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Scouting the Territory of Self-Control

An Essay by Trevor Stone

Spring 2001, Senior, University of Colorado

Presented to the Rocky Mountain Student Philosophy Conference in February, 2002


Dissatisfied with psychological and philosophical theories of self-control and weakness of will, I wrote this paper to guide moral thought in these areas. I distinguish and discuss three types of self-control -- automatic, semiconscious, and fully conscious, presenting ways in which each are morally significant. I also distinguish three types of weakness of will, passionate, inactive, and arbitrary and propose moral solutions for the first two, using addiction as the primary example. The solutions include environmental manipulation and manipulation of cognitive representations.


Self-control is one of the least well defined and understood aspects of moral philosophy and psychology. Most people understand the phrase "self-control" and can identify its occurrence, or at least its absence. However, psychologists and other scientists have made very little headway in understanding the phenomenon of self-control or, perhaps more importantly, lack thereof. And while akrasia, or weakness of will, has been a topic of philosophical discourse since Socrates, few if any philosophers have satisfactorily explained the role of self-control in moral activity. With this background, I set out to clarify the problem space, as it were, of self-control.

Definitions and Assumptions

The following exploration makes some assumptions about moral psychology. The first is that a person's cognitive faculty can, through rational processes, come to a "reasoned decision" which acts as a motivation. This assumption is standard in, if not necessary for, normative ethics.

The second assumption is that nonrational processes are also present as motivation. These have been called emotions and passions, the distinction is not important here. Emotions certainly interact with the rational mind, as they function in part based on mental representation, but they are distinguished by the fact that no reasoning takes place in determining the objective of their motivation.

Third, motivations sometimes conflict; the resolution process is poorly understood by philosophers and psychologists alike. The word "will" is somewhat nebulous, but it might be described as the extra oomph added to a reasoned motivation which helps it overcome a nonreasoned emotion. A weak willed (akratic) individual has difficulty overcoming nonreasoned motivation, while a strong willed individual is able to execute decisions without much internal strife.

Furthermore, akrasia comes in varied forms. Most people are familiar with passionate akrasia, where a person decides to do one thing but is overcome by strong emotional drives to the contrary. Arbitrary akrasia is where a person decides to do one thing and then does another without apparent motivation. I further want to distinguish "inactive akrasia" from passionate akrasia. "Passionate" implies an active and forceful internal process, driving a person to do something. Inactive akrasia occurs when a person decides to do something, but then doesn't make a sufficient effort to that end.

Some philosophers have equated the verb "will" with "assent to." Uniting the two presupposes several psychological issues. Intuitively, it seems that will is perhaps a stronger form, that one can assent to something but not will it. In any case, "will" can certainly be used to mean "decide to."

I take "self-control" to mean a process where one part or aspect of a person determines the activity of another. A business may serve as an apt analogy -- a manager determines how employees will spend their time. This definition encompasses several aspects of behavior, only some of which are normally considered to be part of the moral sphere. I use this sense of self-control in this paper with an eye to healthy types of control.

Levels of Self-control

One problem with past philosophical views of self-control was their lack of distinctions between different types of self-control. I will now attempt to helpfully categorize self-control. The first division to make is between unconscious, semiconscious, and fully conscious action.

Automatic/Physiological Self-Control

First, the above definition encompasses automatic processes. A part of the brain regulates the heartbeat, for instance. This is not often thought of as self-control, nor is it given any moral significance. Partly, heart rate is a basic physical function, and the will doesn't play a part. Beyond that, it isn't captured by the usual sense of "self-control" or "will" because it is an unconscious process. We don't classify ordinary breathing as even physical self-control, but may apply the term to regulated meditative breaths in a hectic situation. This is not to say that automatic body processes are without value; quite the contrary, we assign great value to a correctly working heart and other organs. Furthermore, if a person's behavior restricts her body's ability to perform autoregulation, we may well put forth moral disapproval. Such action, however, is intentioned and at least semiconscious, and so falls within the domain of reason-based ethics. Unconscious body regulation does not. We can safely absolve it of moral standing.

