The Problem of Self-Torture: What's Being Done?

Stephen John White*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We commonly face circumstances in which the cumulative negative effects of repeatedly acting in a certain way over time will be significant, although the negative effects of any one such act, taken on its own, are insubstantial. Warren Quinn's puzzle of the self-torturer presents an especially clear example of this type of predicament. This paper considers three different approaches to understanding the rational response to such situations. The first focuses on the conditions under which it is rational to revise one's prior intentions. The second raises the possibility of a fundamental disconnect between the rational assessment of an extended pattern of choices and the assessment of the individual choices that make up that pattern. I show that neither adequately addresses the underlying issues. I propose a third approach, according to which the rational assessment of the “self-torturer's” choices is guided, not by any plan or intention the he has actually adopted, but by the plan or plans it would have been reasonable for him to adopt from the outset. The larger significance of this conclusion is brought out through the identification of conditions under which one's past choices can non-derivatively constrain the rational response to one's present circumstances.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)584-605
Number of pages22
JournalPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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