay.
Kieran Setiya: I'm sure that's right. I remember when we left the hospital with our kid. I remember walking out and thinking, 'I've never seen doctors behave so irresponsibly. They're letting us walk out with a baby? What are these guys thinking? Surely the Hippocratic Oath should forbid this kind of behavior!'
But, no, I think you're right. The two things that come to mind in connection with this sort of making mistakes with your kids is, one thing that I have got a lot of meaning from is apologizing to my kid, which is something my father--
Russ Roberts: [whispered] never--
Kieran Setiya: Well, actually, recently he has started doing it, but he basically never did. Forty, fifty years of not apologizing.
And, I thought: it's not that somehow it's better that I made the mistake and apologized than that if I'd just not made the mistake.
On the other hand, it's a version of this sense that there's something about the kind of relationship I'm having with my kid that is being made possible by screw-ups. And that is good. It's not that it was--I should therefore think, 'Hey, it's a net positive that I shouted at my kid completely unreasonably.' On the other hand, it's contributing to a kind of relationship that I really value.
And, the other thing to say about your grandkid is, as soon as you have the grandkid you can start exploiting the straightforward attachment to the existence of a new life. Because, given the butterfly effect, if you hadn't shouted at your son or whatever, all the little patterns of causality that led to the particular sperm and egg that became your grandchild--they wouldn't even exist otherwise. So, you should just reassure yourself that had you not lost your temper, you might have a grandchild, but not this one.
Russ Roberts: I love that.
Kieran Setiya: You can now reaffirm every little thing that happened in the intricate causal history that led to their existence, at least reaffirm it a little bit.
Russ Roberts: That's awesome.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about death. Cheerful topic.
Russ Roberts: We all expect to die. None of us really think about it much. I found there came a year, I don't know when it was but it's in the last few, where I started thinking about my mortality. Having almost never thought about it before. And it is a part of the midlife crisis, as you talk about. What have you learned about death that's been helpful to you?
Kieran Setiya: Well, so I'm like you. I think I had a early-onset fear of death. And, I remember as a kid just thinking about the fact that I wouldn't exist and having a kind of electric, terrifying fear, the sort of sense of shiver down the spine. And I can still--it only takes me 30 seconds of thinking about it, and I can get myself back into that mode of panic.
I think that might make me a bad candidate for philosophical therapy, I think, for fear of death, because I think once you are that panicked it's hard to come back. And, the truth is, I hope the chapter on death vindicates my honesty as a philosophical therapist and that I'm pretty clear that, for me, what philosophers say about death is not really very reassuring. There's a kind of: When you're dead, you won't exist. You won't experience any pain. Don't worry about it.
Russ Roberts: And, we should tell listeners: you rule out any religious comfort that might be available.
Kieran Setiya: Yes. That's right, that's right. I'm imagining death as non-existence. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: And that would be true for the rest of the book, by the way. There's no religious path that leads to meaning or purpose or comfort or--
Kieran Setiya: No, it's true, it's true. Although, I think the idea of atelic activities and existential value--I imagine that if you're religious, one of the things you could say about your relationship to God or your relationship to a religious community is that they're forms of existentially valuable activity. They're atelic; they don't involve some kind of project you're trying to complete but a kind of way of being. I think it slots in, in a way, but it's true that it's just not part of my native way of thinking about these things.
But, yeah, I mean, this is an idea that goes back to Epicurus and Lucretius, that death isn't bad because you won't exist and you won't be in pain--assuming non-existence.
As many philosophers have pointed out, it's not super-reassuring because you don't need to exist in order to be missing out on things. In fact, the opposite: If you don't exist anymore, you're going to miss out on everything. And, the harm of death might partly consist, presumably for those who are living good enough lives, does consist in being deprived of all the good things.
There's also a kind of temporal symmetry argument. Lucretius, Epicurus also invite us to compare the non-existence of our postmortem lives--lack of lives--to our prenatal non-existence and say, 'You're not terrified about prenatal non-existence. Why are you worried about postmortem non-existence?' Again, I think not super-convincing because I think there's something perfectly rational about being temporally biased. That's to say, caring more about future pleasures and pains than past ones.
I mean, one reason why the strategy you described about overcoming regrets works is that we actually don't care that much about past pains, in the way--if someone tells you, 'Hey, by the way, you don't know this, but on some day in the past you experienced a lot of pain, but you've forgotten it.' I would think, 'Okay. Well, whatever.' If you told me, 'Oh, by the way, in a few weeks time you're going to experience a lot of intense pain. Afterwards you won't remember it.' I'll say, 'Okay, I guess it's better not to remember it. Maybe, I don't know, but this is terrifying.' So, there's a kind of temporal asymmetry in our relationship to pains and pleasures that I think makes the deprivation of pleasures that death presents quite reasonably more upsetting than the deprivation that prenatal non-existence presents.