Semiconscious Self-Control

By semiconscious, I mean actions of which the agent is aware (at least sometimes), but which occur without a rational decision one way or the other. This covers instinctual and habitual actions like diving out of the way of a speeding car or saying "thanks" when someone holds a door. It also includes actions which aren't split-second responses -- absentmindedly fetching a bag of chips from the kitchen and eating half of them while thinking about a problem, for instance. It certainly seems appropriate to call this behavior willed (in the assenting sense), but in a fairly weak way -- automatic processes are at work, though they are not necessarily the only factors. This type of action is very typical of children and "childish" behavior, but also makes up a significant portion of the everyday lives of many adults.

We tend to make different moral claims about different types of semiconscious action. When someone makes a split-second dive to save a child in danger, we praise her for a good deed. However, the person who doesn't react to the situation in time or in a helpful way is not to be blamed. "He couldn't think of what to do in time" and "He panicked" are both acceptable excuses which leave the (non)agent free from blame.

We aren't likely to value as truthtelling habituated responses to questions like "What time is it?" or "What's your name?" We are also not likely to give habitual etiquette the same moral status as etiquette in deliberate processes. These sorts of actions share much with unconscious actions, and so are out of the moral domain for similar reasons of automaticity. However, if a person lacks such a habit, we may make a moral claim, or at least think he has a character flaw. Furthermore, if a particular semiconscious action tends to be problematic, we are liable to advise against it on moral grounds. If we see a chronic overeater absentmindedly head for the chips, we are apt to remind her that she ought not eat so much. This normative claim is somewhat complex. We aren't criticizing eating generally, since that's a vital human function. We also aren't really criticizing the particular act of consumption, although we may raise the issue when the overeater grabs a doughnut but not a carrot. What we are criticizing, by and large, is a pattern of behavior which results in an unhealthy and undesired body. The solution recommended morally is for the person to be more conscious about her dietary habits. This is also a popular solution offered by clinical psychologists. The addicts who succeed in recovery are distinguished by self-monitoring, self-regulating, self-evaluating, and self-rewarding behavior. Essentially, the moral claim is that the agent should upgrade her semiconscious action to the fully conscious level so that it can be operated on in the moral and rational sphere.

Some semiconscious habits deserve moral approval. An overeater might cultivate a counterhabit, such as drumming her fingers when she has the desire to snack. While this habit is not fully conscious, it was acquired intentionally and with conscious effort, and we thus ought to approve.

Fully Conscious Self-control

At the fully conscious level we find the examples of self-control and will referred to by their colloquial uses. James Wilson presents a definition in line with conventional ideas about self control. By his account, a person displays self-control when she foregoes immediate pleasure for long term self-interest. Examples of this sort of behavior are numerous -- a student bypasses a party in favor of studying for a test, a diner bypasses desert to avoid gaining weight, a potential thief is dissuaded by the potential of legal repercussions. In these cases, the agent has a distinct reasoned goal in mind. This goal serves as a motivating factor competing with other motivations to produce a final action. Here a person is said to successfully exercise self-control if reason wins out in the "struggle of motivations" and to be weak willed if it does not.

Oddly enough, we don't apply the term self-control to cases in which reason is the sole motivator or when multiple sources of motivation all drive towards the same goal. I attribute this to the fact that in colloquial usage, self-control is perhaps better expressed as self-restraint. For my purposes, I will consider such actions to be examples of self-control, although they are not as interesting as cases of conflict.

The reason I want to maintain the distinction between self-restraint and self-control is that self-control, or at least will, can also inspire a person to action. Procrastination and related states like sloth are states in which an agent has reached a reasoned decision to pursue some end or take some action, but this motivation has lost its competition with other motivators, which are in this case rather inertial. The term for the trait needed for overcoming them is perhaps most appropriately "self-discipline," but they certainly fit within the domain of fully conscious self-control outlined above. Logical trickery might recast procrastination in terms of self-restraint: to overcome procrastination, one must refrain from not acting. However, collapsing this distinction by double-negation doesn't acknowledge the large experiential difference between overcoming impulse and overcoming inaction. Others might attribute this experiential difference to different underlying emotions. Sloth, laziness, and psychological inertia are the same sort of thing as anger, lust, and object desire. I still think that there is a distinction to be made, even between these groups of emotions. The trick to overcoming the later is generally to stop doing something, the solution to the first is to start doing something. Merely cutting off the experience of sloth may inspire a person to action, but it may well be mindless action to keep busy, not the planned action. Similarly, doing something else to avoid anger often leaves the anger boiling, ready to lash out at slight provocation later.

