In business and politics, often decision-makers make decisions that cause short-term gain, but long-term loss. So economically, this might be an unreasonable (lossy) and thus irrational process.

Is there a philosophical framework or metaphor that is useful in describing this phenomenon and to help find causes (such as the tragedy of the commons, or race to the bottom)?

Some examples:

  • Boosting industrial output while causing global warming
  • Releasing a faulty product too early/hasty (e.g. Boeing 737 Max)
  • Increasing national debt for projects that don't increase the economy
  • Buying cheap products that have higher accumulated maintenance costs than a product with higher initial price
  • Deciding on financial investments based on expected calendar-quarter profits, rejecting longer-term investments
  • Solely focusing on running a current business models/products instead of exploring future business models/products (e.g. NOKIA vs. iPhone)
  • Appealing to extremist voters to win a next election, thus causing extremist policies (e.g. Brexit)
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    This is more about psychology than philosophy. The effect is called immediate or instant gratification, and is captured in the Latin aphorism carpe diem (seize the day) and the acronym YOLO (you only live once). It isn't as irrational as it seems, since it depends on how much one cares about long term benefits, something not up to reason to decide. But one can make pragmatic or psychological arguments for delayed gratification as superior.
    – Conifold
    Jan 6, 2020 at 7:09
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    What you are staring at is called decadence. We should all keep an eye on these private rocket programs that are not really private, and the supposedly high research costs of drug companies that are mostly paid for by the taxpayer (American taxpayer).
    – Gordon
    Jan 6, 2020 at 12:26
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    From the philosophy of economics, you would be interested in rational choice theory.
    – J D
    Jan 6, 2020 at 19:24
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    Causes seem obvious: This is an adaptive trait for a race that did not live past 25 most of the time. In the long run, we are all dead. And if you stand around thinking through how to build your house, the wolves might eat your children before you get started. Only once affluence is established, does a short memory and a general sense of urgency backfire. Because then we are maintaining a positive state, instead of struggling to achieve it. So take this in context. It is not a bad thing, just overdone because of how we got here. Feb 6, 2020 at 0:41

4 Answers 4


You are looking for literature on dynamic decision theory and multi-criteria decision analysis.

Dynamic decision theory deals with the rationality of changing preferences. Multi-criteria decision analysis is concerned with how to make rational choices when (unlike in economics) several dimensions have to be optimized.

I can recomment the following authors and books. Some are more on the philosophical side (Elster) others closer to technical decision theory (McClennen):

 - P.J. Hammond: Changing tastes and coherent dynamic choice.
 - Jon Elster: Ulysses unbound. Studies in rationality, precommitment, and constraints.
 - E.F. McClennen: Rationality and Dynamic Choice.
 - J. Figueira et al.: Multiple Criteria Decision Analysis. (esp. the introduction)
  • Isn't that just Utilitytime Behavior Modeling? Jul 6, 2020 at 16:09
  • No. Utility theories are 1-dimensional and not dynamic. The above theories were built in order to deal with problems utility theories are unsuitable for.
    – Mr. White
    Jul 6, 2020 at 17:47
  • Have multiple criteria been found yet? Isn't it just different types of utility... Jul 9, 2020 at 9:32
  • Rational choice can be based on many criteria which are by no means identical with utility. Just consider on what criteria you base your own decisions. Multi-criteria decision analysis deals on how to rationally choose with more than one (incomparable) criteria at work.
    – Mr. White
    Jul 9, 2020 at 13:23
  • But utility is the only one... Jul 9, 2020 at 13:55

I think it's good to distinguish a few things here from a theoretical perspective (even though some of the real-world examples given in the question have aspects of multiple of these).

1) Tragedy-of-the-commons type problems, where self-interest causes the outcome to be less good than it could have been for all. There isn't necessarily any short-term vs. long-term problem here; it could be that the only outcome of the process is tomorrow.

2) Short-term decision making for selfish reasons, e.g., someone who is now an elected politician and personally actually cares about the long-term future (diligently saving for retirement etc.) is now cynically making decisions that he knows are bad but look good in the short term, purely because he thinks it will get him re-elected.

3) People genuinely discounting the far future, thinking that the near future is just inherently more important.