I would say, this doesn't really work for me, but I think that the kind of reframing of death that I think comes closest to making a difference to how I think about it, is to think about what it would mean not to die and to think about what you are wishing for when you think, 'I don't want to die.' So, what you're wishing for is not to be mortal, and in fact to be immortal--to carry on living forever. Now, some philosophers argue that immortality will be positively bad, and that's one way to get used to death. I'm not convinced by those arguments. But, one thing you can say about immortality is that it's a kind of superpower.
So, in a way, I think there's something disproportionate about the kind of natural reaction to death that people like me have, which is: there's all kinds of superpowers it will be cool to have. I wish I could fly. I wish I could see through walls. I wish I could be invisible. Those things would be cool, but they're just not within the realm of human possibilities, so I think of them as sort of idle wishes. I don't agonize about the fact that I'm not superhuman.
And, there's something peculiar about death in that I do agonize about the fact that I'm going to die. But, what I'm agonizing about is in effect the fact that I don't have a superpower. It's like thinking, 'I wish I was a godlike immortal,' and reacting not by thinking--not as if that will be a super-cool power, but thinking, 'It's a grave insult for my being that I'm not--,' to be agonized about that.
And, I don't know how consoling that is, but I think there is something to that way of thinking about fear of death that helps put it in perspective and that I think is at least worth dwelling on.
But, I'll be honest: for me, there is no philosophical therapy for death that has really worked yet. I'm still on the lookout. I sometimes have this idea--after finishing my last book I thought, I had this sort of fantasy of one day setting myself the project of writing a book about death and deciding that it's not done until I have cured my fear of death. The task for the book would be: Keep working on philosophical thinking about death until you are cool with dying. And, however long it takes. There's no rush. It could be the rest of your life. And, you may not finish it. But, that's the project.
And, there's something appealing about that. To be honest, there's some kind of compelling thought that I do think this idea of philosophy is learning how to die. I wish philosophy could do that for me, but it hasn't yet.
Russ Roberts: I guess my first thought is that if this bothered you as a boy I think you were meant to be a philosopher and not a doctor. I mean, actually it was a joke, but I think it's true.
Russ Roberts: I had a different thought about the pain and the pleasure and forgotteness of it that I want to try out on you, and then I want to give you a different argument--maybe I can comfort you on the death thing, make my attempt.
Russ Roberts: I'm not optimistic. It's a long shot, I know it.
Kieran Setiya: Worth the try, yeah. I'll take any effort. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: The first thing is, suppose I said to you-- you had this horrible pain, but you were screaming like a maniac, it was so horrible. But, you had a memory incident and you don't remember it. But, let me tell you, you were really suffering. And, you would say, 'Okay.' Like you said, 'Whatever.'
But, if I said, 'You remember when the Red Sox won the World Series?' And, you said, 'No, I missed that. Oh.' 'Yeah, you were blacked out. You had that drug thing you were on and you missed that joy you would've had, that first Red Sox World Series since 1918.' You wouldn't go, 'Oh, whatever.' You would feel--there's a real difference.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. Interesting.
Russ Roberts: And, I think we're wired--by God or nature--to feel very differently about past pain and past pleasure. I think--maybe it's me, so I'd be curious your reaction--but the things that have been painful in my life--I'm talking about physical pain right now--they don't haunt me at all. I think that's why some women have more than one child. It's not that it's just that, 'Well, the kid was worth it.' It's that the pain of childbirth falls into this strange category.
We moved to Jerusalem this year. The heat in our apartment didn't work. Our landlord gave us two radiators. We were really cold. They didn't work very well. It was the coldest winter in recorded history in Jerusalem. And, now I think it's kind of funny and kind of cool. Bad word. But, we were uncomfortable at the time. I remember it. But I don't have any aftereffects of that. None, except for a little bit of humor, joking about it. But, my joys--I could talk about those and enjoy them still.
So, first of all, so I think there's an incredible asymmetry in pain versus pleasure that way.
Kieran Setiya: That is really interesting. I mean, I think that the deprivation-of-pleasure case is quite striking. I mean, one thing to think about though--it's tricky with something like the Red Sox winning. I mean, the temporal asymmetry would involve something like the following thought. Suppose I tell you you did have the pleasure of watching the Red Sox win in the past; it's just you've forgotten it. Or, they're going to win next year and you'll enjoy it; you've got that to look forward to, but you'll forget it afterwards.