Fully conscious self-control also covers arbitrary willed actions. The transition from the proposition "I will pick up my fork" to the action of eating a bite of salad proves interesting in the context of the mind-body problem, but isn't an ethically interesting example of self-control. If a person desires to lift his hand but does not, we blame a physical or neurological condition, not a lack of self-control or a weak will. This degree of control may serve as the ideal for motivational self-control, but it seems dubious that humans are able to obtain such a level.

Not only does Wilson's account of self-control leave out self-discipline, it leaves out several other actions which are fairly obvious cases of self-control. The definition is too self-centered and its timeframe is too rigid. Suppose an angered person wishes to strike the object of his frustration. He might refrain from doing so for several reasons: the desire not to be arrested, the desire not to get hit in return, or the desire that his would-be opponent not be hurt. Wilson's definition of long-term interest over short-term pleasure only gives the first reason the moniker of self-control. However, in the second case the angered individual chooses between two immediate pleasures -- his anger release and freedom from personal injury. In the final situation, the concern is for another's immediate well-being. It seems that the only differing factor in these three cases is the particular end in mind; the underlying psychological phenomenon seems the same. In all three cases, the agent exercised restraint over his anger motivation.

Consider also the person who is studying for an important test. A friend calls her long-distance after learning of a maintenance emergency in his home. The friend requests the student to spend a few hours to save his home. The student's first response may be to ask the friend to ask for help from someone else, as the student has studying to do. However, after slight reflection, most people would oblige the request. In this case, self-restraint has held back an impulse to pursue long-term self-interest in favor of long-term other-interest.

We can also think of examples in which an agent selects rational short-term interest over rational long-term interest through self-control. The same student might notice the lovely spring weather and decide to risk a worse grade in favor of an afternoon of enjoyment. After all, she asks, what's the point of living if you don't enjoy yourself on a nice day once in a while? This is successful, rather than failed, self-restraint because she chooses the rationally determined goal is selected rather than that of first impulse.

Moral Claims About Fully Conscious Self-Control

Obviously, fully conscious self-control has a significant place in the moral sphere. One approach treats it functionally: quality of will is determined by how well it translates reasoned decisions into actions. However, making moral claims about self-control itself is often problematic. In any ethical system wholly concerned with reasoning, self-control is postulated as a prerequisite to moral evaluation. The problem of passionate akrasia is presented and solved in a number of ways, but the general issue is as follows. Morality is the practice of deciding to do the right thing instead of the wrong thing and then doing that thing. If a person decides that A is the right course to pursue, but is overcome by anger or lust, they haven't acted immorally, since their action wasn't a reasoned decision, but rather a passion. This point depends, to some extent, on Kant's principle that "ought" implies "can." If the agent cannot keep his passions in check and pursue his reasoned end then by modus tolens we can't say that he ought to do so in that case.

It seems to me that this view does not tell the psychological story at all. Consider sports as a helpful analogy. When a batter strikes out, we do not say that he cannot hit the ball, since he has in the past. The appropriate assessment of his ability is that he can sometimes hit the ball. A batter's performance is influenced by a number of factors. Against a star Major League pitcher, a college player can't really be faulted for missing the ball -- the result is out of his control. But sometimes we can assign blame -- the batter blinked at the wrong time, misjudged for a change-up, or let an easy pitch go by. With this analogy as a guide, we can begin to draw moral lines in self-control. No blame should be assigned in cases where the rational mind truly lacks control, for instance falling asleep after 72 hours awake or ducking at the rapid approach of an object. On the other hand, since people often overcome anger, we can criticize on moral grounds a person when he fails to do so in non-extenuating circumstances.