1) and 2) are problems of aligning people's incentives with the common good; there is a vast literature on this in economic theory.

3), on the other hand, is a more philosophical problem -- should we discount the further future more? A nice introduction to this is Meghan Sullivan's Time Biases (who argues we shouldn't).


There's a good bit of writing on this in social theory, from the "Tragedy of the Commons" to Marx's work to Habermas' "Between Facts and Norms." I don't know that the concept itself has a particular name — partly because the manifestations of it cross the boundaries of many disciplines, making it difficult to construct a unified framework — but it is not difficult to find people writing about it from one perspective or another.

I tend to think of it as a moral-value scoping issue. The larger the scope of a moral issue, the more difficult it is to evaluate moral standards, and the less simple and definitive moral evaluations become. The bumper-sticker slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally" notwithstanding, most people are unaware of the 'global' extent of their actions, and only think in 'local' terms. What is valuable for me, in this particular moment, is straightforward: a clear and present value. The more removed we get from this 'me-now' solipsism, the less clear and present values become, until (at some fuzzy border on the periphery of our awareness) we shrug off value judgements entirely. That's the perennial problem of social activism: how to get someone to stop shrugging off value judgements that concern us.

So to take the archetypal case, someone builds a factory, the factory produces waste, and the waste has to be dealt with because (from the factory-owner's perspective) the waste makes an unpleasant mess in his backyard. The neatest solution (again, from his perspective) is to pour it into a nearby river. His problem is resolved, and if he's at all aware that his waste-dumping causes problems downstream — he may not be — that awareness is dim and fuzzy and not of much concern to him. People downstream can go and find another river if they have a problem: plenty of rivers in the world that don't run past his factory... Of course, if you made that factory-owner go live in a city downstream, then that city's problems would become his problems, and he'd put more effort into solving them, but short of that draconic delocalization, getting that factory-owner to expand his moral horizons so that the city is included in his moral evaluations is difficult, and the pressing concerns of his own little life and business are always going to weigh heavily in his decisions.


"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in" - Greek proverb

The human neocortex is primarily to inhibit our impulses, and only fully matures around age 25. Around 25-50% of people on death row in the US have had a serious head injury before their crime/s. Being able to delay gratification, is a key marker of human maturity. And an ancient metaphor goes, 'As the child is to the adult, so is the adult to the sage'.

A key component of the traditional concept of wisdom is to unite short term actions & behaviours, with long term aims. Also to become well integrated, so that what is done in one mood or circumstance doesn't work against or undermine what is done in another.

James C Scott in Seeing Like A State develops a modern conception of the term 'metis' as the practical craft of living well together, encompassing both religious and political and philosophical tools - but focused on how we use them in practice, to mediate, resolve disputes, and frame reforms to prevent further strife. See discussion of here. In particular he highlights that rapid social change & fragmentation undermines this craft, and ability to resolve disputes, for instance about trade-offs.

This discussion of the 'philosophy' of Curb Your Enthusiasm looks at how the show draws attention to both positives & negatives of created shared social interaction templates by challenging them, highlighting inconsistencies, nit-picking, or just refusing conventions. I suggest this is part of making unconscious metis conscious.

The UK separation of powers is a profoundly useful piece of metis, with the executive civil service providing continuity between changes of elected legislatures who make the laws, and judiciary who interpret them. Attacks on this as 'the deep state' or as satirised in the series Yes Prime Minister are aimed at challenging the power of this continuity. The Chinese civil service & it's mandarins were an explicit model, & provided great continuity between dynasties, but also a too slow response to industrialisation.

A tactic being trialled by a number of countries is that of citizen's assemblies, inspired by the Ancient Athenian tradition of sortition. A randomly chosen representative jury, usually quite large (over 100), charged with listening to representations from experts on a topic, to make a decision about it. Ireland used one to reform abortion law. The UK set up an advisary one on climate-change policy. For these kind of partisan issues where people tend to pick a team rather than do research or listen to arguments, they are especially effective.

Cory Doctorow a futurologist, makes powerful points about how effective anti-trust & anti-monopoly laws are crucial to maintaining trust in institutions, including governments & the scientific establishment. He makes a compelling link between erosion of these laws in 80s deregulation, and the rise of anti-science & conspiracy theories in public life.

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