I think you might--I don't know what you think about that kind of comparison. There, I'm thinking it's complicated because in the case of the Red Sox winning, part of the pleasure is you don't know in advance. You want it to be a surprise. You don't want it to be a foregone conclusion. So that case is complicated. But, I think you might, in that case, want it to be in the future. I think it would be--
Russ Roberts: Let's take a trip to Paris. The trip to Paris that I had with my wife two years ago, which is wonderful and I have great memories of it. If you said to me, 'Yeah, you're going to go in a few months again, but you won't remember any of it', I'd go--I'd be horrified.
Kieran Setiya: Yeah. Right. So, I think the other thing you're pointing to is this, something that came up earlier on, which is the joys of retrospection. The thought that it's possible with pleasures in the past to generate pleasures in the present--at least certain kinds of pleasures in the past. That reminiscing about them and remembering them is pleasant. And so, the loss of memory is a real--not being able to remember them would be a real tragedy, would be a real loss.
Whereas, when it comes to pain, we just don't want to think about it and that's perfectly reasonable. And, if we lost memory of it, that would not be a terrible thing.
I think there's something to that, but I think it's compatible with the idea that, other things being equal, if you were looking at a pleasure in the past and a pleasure in the future and if in both cases you're not going to remember, you might think, 'Well, I'll take the pleasure in the future.'
But, I think you're right that the loss of memory is a significant--it's not a negligible feature of what's going on in these philosophers' thought experiments.
Russ Roberts: And, it gives you a great cognitive therapy trick, which I'd forgotten about and now I'm ready to reuse, which is: that pain that I'm anticipating--the trip to the dentist or the surgery, God forbid, or whatever it is--that's temporary. I just have to get through it. And, when it's over it's going to be like, it's done. It's not going to haunt me. Whereas pleasures are different: you savor them.
Kieran Setiya: Yep. Yeah, yeah. No. There's a chapter on this in my new book, in Life is Hard, about infirmity. And, I talk about various kinds of infirmity, but one of them is: I have a chronic pain condition. And, one of the things that I talk about that I think is important in understanding that, is that for me, in the moment or day-to-day, the pain is just not that bad. I mean, it varies. Sometimes its stops me from sleeping; other times it--and somehow, if it was just a series of temporary pains and I could just experience it that way--like, here's an hour of discomfort, here's another hour--I don't think it would be anywhere near as bad as it is.
The problem is retrospection, is the fact that--and anticipation. It's the sense that once you're in it, you look forward to it. You are anticipating it and unable to imagine being on the other side of it. And, you can't really remember what it was like to not be in pain. And, it's those temporal forward- and backward-looking things that make chronic pain particularly challenging.
And so, I think the kind of thing you described as saying it's temporary, if you could somehow inhabit chronic pain with the mode, 'It's temporary,'--I mean, it's true that there's another one coming, but each one is temporary. If you could somehow make that shift, I think that would very much diminish the power.
And, I think that's why a lot of mindfulness techniques are effective in dealing with chronic pain, is that you just do not want to be thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm going to feel like this tomorrow. When will I ever not feel like this?' Or reflecting on the past. You just want to think, 'Well, right now it's not preventing me from doing what I want to be doing. And, a day of moderate pain, people just get on with their lives. So, I'll just do that, and every day will be like that.'
If you could experience it like that--and I think the goal in a way for me is to just experience it like that--just to think, 'It's another perfectly okay day, which is on balance good. Don't worry about the fact that every day is like that, just keep going.' And, I think that that fits exactly with what you were just saying.
Russ Roberts: Okay, so let me try my death comfort and then--
Kieran Setiya: Yeah, yeah--
Russ Roberts: we'll end.
Russ Roberts: So, it's a kind of a version of your argument that you don't like, which is the superpower argument. But for me--like you, I think I've been very blessed, very fortunate to have a good life. And, I think that helps a lot in thinking about death. And, in your case, not enough. Okay, 72 articles, huge disappointment before you got to 81.
Russ Roberts: But, more seriously, I think a life poorly lived--death is harder, because there comes a chance without redemption. I think most of my listeners are young: I think they're in their 20 to 40. So, one of the arguments here is to have a life well lived, because it'll make your upward swing of the you even better. What that is exactly and how to get there from here is always challenging, but I think that's something to think about.
But, the other thing to think about is that, for me--and again, I'm older than you by a generation--for me, as I've gotten older, I enjoy bittersweet more than sweet. And, I say this in my book. There's something--the poignance of death adds a richness to day-to-day life. The kind of pleasures we were talking about earlier, that they're not homogenous, that they're varied and unique. As you get older, the fact that the end is in sight, even if it's, God willing, decades away, suddenly makes things more vivid.