We might try to refine our moral judgment further by moving from results to psychological processes. Suppose we follow Kant's lead and say that motivation, not results, is the locus of moral worth. With this guide, we approve of both the student who writes her paper on time and the student who tries, but finds himself too distracted by his desire to enjoy the spring. We disapprove, however, of the student who heads outside without trying to write. In the first case, we managed to distinguish between "can" and "cannot" on an individual event, rather than on usual capacity.

But basing moral judgment wholly on motivation is almost as unhelpful an action guide as morality which ignores weakness of will. The case of addiction can demonstrate why. Essentially by definition, an addict lacks self-control over a particular action. If we base moral judgment on motivation, we are to applaud the addict who wants to quit and undergoes internal strife as he consumes the baneful substance. However, we normally disapprove of such actions and do so morally insofar as they affect the addict's family, friends, and peers. We may commend them for trying, but still make a normative claim about the act itself. Addiction is a problem because of its disastrous effects; if we don't normatively distinguish between those who quit and those who merely want to, our disapprobation merely produces depression and turmoil, not healthy recoverees. But if the alcoholic at a party has as little psychological and physical power to stop drinking as a normal person has to stay awake after three days, criticizing his behavior seems to contradict the above point about ought/can situations. However, this conflict can be resolved by taking a broader view of the action. The case of addiction may prove illuminating.

Overcoming Akrasia

Addiction recovery is a complex process. The solution varies significantly from addict to addict. However, environmental change is the most important aspect in a lot of cases. By carefully selecting where he goes, what he does, and who he spends time with while his rational mind has a significant degree of influence, the addict can successfully keep his substance use in check. We should still think of this as self-control, and of a rather enlightened kind. Nodding to Plato's metaphor of the soul, the best way to control a vicious and deadly beast is to keep it locked in a cage rather than trying to keep hold of its leash. Expressed in other terms, this is avoidance-oriented coping.

Armed with strategies like avoidance, we can make the following sort of normative claim. "Knowing you have a problem saying no to alcohol, you made a rational decision to attend the frat party. While I cannot morally criticize you for filling your glass and getting drunk, I can criticize you for deciding to go out in the first place." This brings morality back to the rational level, which makes ethical theories easier to construct and understand. It also provides context and methods for shaping behavior effectively. With the right self-knowledge and wise strategy selection, an agent can exercise self-control in situations which might otherwise be difficult or impossible. Moral claims at this level also avoid the very difficult task of determining what actions are or are not possible in a given instance. We have reached a happy medium in which helpful behaviors are prescribed, moral worth is assigned in cases where moral reasoning is efficacious, and non-moral actions with poor results are noticed and correctable.

Of course, avoidance strategies cannot cure all passionate akrasia. Avoidance allows a person to act on her long-term interest by removing the possible short-term temptation. But this strategy cannot be effectively used when the nature of possible self-control conflicts is unknown. It is best used as a defense against a known problem. A more general classification can be used, however. As Endler and Kocovski state, "Rothbaum, Weisz, and Snyder (1982) outlined two processes that form adaptation. These are primary control, changing the environment to suit the self, and secondary control, changing the self to suit the environment."

These principles may be best illustrated by the person in need of self-discipline. A writer may change the environment by, for instance, handcuffing himself to his desk. Thus constructed, the environment prevents him from responding to many distractions, but it cannot guard against daydreaming. To that end, he may turn to physiological means like smoking a cigarette to stay focused. I find that listening to heavy metal or techno music puts me into a psycho-physiological state which is more resilient to distractions than I am otherwise.

Furthermore, a person can sometimes discover self-discipline by changing their cognitive representation of the situation. Within the framework of competition or hardship, a person may be more motivated to perform the task at hand. I find that no matter how cognitively clear my desire to research and write a paper early, I am unable to write at any efficient level unless the deadline is extremely imminent, imposing a race against the clock. I have yet to discover a way to instill this realization artificially.

