Saturday, 7 May 2011

Obligations to oneself?

I have failed, today, to go and run the Hawkshead 15km trail race. On waking, oddly exhausted, this morning, neither Lois nor I felt at all in the mood. Lois offered the following argument:

The fee for race entry (paid months ago) is ‘sunk capital’ and should no longer affect a calculation of what to do on the day. If, on the day, various factors counted against doing it, then we should not. And there were factors: not feeling physically great; heavy rain forecast; my having run the course last week and found it rather unpleasant; some ongoing muscular twinges; the fact that the alternative would involve a fine and leisurely breakfast with the Saturday Guardian etc. Whilst none of the reasons individually would have been sufficient to stop us running under other circumstances, collectively they tipped the balance of a utilitarian calculus.
Further, were one not to accept the ‘sunk capital’ view of the lost fee, it had had a worthwhile effect – worth the fee – of making us run often and pleasantly over the last month.

Three things struck me about reasoning whether to go or not.

1) The very possibility of not doing the run once mentioned seemed to exert a kind of platonic force. I have a similar issue with mid-week pizza. I enjoy cooking, properly, most evenings, enjoying the custom or habit of cooking for an hour from 7pm, listening to an arts review programme on the radio. But if that custom is partially disrupted, for example, by my getting home late, and I deliberate about whether to cook, then if the possibility of eating a frozen pizza is so much as mentioned (by Lois) that is enough to bring it about. I suspect that if we could train the cats to squeak ‘Pizza!’ in Cat or whatever it would still be. Hearing mention of the mere possibility of eating pizza, its presence as an unbidden thought, seems to mandate pizza, independent of any attempt by me to author the thought through deliberation.

2) As is the case with excuses for social invitations, the number of reasons seemed to count against them. One single reason, forcefully stated, would have seemed more persuasive than a number. But in other cases (eg. choosing which holiday destination or bicycle to buy) assembling individually insufficient reasons and weighing them up is exactly the right thing to do.

3) Despite the obvious plausibility of the rational utilitarian calculus, I struggled to accept it. The fact that I had undertaken to run the race seemed to establish an obligation which was still in force even if not dominant, in the end, all things considered. Its continuing force was reflected in my regret. But that seems quite odd. Unlike a social gathering, the organisers would not feel let down by an absence. So the parties of the agreement establishing the obligation seem to be my past and later selves, the present self being unable to dissolve it. Had I decided merely a day or so after signing up to pull out, that would have been fine. But having lived with the decision for a while – the very reason we’ve been running so much in Lois’ post-script thought – it seems to establish an independent or autonomous obligation not to be dissolved, even if to be outweighed, through later rational deliberation.