And, obviously it's a version of your point, that if you live forever things are kind of boring. There's a certain emptiness to it. But, there's this flip side that enhances the argument, which is that it also means that the things you do enjoy are that much more powerful. And, I've sung this song--I'm not going to sing it again, but I've sung it on before on this program--the song May I Suggest, by Susan Werner. Google it. And, she sings it at the Philly Folk Festival: it's a live version. There are a number of versions of it. But it's a very beautiful song. And, part of the theme of the song is: Enjoy the moment--which is part of what you write about in your book about being present--and how precious those moments are because they are finite.
Now obviously that's a plus. But it's more than a plus. I'm arguing that it--maybe it's not a good argument, but I'm trying to argue that it intensifies the pleasure you do get. And, maybe this is my utilitarian side coming out, but I think it's more than that. I think it's the kind of pleasure--it's a bittersweet pleasure. It's knowing that there aren't that many more times you're going to hug your loved ones, and write one more article, and do those projects that you think they're kind of meaningless after awhile, but when you can't do anymore, they're not meaningless, they're really powerful. So, I don't know, just a thought.
Kieran Setiya: No, I think can see the attraction or the wisdom of looking at things that way. This is something I really do want to think about more, is whether there's a way to reframe--to understand human life in a way that truly reconciles me to mortality.
I think one thing to say about that is that temperamentally, I think I'm quite phlegmatic. I think my highs are not that high and my lows are not that low.
And so, it's true that there's the intensity of the precious rare moment, but I don't know how--maybe I don't have a good enough imagination of what it would be like to lose that if I was immortal. And, maybe if I could properly inhabit the immortal perspective I would think, 'Man, what wouldn't give to appreciate something that had that preciousness again?' I don't know.
I mean, the argument that moves me, I suppose, for against-immortality is the overpopulation argument, which is: we got to make room for the next generation. And, I'm not a big fan of the idea that we're going to colonize space, or that it'll be a good idea to colonize space. I think we should try to make Earth work with a somewhat smaller population, and we better clear out in order for the next generation to come along. And so, morally speaking, I think there's a kind of pressure to accept that it will be unfair to occupy more than our fair space in the--or, fair time, I guess, rather than space--on Earth.
And, that I think is something I say to myself about why, like it or not, I better get used to it.
But, none of it really touches the--there's a kind of visceral reaction to thinking about it that is a terrifying electricity, and I don't quite how to reach that.
Russ Roberts: I'm going to try one more.
Russ Roberts: So, you talk about mindfulness in the book, and I've done some meditation--not so much lately but I have. And, I think one of the gifts of that, when it works well, is an appreciation for the day-to-day. And, I don't know about you, but I have a lot of trouble doing that. It's doesn't come easy to me--
Kieran Setiya: Very hard, yeah--
Russ Roberts: And, I think it's true for most people, that: things go by, you miss out. I guess a part of what I'm arguing, it's similar to my argument before about the imperfection of the brain, that it's hard to focus on the right things and we deceive ourselves into the illusion that we're doing something that's rational when in fact we're not. And, as you get older it's easier to notice. Seems like a feature, not a bug, maybe.
Kieran Setiya: I mean, again, I like that idea that the thing to do is, in a way, not think about the future. Certainly not think about your impending death, or your--hopefully--not so impending death, and to be able to focus on the value of what's happening day-to-day. And, maybe that's it. Maybe the--insofar as there's a philosophical therapy for death, it comes down to appreciating that it's not that there's a way of positively thinking about it that makes it okay, it's that there's a way of not thinking about it that is more in tune with what's actually valuable about life. And, that's the thing to do.
And, I suppose in practice, that's what I do: is, when I find my mind drifting, I think, 'Okay, let's not think about death right now. Let's do something else.'
So, part of the idea of writing a book about it is perverse, which is to decide, I'm going to power through this and force myself to come out on the other side of it, where it might be the exact opposite of what I should be doing to come to terms with death. Do the opposite of writing a book about it. That might be the answer.
Russ Roberts: I don't know. I'm thinking of Samuel Johnson: the knowledge that a man's going to be hung in a fortnight "concentrates his mind wonderfully." There's something to be said there.
Kieran Setiya: There is. Yeah, yeah. Although, I'm not sure what it would make me do. I was reading recently, I think it was maybe Nick Riggle, and it was a chapter in a book of his where he's describing actually thinking death was imminent and how it concentrated his mind. And, he said his mind just emptied and he had absolutely no idea what to do. He was just like, 'Arhhh.'
And, I think, yeah, I'm a little worried that it would not concentrate my mind in a particularly productive way or fruitful way if I really, really started to worry about it. But, hopefully I will not have my mind concentrated for a while.
Russ Roberts: We were all on the same page there. My guest today has been Kieran Setiya. His book is Midlife. I'm looking forward to reading it a second time. Kieran, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Kieran Setiya: Thank you so much for having me.