Blog Post

Preferences among preferences

We has them.  I want a cheezburger, and I can has cheezburger, but I don't want to want one.

Thomas Schelling and George Ainslie, among many others, use the story of Odysseus and the sirens to illustrate strategies of commitment in strategic interaction, strategies by which we disclaim our most highly ranked preferences.  Odysseus knows that no one can resist the siren-song lure of the Sirens’ song.  But he wishes to hear the song.  He therefore instructs his sailors to fill their ears with wax, so that they won’t hear it, and to bind him to the mast so that he cannot react to the song by forcing the sailors to change course.  He is binding a future version of himself whose preference he know will differ from his present preference – which is to resist the temptation of the song.  He knows that his preference will change, and he is preventing his changed preference from overriding what he also knows is the better, higher payoff, longer term preference that he now has.

This has become a standard example in the literature of behavioral economics.  But what I would like to add is the further idea that Odysseus has yet another preference, which is a preference for his preference to change.  Odysseus knows that the Sirens’ song will make him want to succumb, and he wants to want to succumb.  But he doesn’t want to succumb.  Binding himself is a way of experiencing the desire to lose himself in their singing without fulfilling that desire so completely that there will be no more self to lose, without fulfilling that desire so completely as to lose the experience of its haunting elusiveness in the all-too-present recognition that it is a mere trap.  He desires its elusiveness to his own desires (as Swann desires the little phrase), which means desiring not to fulfill his desire to catch it.  He wants to miss it, and miss it intensely, and therefore experience its essential absence, as Beckett wants to miss his love, and therefore experience her essential absence and therefore love her:

I would like my love to die
and the rain to be falling on the graveyard
and on me walking the streets
mourning the first and last to love me 

And compare Basho:

Even in Kyoto
hearing a cuckoo
I long for Kyoto
             (trans. Jane Hirshfield)

Odysseus’s affective and qualitative experience is one of preferring to have a preference not only different from his current preference to resist yielding to the Sirens’ song, so that he’ll want to yield to that song then: he wants as well for his future preference not only to be frustrated but to feel frustrated, since the inability to yield to temptation is part of the longing he longs to feel. (Ainslie elsewhere describes what he calls the management of longing, which means managing to keep longing going.)  So Odysseus prefers not to yield to the Sirens’ song, but also prefers a future where he will not to yield to the Sirens’ song even while preferring to yield to it, where part of the content of the preference to yield to the Sirens’ song is a hopeless preference for a preference not to yield to it.

In the same way it’s part of the pleasure of smoking that the cigarette trumps our desire not to want it: “the perfect type of a perfect pleasure.  It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied.  What more can one want?” (Wilde)  What more can one want than to be unsatisfied?    Not smoking offers a satisfaction (or end to longing) that can’t compete with the frustration of that satisfaction that smoking offers. Smoking when we want to smoke frustrates our desire not to want to smoke, recruits the longing not to want to smoke into a longing for smoking’s exquisite way of leaving one longing.  It’s so insidious because the pleasure of smoking includes the very preference not to take pleasure in smoking.  Odysseus wants to feel the pleasure of wishing the Sirens’ song were not so irresistibly beautiful, so he wants to hear a song that will make him wish he didn’t want to hear it so much.  He binds himself because he does not want to yield to the song, but does want to want to yield to the song, to yield to a song that will make him want to yield despite wanting not to yield.  Gathering terms, this gives us the following near-paradox: he prefers to the preference he has now – not to yield – not having the preference he has now, but having instead a preference for the preference he has now.

I love this kind of inconsistency in preference in literature, where you’d prefer not the preference you have but to have the preference that you have.  We’ve seen it in Beckett, and we can see something similar in a lovely, funny moment in China Mieville’s The City & the City.  The vaguely Balkan detective narrating that noir novel and his assistant Corwi are working themselves to exhaustion:

I stopped and bought us coffee from a new place, before we went back to the HQ. American coffee, to Corwi's disgust.

"I thought you liked it aj Tyrko," she said, sniffing it.

"I do, but even more than I like it aj Tyrko, I don't care."

Here, very simply, not having a preference is ranked higher than his actual preference.  But on what scale? Not a scale of preferences, but maybe on a scale he prefers to the scale of preferences.  This is a microexample of the authentic mode of the noir detective, broken and defeated, but unbroken and undefeated by being broken and defeated.  Its simple complexity is really a complex simplicity, and that's just what Kant says aesthetic achievement is: the resolved irresolution of preferences among preferences.

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).