Bright lines

Because it’s more difficult to know whether the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or nth glass of wine will be the one to prevent us from finishing that item of work that’s due tomorrow, we look for what Ainslie calls “bright lines” to regulate our behaviour – we stop drinking, or we stop smoking or gambling, because by choosing absolute principles, and narrativising them as evidence of strength of will, we can regulate our behaviour while at the same time validate our characters in doing so.

I’ve never considered myself a Kantian in terms of moral principles, but have to admit that many personal rules have involved a sort of absolutism – in principle, I’ve trusted my sense of what worked for me and what didn’t. For example, strangers were to be avoided, dancing was tedious, and small-talk dulled and diluted any pleasure that could be had in company. The concern that has emerged of late is how quickly these personal rules can “set”, and how they can develop into mechanisms by which you exclude yourself from the very things that the rules were designed to safeguard. For instance, a prohibition on small-talk means that you never get to have those conversations which start small (possibly even with strangers) and then develop into vital and meaningful interactions.

More precisely, developing one’s will according to precedents – ie. deciding that today’s choice sets a benchmark for future choices – has four potentially serious side effects, which combine to make future behaviour more compulsive rather than less. Which is exactly what you want to avoid when settling on these precedents.

    When a choice is framed as satisfying a precedent, you’re less able to experience that choice, and the consequent experience, for what they are, and your choice-making becomes rigid.
    A lapse that you identify as a precedent reduces your hope for self-control in similar situations in the future – and this reduction recursively reduces your power of self-control in those situations.
    The incentive not to recognise a lapse (you’d not want to recognise lapses, because the principles – and their application – are now definitive of self) may lead to gaps in your awareness of your own behaviour.
    Your choice-making can become overly concrete and unsubtle, in that explicit criteria for defining lapses will tend to replace subtle ones.

In summary, when personal rules become our predominant self-control strategy, we may quite quickly end up without a self to control – we instead sit at the prow of a ship that’s on autopilot. It has been remarkably satisfying for me to take some control back, and get an immediate, rather than theoretical, understanding of something I’ve believed for years – that Sartre was on to something quite crucial when speaking of authenticity, and the loss of self that creeps up on us so easily, and so surreptitiously.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.