Aristotle on Failure of Self-Control

was .

The morning was our coordinating committee meeting, in which the general membership formally decides on things like objectives, a budget, and any proposals that need consensus approval. No big news to report here. Like many such groups in our sour economy, NWTRCC has a thinner-than-usual budget to work with, but we adjusted as best we could and devoted some extra energy to fundraising to compensate.

The afternoon was taken up by counselor training, in which experienced resisters shared techniques and experiences and shared wisdom hard-earned from many encounters with the tax collector, so that we can go back home and be better-informed counselors who can help new resisters and prospective resisters pick the tax resistance techniques that work best for them.

I wish I had been taking better notes in this section so I could share more of this here, but I was feeling like trying to participate in a less journalistic role. Suffice it to say this was one of my favorite parts of the weekend: dense with information and experience.

In the third section of the seventh book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle continues to dig into the mysteries of lack of self-control (or, “incontinence” in the Ross translation).

In the previous section, Aristotle noted the various and conflicting philosophical and popular notions about self-control and its absence. In this section he intends to dump the ones that are no good and to pull the remainder together into something coherent and useful.

Among the questions Aristotle thinks need to be addressed are these:

  • When a person fails to exercise self control, is he or she acting wrongly in spite of knowing better, or as an example of not knowing better?
  • If the former, what sort of knowledge is this that seems so feeble in guiding the behavior of the person without self-control?
  • Is self-control domain-specific, that is, does it apply to certain temptations or varieties of temptation and not others, or is it more of a general thing having to do with temptation in general?
  • Are self-control (resisting the temptation of pleasure) and endurance (putting up with pain) two aspects of the same basic character trait, or are they distinct?
  • Is self-control (and its absence) distinguished by the object matter (the things that are so tempting that they cause lack of self-control) or by the attitude of the subject (the way in which these tempting things are pursued), or by some combination of the two?
  • What is the relation between self-control and temperance?

The last question is easy to answer: it’s all in the attitude. The intemperate person gives into temptation because he or she doesn’t see anything wrong in doing so. The incontinent person, on the other hand, gives into temptation despite at least seeming to have had inclinations to the contrary.

Aristotle wants to entertain the idea that there is a sort of in-between state between having knowledge and not having it. He says that people who are asleep, insane, intoxicated, infuriated, carried away by lust, and other such things, can enter states in which their behavior is not influenced in a reasonable way by their knowledge. Incontinence, he says, is probably some sort of mental condition like these.

The fact that incontinent people can articulate the right decisions they should have made and the right reasons for those neglected decisions just means that they know enough to fake it — like “actors on the stage.” They haven’t internalized and identified with the ethics they’ve learned to pantomime — they know the words, but not the music.

What sort of ignorance is someone exhibiting who behaves at one moment as though they knew right from wrong and who nonetheless the next minute does the wrong thing? Aristotle suggests that it is ignorance of particulars, not of universals that is to blame. This is terminology associated with the syllogism:

universal premiseAll men are mortal
particular premiseSocrates is a man
conclusionSocrates is mortal

When carried away by a passion or overwhelmed by temptation, you lose track of the particular. There are two types of premise: subjective and objective. A subjective particular premise might be “I am a man,” while an objective particular premise might be “Socrates is a man.” Aristotle says it stretches credibility to think that you’d lose track of a subjective particular premise, but it’s entirely possible that your vision might get cloudy about objective particular premises.

Our ethical reasoning has, according to Aristotle, this syllogistic form. We have moral codes, in the form of universal premises, and we understand the world around us in terms of particular premises that sometimes lock into one or more of these universal premises and compel us to realize a conclusion, which, in the case of ethical reasoning, should also compel an action (or compel us to desist from an action).

One possibility is that the person without self-control has conflicting universal premises that haven’t been well-integrated. So if, for instance, you have the universals of “eat delicious food at every opportunity” and “don’t take what does not belong to you” and you find a chocolate eclair in the fridge at work, what do you do? On spotting the eclair you form the two particular premises “that eclair does not belong to me” and “that eclair is delicious food” and come to two contradictory conclusions: “don’t take it!” and “eat it!”

Aristotle says that because the “eat it!” case has a sensual desire associated with it, where as the “don’t take it!” case does not, it is that much easier to translate the “eat it!” conclusion into actual action, and so it can win out in the weak person. Somehow, the presumptive conclusion (“eat it”) combined with the sensual desire blinds the incontinent person to the inconvenient facts (“that’s not yours”) that might interfere with the satisfaction of the desire.

I don’t know if I’d restrict this to sensual desire, the way Aristotle does. I think things like fear of social ostracization, lust for power or prestige, anticipation of financial reward, and things like that can be just as blinding. But I’m willing to accept the idea that it is particular premises, not universal ones, that are what get disrupted in the incontinent person.

(You may notice that this seems to have circled around to the idea that incontinence is a variety of ignorance — Socrates’s idea that Aristotle seemed hostile to at first. Aristotle acknowledges this in this section.)

I wish he’d say a bit more (maybe he will) about what happens when two rules of behavior collide like this. The incontinent person says “two rules conflict, telling me to do opposite things? which one will feel better?” Whereas the wiser person says something like “two rules conflict, telling me to do opposite things? which one is more important here, or is there a third rule that governs cases like this, or can I reformulate the rules in a justifiable way so they don’t conflict anymore?”

The debate about tax resistance as it’s conducted by people who aren’t resisters and who disapprove of resistance often resolves into a debate about particular premises: “Taxation is theft.” “No it isn’t.” “If you pay taxes you are complicit in what the government does with the money.” “No you aren’t.” All of this involves jockeying on the playing field of universal ethical premises (“Being robbed is bad and to be avoided” or “Being complicit in mass slaughter, torture, and other such crimes is bad and to be avoided”) in the hopes of compelling (or at least justifying) behavior.

It looks like it’s a stretch to see this as a problem of self-control / continence. Sometimes war tax resisters, for example, will look at other folks in the peace movement and ask, incredulously, “how can you pay to support what you say you oppose?” as though it were a matter of having drawn an obvious conclusion from preexisting premises and uncontrovertable facts and then, incontinently perhaps, disregarding the conclusion. But it seems like something more than simple sensual desire is causing people to reject particular premises like “taxation is theft" or “taxpaying makes you complicit.” There are complex institutions and webs of propaganda designed to justify the opposite conclusions (and it might even be that one or both of those premises are false, in which case rejecting them would be entirely rational).

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics