Originally published in the Daily Maverick
It is common knowledge – or at least, it should be – that many of us exhibit significant flexibility in terms of the selves we present to others in different contexts. We might affect an accent in one context but not in another, or pretend to care more about a particular issue when trying to engage with someone who is concerned about that issue. And as much as we might not like to think about such things, our own perceptions of self are notoriously unreliable, and we are equally unreliable in recognising this.
Part of the reason for this is the pragmatism that underlies the ways in which we gather and weigh evidence. We’ve made an investment in respect of self-identity – not only because our conception of self assists us in dealing with the perennial questions of what to do next, or how to interpret some new information, but also because that conception of self is how we have presented ourselves to others. It is thus part of the framework and foundation for the friends we make, or the people we marry.
I’ve always thought it a virtue to think about how that identity is constructed, in an effort to ensure that it is coherent and consistent. As with all virtues, this does not mean that one always succeeds. We might like to consistently be angered by the same sorts of expressed sentiments, or made happy by the same sorts of experiences as our historical selves. But not only do we change over time, we are also subject to unpredictable whims and changes of mood.
So it would be impossibly demanding to expect complete consistency from a person. Yet, this does not argue against consistency as being something desirable, or a virtue that we should aspire to practising. After all, our social connections are premised on us being (roughly) the same person today as we were yesterday, and being the same person means having largely consistent reactions, beliefs and dispositions as past selves did. We might hope, at the least, to be able to track the development from one point of view to another, so as to be able to trust that our attitudes are not randomly generated.
Because of the difficulty involved in self-management, we often tend to make rules for ourselves. For example, because it is often impossible to know whether it’s the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or nth glass of wine that will be the cause of our not being able to finish that item of work that’s due tomorrow, we might govern ourselves by the rule that two glasses are all that’s permitted on a “school night”.
The psychologist and behavioural economist George Ainslie calls these rules “bright lines”. They need to be clear and unambiguous in order to regulate our behaviour – we might stop drinking entirely, or stop smoking or gambling, or instead we might pick some clear dividing line between one amount of a vice and another amount. But whatever the principle is, it needs to be absolute and inflexible, so that we can count on it having force in those circumstances where we might otherwise fall victim to weakness of will.
But notice that in choosing these absolute principles, we also narrativise them, and our adherence to them, as evidence for strength of will – forgetting that they are in fact a reaction to acknowledged weaknesses of will. The rules allow us to regulate our behaviour, while at the same time validating our characters in doing that regulation. We might think: I am a person who (proudly) allows myself just this much, and no more, because I am in control.
I’d have to admit that many of my own personal rules have historically involved this sort of absolutism – in principle, I’ve trusted my sense of what worked for me and what didn’t, as we all do. Listing the sorts of rules involved can be quite a humbling experience, in that laid bare, they tend towards making us appear rather small-minded. This is certainly true in my case. To give you a hint: Strangers were to be avoided, dancing was tedious, and small-talk dulled and diluted any pleasure that could be had in company.
The concern we should all have about these sorts of rules, though, is around how quickly they 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 in accord with precedents – in other words, deciding that today’s choice sets a benchmark for future choices – has potentially serious side effects, which could combine to make future behaviour more compulsive rather than less. And this is exactly what you are hoping to avoid when indentifying any such precedents and forming associated rules.
One such consequence could be an increasing rigidity in our choice-making: When a choice is framed as satisfying a precedent, we’re perhaps less able to identify the independent merits of that choice and its consequent experiences, leading to a narrowing of our future options. Also, any lapse that you identify as a precedent reduces your hope for self-control in similar situations in the future – meaning that our future selves might engage with those future situations somewhat fatalistically, and without our best chance at self-control.
We’d of course also be incentivised not to recognise many of these lapses, because the principles we’ve arrived at – as well as their application – are now definitive of self. Gaps in our awareness of our own behaviour seem a likely consequence of this. Perhaps most importantly, our 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 dominant self-control strategy, we could quite quickly end up without much of a self to control. Instead, we sit at the prow of a ship that’s on autopilot. It is therefore important to remember just how unimportant each of us as individuals are, as well as the extent to which our identities, and our understanding of those identities (which could be completely different things), are shaped by various irrational and a-rational processes. Because taking ourselves too seriously most often leads to not taking ourselves, and each other, nearly seriously enough.
Note: The title of this post is a play on the closing paragraph of Harry Frankfurt’s wonderful essay, On Bullshit, which you should read.