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94th Joint Session of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society

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Postgraduate Sessions: Self-transformation and the Varieties of Prudence

Simone Gubler (Texas, Austin)


L.A. Paul and Nilanjan Das’ account of an intrapersonal analogue for the non-identity problem cannot be sustained on its own terms. It falls prey to an unfortunate equivocation. There is, nonetheless, a way forward available to Das and Paul. But to secure it, we must entertain the possibility that prudence is a disjunctive category, and that there are distinct forms of prudential care for self and person. Pursuing this suggestion will be of independent interest to moral philosophers, for, quite apart from preserving the integrity of the problem that Das and Paul present, it motivates significant new questions of value.


Simone Gubler recently finished her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was supervised by Jonathan Dancy, Kathleen Higgins, and Galen Strawson. She now works in a postdoctoral position, as a Research Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In the final year of her doctoral studies, she was a Visiting Student Research Collaborator at Princeton University.

Her work addresses questions at the intersection of moral psychology, normative ethics, and political philosophy. Much of her research deals with the concept of forgiveness. Against the prevailing view that forgiveness is a positive value, her work urges a skeptical attitude. Forgiveness is not always morally valuable, and never morally obligatory; and it should occasion particular concern when drafted into roles in public discourse and legal institutional contexts. In addition to her philosophical qualifications, Simone is admitted to practice as a lawyer in Australia, and maintains active interests in international human rights law and criminal justice reform.


  • Graeme A Forbes

    10th July 2020 at 10:35 pm

    I’m strongly inclined to think we get out of the non-identity problem, simply by refusing to accept that there are non-existent people to whom we owe things. We might have moral reason to act prudently with regards to life-transcending projects that already exist that means we can’t ruin the environment, for example. I’m going to reject the spatial part/temporal part analogy. That the logic is tricky is a problem for logic, rather than for the disanology.
    Transformations of existing people, on the other hand, do cause such problems, since such people already exist. But crucially, transformative experience doesn’t actually change *who* exists. This is even true for prudential concern: the reason we fear a transformative experience in which we are corrupted and sell out to the man is because it will be *us* who has sold out. So I buy your conclusion, but think we can get there without thinking that we owe things to people who don’t exist, or that temporal parts are analogues of spatial parts (which seem metaphysically suspect, at least to me).

    1. Rachel Cooper

      11th July 2020 at 1:39 pm

      Thanks for the great talk Simone. I wondered about Graeme’s comment ‘ the reason we fear a transformative experience in which we are corrupted and sell out to the man is because it will be *us* who has sold out.’

      I wonder if another way of thinking about the concern I have for what I might become in the future is to see it as analogous to the type of concern we have about what our children might become. I might worry that my kids might become corrupted and sell out to the man, but here my concern is maybe based on the thought that I’m partly responsible for whatever people they might become ie it’s a concern based in responsibility, rather than anything to do with identity (of persons, or selves..)

      1. Graeme A Forbes

        11th July 2020 at 10:13 pm

        Rachel (if I may),

        I don’t think it’s just causal responsibility. But it might be a combination of that and love. Love is exactly the kind of thing that generates a special concern for the future that resembles the concern for our *own* future. But I am still inclined to say that we can only have feelings of love (of the right kind to generate these special concerns) to people/things that we have an actual relationship with. I don’t love my grandchildren (though I assume if I ever have any I will). But I care about what I transform into, (plausibly?) because it either *is* someone I already love (even if someone I can’t imagine being) or inherits things I do care about (my name, my reputation, my friends and relations, my house, my job, etc.). So you’re still not going to get a *non-identity* problem.

      2. Simone Gubler

        12th July 2020 at 3:24 pm

        Hi Rachel, thanks for your comment. I really like the analogy you suggest, and interestingly, it provokes some of the same questions as Nikhil’s comment below. However, perhaps you mean to suggest that if we conceive of care for our future person in terms of responsibility (and without reference to conceptions of well-being that are associated either to my own self or my own person) then we depart from the subject matter of the varieties of prudential concern and find ourselves in a distinctly moral mode. It is true that I can have self-directed moral concern – if I think that I am corrupting myself, then my disapproval might be moral rather than just prudential (I will become a morally bad person, perhaps even hurt others, etc). But I don’t have a settled view on how this relates to prudential concern. If one of my commitments is to be a moral person, then there will be an overlap between thick prudential concern and self-directed moral concern. But I think that there is still a difference, and that moral and prudential concern ultimately serve different masters. Moral concern for the actions of my future person might sometimes coincide with thin prudential concern for the well-being of my person and sometimes come apart. I may have moral concern that my future person avoid some corruption, but if being morally excellent is not one of my projects, then this needn’t provoke thick prudential worries.
        There’s a further thought here, though – and that’s to note that we might have something analogous to prudential concern for our children – an idea that I’m sympathetic to. Even if prudential and moral concern are different in kind, I’m open to the idea that the boundaries of the self are vague such that those who we strongly identify with can be fitting targets of prudential concern.

  • Pete Faulconbridge

    11th July 2020 at 1:36 pm

    Thank you for a very interesting talk Simone! I was wondering what you think of the claim that you used in one of the arguments against Paul and Das, to the effect that we must understand the subject and object of prudence as identical, otherwise we will have changed the subject and started talking about other-regarding concerns.

