Back when I wrote What We Got Here is …Failure to Communicate, I quoted Thomas Sowell extensively from his magnum opus A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggle. One of the excerpts dealt with the differences in the way his two defined ideological groups deal with “new knowledge” and its effect on past decisions:
All social processes — whether economic, religious, political or other — involve costs. These costs are seen very differently by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions, just as they see differently the kinds of attitudes needed in these processes — sincerity versus fidelity, for example. These costs may be due to time or to violence, among other sources, their corresponding benefits may be apportioned justly or unjustly, and their recipients may be free or unfree. All these aspects are assessed differently in the constrained and the unconstrained visions.
The passage of time, and its irreversibility, create special decision-making difficulties, social processes, and moral principles — all of which are seen quite differently by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions. Both recognize that decisions made at one point in time have consequences at other points in time. But the ways of coping with this fact depend upon the capabilities of human beings and especially of human knowledge and foresight.
Accretions of knowledge over time mean that individual and social decisions made under conditions of lesser knowledge have consequences under conditions of greater knowledge. To those with the unconstrained vision, this means that being bound by past decisions represents a loss of benefits made possible by later knowledge. Being bound by past decisions, whether in constitutional law cases or in marriage for life, is seen as costly and irrational.
In the unconstrained vision, there are moral as well as practical consequences to intertemporal commitments. Gratitude, as well as loyalty and patriotism, for example, are all essentially commitments to behave differently in the future, toward individuals or societies, than one would behave on an impartial assessment of circumstances as they might exist at some future time, if those individuals and societies were encountered for the first time. Where two lives are jeopardized and only one can be saved, to save the one who is your father may be an act of loyalty but not an act of justice. Thus, in behavioral terms, gratitude and loyalty are interteporal commitments not to be impartial — not to use future knowledge and future moral assessments to produce that result which you would otherwise consider best, if confronting the same individuals for the first time. From this perspective, loyalty, promises, patriotism, gratitude, precedents, oaths of fealty, constitutions, marriage, social traditions, and international treaties are all constrictions imposed earlier, when knowledge is less, on options to be exercised later, when knowledge will be greater.
All of those things … loyalty, constitutions, marriage, etc. … have been lauded and revered by those with a constrained vision. The process costs entailed by intertemporal commitments depend on (1) how much more knowledge, rationality, and impartiality human beings are capable of bringing to bear as a result of the passage of time and (2) on the cost of accepting the disadvantages of moment-to-moment decision-making.
There are other rewards for loyalty, promises, constitutions, marriage etc. that are honored that sometime aren’t factored in to the calculations. And costs when they are not.