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I Do Choose to Run: Consequentialism and freedom

Reunion Homecoming, in all its cardinal-and-white glory, arrives on the Farm next weekend. But in the annual mishmash of good food, old friends and red Lamborghinis that signals the return of thousands of Stanford alumni to the one place they all have in common, I see a disturbing question: what will you remember when you come back?

Stanford students are superb consequentialists — that is, we tend to measure the goodness of actions by their eventual results. Bentham and Mill would be proud. We excel at making rational calculations of expected returns to labor and investment, which is probably why so many of us will take the exhortation to occupy Wall Street quite literally after graduation. So before making any decision, we ask one very simple question: what will I get out of it?

Should I join Club X or Society Y? Well, it depends on which one will look better on my resume, itself a means to getting me into law school, itself a means to a stable, well-paying job and the approbation of society. Should I take class A or class B? Depends on which one will likely get me a better grade. Should I go to office hours today? Depends — will the TA give me the answers on the problem set?

Should I go to the football game? Probably not — the momentary happiness I’d gain would probably be outweighed by the returns of studying for those four hours. Should I watch that movie with my friends? I guess not — I could be writing that paper instead. Should I ask out that girl down the hall? Well, let’s think: how much time and energy will a relationship cost?

Sometimes, the more altruistic among us fall into the same trap, deluding ourselves into believing that if our actions are intended to benefit others rather than ourselves, we cannot possibly be doing anything wrong. Why should I work at the Haas Center? Well, it’ll probably land me a great job at a human-rights agency down the road, and then I can do what I really want and help people who need me. Why should I study my brains out, skip two nights of sleep a week and go through the nine circles of organic chem? Well, I’ll eventually get into med school, and then I can go help cure preventable disease in sub-Saharan Africa.

But what inevitably gets lost in this generally admirable decision-making heuristic is the sheer joy of doing something for no reason at all.

Kant tells us that rational agents should be treated as ends in themselves, never as means. The problem with Stanford students’ line of thinking is that we tend to reduce everything to means to a larger end, and in doing so, we suck the joy out of the means.

Things (and people) generally cease to have intrinsic value when they are subsumed into part of a strategy. Think about it: we all know people who always have the end-game in mind, and we tend not to like them very much. We’ve all met, for instance, the guy who looks right through you during a conversation. He’s not really thinking about you or the conversation: he’s thinking about your networking value or the letter of recommendation you might be able to write for him later. We’ve all met the girl who flakes out on dinner because an unexpected this-or-that came up; she calculated which would benefit her more, and the this-or-that beat out her friends. The end-game, kept always in view, is the bane of the here and now.

Philosopher Bernard Williams once famously observed that the committed utilitarian tends to have “one thought too many.” I agree. We think too much and act spontaneously too little, and in doing so we lose our essential freedom. We become slaves to the dictates of a hoped-for future.

So what will you remember when you come back for your 25th class reunion? Will you drive up in a Ferrari looking for your friends only to realize that you never really made any because you were too busy dreaming about the Ferrari? Will you remember your Stanford experience as one blurry, four-year-long means to the life you now have?

Or will you remember things that had value in and of themselves: the movie you saw because it looked good, the discussions you had just because you could or the class you took because it looked fascinating? (And hey, you’ve only got four years.) Will you remember that night you played tag in the Green Library stacks, the evening you blew off a paper and went to the haunted house instead and the time you went steam-tunneling and narrowly escaped the Stanford police in a high-octane bicycle chase?

It’s up to you. Think about it — or, even better, don’t.

Miles is already missing his four years, even though they’re not quite over yet. Console him at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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