    Do you intend to preserve this understanding of prudence in discussion of your own solution in the final part of the paper? If so, it looks as though by introducing distinct objects of prudence (i.e. at least the self and the person) we would also need to be introducing distinct subjects of prudence. Which strikes me as a surprising claim, and not one that (it seemed to me) you obviously wanted to endorse? Alternatively, if you are dropping the subject-object identity condition for prudence by this point, I wonder whether we need to talk about there being substantively different ‘forms’ of prudence, or whether instead we just have one kind of phenomenon here, which is capable of taking multiple distinct things and kinds of things as objects of prudential concern?

    Perhaps not much hangs on my question as such, but my thought was that if we drop the subject-object identity condition on prudence and acknowledge that it can take multiple objects, we will need an alternative account of what holds prudence together as a form of concern, and intuitively differentiates if from other-regarding concern (as you suggest). But then when we have that alternative account in place, it seems at least possible that the objects of prudential concern will be even broader than you suggest. For instance, they might include *distinct* future selves, and perhaps even the well-being of distinct persons (such as, perhaps, loved ones).

    So I suppose the primary question is what you think unifies prudence as a category, if we do drop the subject-object identity condition? And the secondary question would be what kinds of constraints you would expect this to place on the possible objects of prudential concern?

    1. Simone Gubler

      12th July 2020 at 3:46 pm

      Hi Pete, this is a really good question. I do think that there’s a real difference between self-directed and person-directed prudential concern, although I’m not sure how much hangs on the definitional question of whether what we have at hand is one type of concern with two different objects or two categorically different types of concern. But there is a deep question to ask concerning what connects the varieties of prudential concern that I identify, and in virtue of what it makes sense to call both of them “prudential”. I think that there are two routes to an answer. One is more metaphysical: it involves saying that to be a subject of prudential concern, it is a /necessary/ condition that sameness of person obtain. On this view, persons /have/ selves, so it is only in the case in which sameness of self also obtains that thick prudential concern is possible. Thus, it’s always the case that where I can feel thick concern for a self, X, I can feel thin concern, but not vice versa (of course, that doesn’t mean that I always /do/ feel both at the same time). Another route is more psychological. On this view, what separates moral from prudential concern is a matter of psychological identification or attitudes of partiality. To care for the hedons or projects of another in a prudential manner is to care for them /as/ the hedons or projects of someone with whom I psychologically identify. Since such identification may be a matter of degree, the boundaries of prudential concern may be vague. But I wouldn’t be unhappy with that conclusion.

      1. Pete Faulconbridge

        12th July 2020 at 4:34 pm

        This is really helpful, thanks very much!

  • Nikhil Venkatesh

    11th July 2020 at 2:28 pm

    I really liked this paper, Simone! The result is really clear and seems significant.

    My question is – and I may just be reporting idiosyncratic intuitions here – why should we be thinly prudential? To me, the most compelling arguments for the moral permissibility of prudence stem from the commitments and so on that we need to maintain our current selves. With respect to hedons (or whatever the objects of thin prudence are) why should I care more about mine than anyone else’s? It strikes me that there’s little reason to do so; everyone’s hedons are equally real. Do you think your distinction pushes us somewhat towards this conclusion, or is this just me?

    1. Simone Gubler

      12th July 2020 at 2:06 pm

      Hi Nikhil! I think this is a really great question (also, thank you for your masterly turn as trivia impresario yesterday). For a start, I think that we need to draw a distinction between descriptive and normative approaches to the distinction I introduce here. It could be the case that, as a matter of descriptive psychology, we do show partiality towards ourselves even in thin prudential terms – I care more about my hedons precisely because they are /mine/ – even if there is no good normative justification for this. For the purposes of this paper, I’m engaged in a descriptive project – in eliciting a psychological state of affairs, and I’m agnostic about that latter question of justification. I want to understand the nature of the sorts of prudential concern that we undergo, rather than (as yet) to litigate the question of whether it is acceptable to privilege self-regarding prudential considerations over other-regarding moral reasons. That said, I think that you’re onto something deep and important with the analogy between thin prudential concern and moral concern. Remember how Parfit, who, it seems to me, tends to think of prudence in fairly thin terms, says that his reductionist view of personhood led him to the conclusion that the difference between self- and other- concern was basically one of degree. When it comes to concern for one’s person, I think that that might be right. There’s also a further question as to whether there is an analogue of thick concern in the moral/other regarding domain. I think that sometimes our care for those to whom we are close is of this nature – it hones in on their projects and commitments, rather than just their hedons. The fact that this concern is normally limited to people with whom we have close relationships suggests something that I think is implicit in your question – that there is an intimate connection between “thickness” of concern and partiality (whether it be partiality towards oneself or partiality towards friends and loved ones). Does that seem right to you?

  • Dave Lucas

    12th July 2020 at 10:54 am


    Thought provoking paper. Two comments:

    1. Perhaps we need to distinguish between a hypothetical self and a physical self. I like the analogy of choosing between hypothetical selves for complex life decisions.
    2. I think your terminology for thin vs thick prudence and the definitions are unclear. I think you are saying thick prudence applies to changes that will affect my sense of self. Thin prudence applies to changes that affect my day-to-day environment. However even this distinction can be conjunctive under certain circumstances. Some clarity will be appreciated.