Philosophical Foundations: Why I don’t do what I know is good for me sometimes
A key idea that the self-control advocates out there make (whether or not they use this language) is to understand and differentiate first order desires from second order desires. Basically, this is a way to think about how we can have internal conflict about what we want. Say I have a desire to lose some weight. There is a real goal and the desire to achieve that result is also real. We can ask and clarify why you want this specific goals as a way to strengthen your resolve, which is much of what “motivational interviewing” as a technique does. Through motivational interviewing the person gets the opportunity to consider the positives and negatives to changing and not changing as a way to clarify why they want this goal (often as it is linked to some behavior change.) One also can explore potential obstacles to this change and plan out strategies to handle these obstacles along the way. This longer term view is in contrast to the desires of the here and now, the first order desire. This comes up all the time when someone has the feeling that they don’t want to go to the gym or stay consistent on their diet. This first order desire is in conflict to the second order desire. And for many of us, the first order desire wins out, at least some of the time.
This observation however, of conflicting desires isn’t new, it didn’t even begin with Sigmund Freud, who advocated for a liberation of sorts to pursue more of these first level desires and not be constrained to “self-control” which he saw as related to restrictive religious views that need to be overcome. We actually find discussions on internal conflict going back to Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, he explained all of our decision making in terms of what we perceive as good in the moment. So, if you have a desire to lose weight as a good you pursue, and then choose to not do your workout, his explanation is that in that moment you believed that resting, not going to the gym was a better “good” in a sense. Whether or not you are correct, for Plato it comes down to our ability to access the truth and our perceptions of the good. In his view, the choices we make order our soul in certain ways (remember he is not using soul with any specific religious connotation, simply as a description of the non-material explanation for our desires and actions). If we continue to give in to base desires for food, sex, and comfort it will lead that portion of the soul to rule over the other parts, however if we follow reason, then in his account we will have a properly ordered soul (or psyche in the Greek).
Aristotle however gave a different account. His account looks at personal habits and past experiences as more than our perception of the good. He observed that some people choose to avoid the thing they want because they’ve been habituated in a way to make it harder for them to do the act, they stated they wanted. Sure you may want to act courageously, but if you have acted as a coward most of your life, the likelihood that you know how to act courageously and then will be courageous in the moment of need is not very likely. He calls this state “akrasia” which is a state of being where you act against your better judgment because of a weakness of will. The weak will is connected to your habits and your daily choices. As we choose to give into first order desires, we develop habits and those habits inform our character which then strongly influences future choices we make.
For Plato and Aristotle however, they analyzed personal desires and considered this to be part of the human condition to struggle with various desires and to various degrees. One distinction that Aristotle makes regarding desire is that he noticed outwardly two people could act identically (both showing self-restraint in the face of temptation) but internally could be very different. One type of internal state is a state of self-discipline or self-control. Internally I want to eat the whole cake, or have one too many drinks or whatever it may be but my habits and choices make it so I don’t go through with it. This person is able to exercise control over their desires, and restrain them through habit and will. This however still doesn’t achieve the idea of virtue (human excellences), at least in the way the Plato and Aristotle would have conceived it.
There is a second person, who also shows self-restraint in the face of temptation, but the source of that restraint is the virtue of temperance or moderation which is one of the 4 key virtues to living a good life. Temperance is the knowledge and ability to want to do the right thing to the extent and then fulfill that. So, the temperate person has practiced and become the kind of person who doesn’t want to eat the whole cake or get drunk or whatever it may be. And this is a key distinction that we can use to evaluate our own actions and behaviors. First off, are you exercising self-restraint? Are you able to say no when you’ve had enough? If so, great. If not, why not? But secondly, when you say no to too much are you holding back, like a dog on a leash trying to get at the bone, or do you say no (or yes in many cases, being temperate is about saying yes to the right kinds of things as well) because you don’t want to have too much? The virtuous person actually wants what is good for themselves (which is this case is the right amount of the thing in question). A way to conceptualize this is to perhaps recognize temperance is what can allow our first and second order desires to come into alignment, so that there isn’t the internal struggle, but you are at peace with yourself and your desires. Self-control and discipline are good and useful, but true virtue, i.e., human excellence happens when our internal state is in alignment with what we’ve deemed good according to reason. And the reason this is good, and even better than self-control alone is because when we are temperate, when we are virtuous, we aren’t fighting against our desires trying to overcome them, we are free to desire, because our desires have been trained, educated, and formed towards what is actually good.
To sum up key takeaways: First, evaluate your own actions and daily choices. What kind of person are they leading you to be? When faced with temptation, are you able to show self-restraint? If so, how, and more importantly why? If you have to white knuckle it every time you are around a cake, or shopping, or a Casino that goes to show how your first and second order desires are still in great conflict. Second takeaway, if you struggle establishing those second order desires, the long term goals for health and happiness, Motivational Interviewing may be a helpful technique you can use to get clarity about what you want and why you want it.
In one final post on this topic I will discuss a more robust account of our desires gone awry through the discussion of addiction.