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A Slave to Christmas Pudding?

For many of us, there is probably no better time of year to think about weakness of will. Some will be mentally preparing themselves to resist the temptations of the Christmas table, while others, already knowing that in their case such preparations are pointless, will be assuring themselves that a new year’s resolution to revisit the gym will be enough to undo any damage. 

Consider what might seem a paradigmatic case of weakness of will. Already suffering from dangerously high blood pressure, chronic indigestion, and feelings of lethargy, I vow to resist a second helping of pudding at Christmas lunch. But when the time comes, even while reflecting on my commitment and how it is clearly in my interest to act on it, I cave in and pile up my plate, finishing with a generous helping of brandy butter. 

One of Socrates’ most famous, or infamous, claims was that no one knowingly chooses what is bad overall. So according to him, in the pudding case, it cannot be true that I know what I am doing is overall bad for me. But how can that be, when even during my indulgence I am telling myself, ‘You will regret this – you’re making a big mistake’? 

Aristotle had an answer to this. He said that, in the heat of desire, I spout my prudent words as if they were those of an actor. That is, I don’t really mean them. This seems to me one of the clearest cases of a philosopher’s reinterpreting the data of ordinary experience in the light of a theory. Neither Socrates nor Aristotle could accept that rational beings, with full knowledge of what is best, could be dragged away from that by desire, ‘like a slave’. But I continue to be surprised by the number of the students I teach who find the Socratic view persuasive. And unless I’m very different from them, one side or the other must be misunderstanding itself. So here there is a chance to do some experimental philosophy even as you enjoy your Christmas lunch. Does your self-understanding resonate with Socrates? If not, why and how does reason have these limits – if that is what they are, and Hume is likewise mistaken to see reason as always the slave of the passions?

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Isn’t the real issue here what is “best” for you?

    Yes, turning down the second helping of pudding would have some (marginal) beneficial consequence for your blood pressure, weight, etc. On the other hand, doing so would cost you the sensual and psychological gratification of eating more pudding. On the other other hand, if you choose the pudding you must acknowledge yourself as the kind of person who values short-term sensual gratification over longer-term health, which may cost you something in terms of diminished self-respect. (Or maybe it doesn’t, if you already knew that, and/or don’t care about that.)

    You weigh up all these pluses and minuses and make a balanced decision as to which course of action will tend to increase your satisfaction/welfare, and you (naturally) take more pudding. You have acted in your own best interests, exactly as Socrates said you would.

    1. I’m not so sure that Socrates was right. Imagine the following twist on your argument :

      "Yes, DSK turning down the offer of sexual gratification would have had some (marginal) beneficial consequence for his blood pressure, weight, etc. On the one hand, doing so would cost him the sensual and psychological gratification of sex with a stranger. On the other hand, if he chose the sexual activity he must have acknowledged himself as the kind of person who valued short-term sensual gratification over longer-term health, which cost him a lot in terms of renouncing the possibility of becoming president of France.
      (Or maybe it didn’t, if he already knew that, and/or didn’t care about that.)

      He weighed up all these pluses and minuses and made a balanced decision as to which course of action would tend to increase his satisfaction/welfare, and he (naturally) took more sex."

      Did he really act in his own best interests, exactly as Socrates said he would?

  2. You pick a tricky example because, of course, what DSK did or did not do is still a matter of controversy. Did he accept “an offer of sexual gratification”, or did he force himself on someone? This matters, because the damage to his political career stems from the fact that he was accused of sexual assault.

    But park that. Let’s assume he accepted an offer of a quickie and, when this came to light, a censorious public decided that he was not a fit person to be President of the Republic. In this hypothetical there was no suspicion of rape or assault.

    Did he act in his own best interests? Well, part of his calculation had to be “how likely is it that this will come to light?” Remember, if he hadn’t been accused of sexual assault, the matter would probably never have come to light, so in our hypothetical his calculation may reasonably have been that it was very unlikely to come to light. So he is balancing the fairly certain gratification of a quickie against the very uncertain damage to his political career. (Plus, we have to factor in the possibility that he is attracted to risk, so the danger to his reputation was a positive as well as a negative.)

