Notes on the ethics of mental time travel

Feeling sorry for yourself is usually regarded poorly. However, what about feeling sorry for your future self? Or your past self?

There seems to be a case for feeling sorry for and being nice to your future self, by planning and acting now (de Lazari-Radek, 2013). Economists describe not making provision for the future as “discounting the future”.

We know we will be rather different people in the future, but we still feel concern for our future self. I have seen jocular remarks made about how one’s “drunk self” has looked after one’s “sober self” by setting the alarm for him to get up. That is easy to understand. Feeling sorry for oneself further into the future is more of a mark of maturity. Very few 20 year olds are concerned with what life will be like for their 60 year old self. However, both empathy and a capacity to imagine oneself in the future are usually thought of as typically human. One of the advantages of empathy for others may include having empathy for one’s future self. Is a lack of empathy even for one’s future self part of what makes a person a psychopath?

Moreover, if it is somehow wrong and self-indulgent to feel sorry for ourselves when something goes wrong, perhaps we can more appropriately feel sorry for our past self, since he or she is to some extent a different person? It seems we may feel sorry for our ten year old self without being accused of self-pity.

Another question that has occurred to me is an ethical one. If, despite Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, it is not considered wrong to “lust after” one’s wife, is it nonetheless wrong to lust after one’s younger wife, for example in a photograph? Is she the same woman in the photograph as your present wife, or is she in some sense a different woman?


de Lazari-Radek, K. “Be nice to the tomorrow you”. New Philosopher Magazine, November 2013, 103.


8 responses to this post.

  1. I gather that Pope John Paul II also thought it wrong to lust after your wife. I suspect that, being a chaste celibate, he didn’t quite grasp the actual dynamics of marriage. Or that he was using words in some abstract theological way that is misleading for ordinary folk.


    • Posted by Julian O'Dea on April 22, 2015 at 8:47 am

      Yes, I was going to mention that, but left it out from respect for the late pontiff. Also, I hope to put this material up at once I have given it time to mature in my mind. So I didn’t want to “bag out” John Paul II.

      I once wrote that only John Paul II and Ned Flanders, among noted theologians, held the opinion that lusting after one’s wife was wrong.

      I have no idea what the pope thought he meant. It is one of the very rare occasions on which I have simply rolled my eyes and ignored a pope. I also have no idea how he imagined a man was supposed to have sex with his wife.

      It was the pope’s angelism at its worst. Someone should have referred him to the Song of Songs.

      I have also remarked in the past that one week living with a wife would have made him reconsider some passages of Mulieris Dignitatem. (The wiser Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, did issue a “clarification” on that document too.)

      Pope Francis may be a bit of a simple chap in some respects, but he does not seem to have too many illusions about women. I suppose having to face a woman president of Argentina taught him something.


  2. Posted by Dash Riprock on April 22, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    Julian, Long time lurker and someone who very much enjoys your blog. I too have always been disturbed by that JP II quote as well. I tried to trudge through Theology of the Body without success and kept wondering what I was missing that my fellow Catholics “got”. I think your diagnosis of the tendency toward angelism is spot on. I have even seen TOB used by some marrieds to justify living as brother and sister. While surely that wasn’t the Holy Father’s intent, there is enough ammunition in there to aid the modern Gnostics in their profane war against the flesh and blood.


    • Posted by Julian O'Dea on April 22, 2015 at 1:58 pm

      Absolutely. Angelism was his besetting weakness. He had a surprisingly naive view of human nature. Almost Pelagian. He seemed in particular to believe that women are morally better than men.

      I have never read Theology of the Body, but some of his ideas in Mulieris Dignitatem are soft. Ratzinger had to reiterate that the husband is indeed the head of his wife in his commentary on that letter.

      The following more human approach to the Song of Songs by JPII was pointed out to me recently:

      He was more traditional and patriarchal in his thinking in Familiaris Consortio. He wasn’t totally consistent in his thinking, sometimes behaving as if he was leading a speculative philosophy seminar not a church.


  3. Posted by Julian O'Dea on April 24, 2015 at 9:09 am

    On the point about feeling sexual desire for your wife as she once was, this is arguably connected with the positive phenomenon of “wife goggles”. That is, the way in which many a longstanding husband still finds his wife attractive, perhaps because of his memories of his wife when she was young.


    • Posted by Julian O'Dea on April 27, 2015 at 5:50 am

      Sample dialogue:

      Wife: Were you thinking of another woman when you were making love to me?

      Husband: Of course not! I was thinking about you twenty years ago.


  4. Posted by Julian O'Dea on April 8, 2016 at 6:32 am

    My wife just received an email about insurance with the subject line:

    “Do something today that your future self will thank you for”


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