On Philosophy

December 21, 2007

Seize The Moment (Or Don’t)

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

“Seize the day” is a relatively common motto, and I suppose that seizing the moment is a logical extension of that. The idea behind these slogans is that we should make the most of the here and now rather than putting up with unpleasantness for some imagined future rewards. What people have in mind when they say these slogans is, I suppose, that people have a tendency to become complacent with their current situation, and to not really think about other possibilities. Thus telling someone to seize the moment may be to encourage them to reevaluate their past choices, and to choose again so as to make life good, rather than to be stuck with old mistakes.

But just because the phrase may happen to resonate with us or that we think it might be good advice doesn’t necessarily mean that seizing the moment is a good idea. To decide whether we should seize the moment we must examine why, exactly, doing that might be beneficial to us. The obvious argument for seizing the moment, alluded to above, stems from practicality; we might think that someone who lived by seizing the moment would be better off than someone who didn’t. Now I admit that a side effect of seizing the moment may be to cause someone to reevaluate their past choices and to consider whether they should continue to be bound by them. However this is a side effect, and something that I don’t think should be taken into consideration when deciding whether to really seize the moment, because the same effect could be achieved by advice reminding us to ignore sunk costs or not to assume that we have always made the right choices in the past. If seizing the moment has any genuine merits it must be because living in the present has some advantages over a future-directed outlook. It might be argued then that the future is, for a large part, uncontrollable; that even if we think something is a sure bet that there is always the possibility that unforeseen circumstances may occur. Thus, the argument goes, we should only worry about what we have a real power to control, which is the present. By seizing the moment we give up on the future, which is hard to affect, for benefits in the moment that we can actually grasp. In many ways this reflects a kind of stoicism, which is primarily concerned with avoiding discomfort, rather than seeking pleasure, and so recommends that we give up on the future, at least to some extent, because we can’t be sure that we will get what we want and thus will end up disappointed and unhappy.

Perhaps though we aren’t stoics, and thus aren’t particularly compelled by such an argument from practicality. Still, there is another reason that might be put forward to seize the moment, one that stems from the nature of personal identity. Obviously we grant that there is an entity that we call the person who is temporally extended over large lengths time. And this person is defined by their personality traits, memories, and relationships with the external world. But this person is not identical with an episode of consciousness. Consciousness comes and goes, and I think there is reason to believe that even in the course of a single day that we can identify a number of distinct conscious episodes separated from each other by times when we are awake but not really conscious in the full sense of the word. This raises the question: who are we? Are we the person, or are we to be identified with an episode of consciousness. Naturally we identify ourselves with the person instinctively, but that doesn’t mean that is the correct judgment. Perhaps we are really defined by the unique point of view that constitutes us, and in that case we should identify ourselves with those episodes of consciousness. Unfortunately if that is the case then it means that we are extremely short lived, that we exist only for a brief period of time and are then replaced by another individual who considers themselves the same person. Thus all we really have available to us is the moment, and since it is all we have we should seize it, rather than reaching towards a future that we can never achieve.

Of course there are also arguments against the idea that we should seize the moment, which aim to counter the reasons given for doing just that already presented. But before I get to them let us first consider an argument against seizing the moment that doesn’t work, one that stems from evolution. That argument points out that we are not naturally disposed to seize the moment, we are naturally disposed to take a long-term view of things. This implies that evolution selected for taking the long-term view and against seizing the moment. Thus, the argument goes, there must be normative pressures against seizing the moment, and so we shouldn’t, even if we can’t identify what they are. But this argument is flawed because it presupposes that the normative pressures that might be said to exist in the context of evolution are also normative from our perspective. What is good for the species doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what an individual wants and thus what is good for them, although the two can occasionally overlap. And thus it is generally a bad idea to reason from evolution to what is good for individuals, unless we are dealing with something like survival, where an overlap is much more likely.

Let us turn then first to the argument from practicality. As I see it there are three flaws with this argument. The first is that it supposes that all we want to do is avoid unpleasantness, when really it is probably more accurate to say that we aim at maximizing our satisfaction. And such maximization probably requires long-term thinking and a willingness to accept short-term losses for long-term rewards. Obviously proving that it does is a complicated proposition, but if you aren’t convinced without proof then it can easily be set aside because the two other flaws are at least as damaging. The second flaw then stems from the fact that even if we seize the moment, every moment, it won’t be the case that we can make every moment a happy one. Sometimes, for example, we might be faced with the choice of being unhappy now or unhappy later, so no matter which choice we make we will be unhappy sometimes. And if all we live for is the current moment then any moment that things aren’t going well for us will be a disaster. Normally we are able to shrug off bad luck, knowing that things are usually good, but if we have a mindset that ignores the overall picture obviously we can’t do that. Of course few people who embrace the goal of seizing the moment actually treat bad moments as disasters, but that simply stems from the fact that few people who claim to seize the moment actually do; although they might like to we simply are pre-disposed to take more than our current situation into account. Which leads me to the third flaw with the argument from practicality: living in the moment may simply be incompatible with the things that make us happy. Certainly the goals of some people could be accomplished in a moment, such as those of hedonists, but anyone with farther reaching goals must live in more than the moment if they hope to accomplish them.

Thus on practical terms seizing the moment doesn’t look like such a good idea for most people. But naturally no such considerations address the argument from personal identity. If the argument from personal identity holds water then, despite its problems, living in the moment may simply be the best that we can do. Suppose that we grant the central claims of the argument from personal identity. Even so I don’t think it is the case that we necessarily have to live just in the moment. The fact that we are actually briefly existing individuals that doesn’t change the fact that we may have long-term goals. Obviously we couldn’t hope to personally see them accomplished. However, given that we have such goals, it seems likely that we would be happier trying to accomplish them than ignoring them, even if we can’t personally complete them. Indeed we can apply reasoning usually found in the context of ethics to this situation. Sure each momentarily existing individual could live solely for itself, and act against the best interests of the rest, but the person whom all those momentarily existing individuals make up will end up rather poorly off. On the other hand if those momentarily existing individuals all act with the best interests of the person in mind then the person will do well and thus, on average, they will do well. And so the collection of momentarily existing individuals that act selflessly end up generally better off, individually, than those that cared only about their individual welfare. Which means that the argument from personal identity carries no weight.

Of course none of this rules out the possibility that for some people, with certain collections of goals and desires, living in the moment may be a perfectly sensible thing to do. However, for the most of us, I suspect that, while seizing the moment is nice to do, it’s not something that should be a primary focus.

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