The other moral advice we can give to the akratic is to maintain self-awareness. The first step in most addiction recovery programs is to admit to having a problem. Endler and Kocovsky report that not performing the following tasks are obstacles to effective self-regulation: goal setting, self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement. These all fall under the umbrella of self-awareness, a largely rational and mentally controllable phenomenon. Self-awareness also aids the casual or surprise akratic. When an individual finds herself lacking in will, an effective approach may be to self-reflect, acknowledge the problematic influences, and think of a way to overcome them. Thus, the solution to impulsive anger is to step back, blow off any steam in a non-harmful way, and then discuss the issue with the aggravator. This solution has the added benefit of providing both the short-term pleasure, releasing anger, and the long-term benefit, maintaining good relations with the other person.

Odds and Ends: Metaself-Control

As Wilson points out, people who always exercise self-control are not considered especially virtuous, but instead obsessive-compulsive. However, in the obsessive's case, it seems that self-control is both a passion and an action, just as sex drive is a passion with a thin line from action for the nymphomaniac. And as we urge the nymphomaniac to exercise self-control over his sex drive, so we might ask the obsessive to exercise self-control over self-control. In the context of Wilson's definition, we might say that metaself-control applies when the short-term option is, overall, better than the long-term option. In almost any situation, experiencing three hours of bliss now is certainly preferable to receiving $5 next month.

In the broader sense of self-control that I defined, metaself-control can be seen as an opportunity to rationally be irrational. Game theorists have noted that, in some situations, the maximal rational self-interested strategy is to make your opponent doubt the player's sanity. An example is the game of chicken in which two cars drive straight at each other, the first one to swerve looses; if the cars crash, both players lose. If a player makes a show of removing his car's steering wheel, his opponent's best option is to swerve, since the alternative is a head-on collision. Similarly, irrational behavior may be in a person's best interest from a personal and social perspective. On the individual level, many people, upon consideration, consider their reason for living is to engage fun or entertaining activity. Such activity, especially spontaneously, is often detrimental to the person's self interest, classically defined, but to deny value to the pursuit of life purpose is surely absurd. And from the social end, many great effects are brought about by irrational behavior. Wilson cites heroism. Instinctual protection of children is a very key evolutionary capability which, on calm consideration, is a quite irrational behavior. I believe that much of the world's great works of art are produced through irrational means. A metaself-control bumper sticker might read "Moderation in all things, including moderation."

Bibliographical Notes

From the beginning, I intended to write this paper about self-control. My intention was to look through some philosophical and psychological writings about self-control and find a subtopic which grabbed my eye, probably along the lines of self-discipline. However, I discovered that most writings on self-control focused on self-restraint or arbitrary akrasia. In a compilation volume from the mid-1990s titled _Volition and Personality_, Gery Beswick and Leon Mann state "To date, there is no psychological theory concerning procrastination, only a few hypotheses, most of which are concerned with the antecedents of procrastinatory behavior, rather than the nature and expression of the dilatory state itself." From the philosophical side, I found that most philosophers devoted their efforts to eliminating akrasia by definitions, rather than commenting about the all too common occurrence of weakness of will. I came to the conclusion that the domain of self-control is in need of categorical refinement, and so used the majority of the material below to provide possible dividing lines. The only material of concrete use were short sections in the first two volumes below.

My experience writing this paper, as I expected, was an example of inactive akrasia. I was fully aware of the deadline long in advance, and spent a fair amount of time mulling over various approaches and points. However, reasoned decision was an insufficient motivator until it was almost too late. For some odd reason, I always take until the last possible moment to finish a project, no matter how early I get started. Now that I have this instance of self-awareness, I need to develop a strategy to best utilize my resources. I am developing a multi-aspect strategy which includes physiological regulation through music and drinks, environmental controls of restrained motion, and attempted "brute force trying" willpower. The last remains a problem, as it is rather ill-defined.

Wilson, James Q. (1993). The Moral Sense. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Endler, Norman S. & Kocovski, Nancy L. (2000). "Self-Regulation and Distress in Clinical Psychology." In Boekaerts, Monique, Pintrich, Paul R., & Zeidner, Moshe (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation. San Diego: Academic Press. (Other portions of this book proved useful thinking guides, as noted above.)
Kuhl, Julius & Beckmann, Jürgen (Eds.) (1995). Volition and Personality. Bern: Hogrefe & Huber. Gosling, Justin (1990). Weakness of the Will. London: Routledge.

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