    It seems to me that Socrates might well say that he [i]tried[/i] to act in his own best interests, but he had imperfect information. Some factor that he was unaware of at the time led to the quickie coming to light. Or, perhaps, he misjudged the tolerance of the French public for politicians indulging in quickies.

    The mere fact that the outcome of a decision, when known, does not seem to be in someone’s best interests, or that he himself acknowledges that the outcome is not in his best interests, doesn’t mean that his decision wasn’t, at the time, motivated by a judgment on his part about what would best serve the totality of his interests.

  3. You are of course quite right I shouldn't have picked the DSK case. We do not know what happened, despite the an intriguing possibility that he had had a preview of Roger's post and that he was indulging in experimental philosophy.

    More seriously, it seems to me that there is a danger in going down the "imperfect information/unawareness/misjudgement" road to justify the Socratic view : and this danger is that persons doing something perceived to be against their own best interests will be seen as deficient in some way, or subject to addictions or other compulsive behaviour.

    In fact, there are probably two risks here : one is to devalue personal decision-making ("he can't have been rational to have done that") and thus reduce the notion of autonomy and personhood. The second is to use this to justify a "big brother" appraoach : deciding for others because they are incapable of deciding "rationally" for themselves.

    1. “. . . there is a danger in going down the “imperfect information/unawareness/misjudgement” road . . . that persons perceived to be doing something against their own best interests will be seen as deficient ins ome way”

      My point with the DSK hypothetical was not that the actor was in any way deficient; it was that he did not – <i>could</i> not – have full information. He could not know whether his quickie would come to light. At best he could estimate the possibility. But lack of information about the future is in no sense a personal deficiency or failing. And, as we know, it’s a common circumstance in a great many practical ethical questions that we all have to answer.

      With the benefit of hindsight we say that having the quickie was not in the actor’s best interests because, in the event, the quickie did come to light and he lost the opportunity to become President. But if the quickie had never come to light would we say that it was not in his best interests? I think not. So, can we say that, in choosing the quickie, our actor chose to act against his own interests? No.

      Professor Crisp’s pudding example is different; there is full information. He knows, when the pudding is offered to him, exactly what gratification he will get from eating it, and exactly what the effect will be on his comfort later that afternoon, and his long-term health.

      He eats the pudding, while at the same time acknowledging that this is not in his best interests. I suggest, thought, that eating the pudding [i]is[/i] in his best interests; the disconnect lies not in eating the pudding but in telling himself that doing so is not in his best interests.

      So why does he tell himself this? Because doing so mitigates some of the adverse consequences of eating the pudding. As I pointed out earlier, accepting the pudding also involves facing up to the fact that he is the kind of person who prefers short-term gratification to long-term health, and this is not the kind of person he want to be. So he explicitly acknowledges to himself that eating the pudding is a “mistake”; thereby reassuring himself that he is not <i>wholly</i> given over to sybaritic indulgence; a part of him recognises that there is a better kind of person that he could be, and leaves open the possibility that he may yet become that better person.

      But he won’t become that better person on this particular afternoon, because it is not in his interests to do so. It would mean passing up the second helping of pudding.

  4. Thanks, both. I'm sure you're right that we need to distinguish what is really in someone's interests from what they think is in their interests. Socrates was happy to accept that people can make mistakes. But the puzzle I really wanted to raise was how we can do what we *appear* to believe — without any hesitation — will make us worse off. I suppose there might be some kind of 'dual process' explanation here. That aspect of our minds which is really in the driving seat is making the decision that having the pudding is the best option, but the news that's delivered to consciousness is somehow distorted. If anything like that is true, of course, we're in even less control of our actions than we thought (if our selves are at least closely related, if not identical with, our consciousness).

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