If we sincerely believe that a particular choice is the right one to make, all things considered, then how is it possible that we can voluntarily do something else? It’s not true that we’re weak willed; rather, our behavioural choices reveal our true values. Rebecca Roache shows how lessons from Socrates and R.M. Hare can help us boost productivity and life satisfaction.
Rebecca Roache will be speaking at the IAI's upcoming music and ideas festival HowTheLightGetsIn alongside Daniel Dennett, Brian Greene, Fiona Hill, Roger Penrose and many, many more. Explore the full programme and book your tickets here.
It might feel pretty obvious to you that you’re weak-willed. You feel it, after all - every time you find yourself hitting the snooze button on the alarm when you know you ought to get out of bed; every time you scroll through cat videos on Instagram when you know you ought to be writing; every time you help yourself to a third slice of cake when you know you ought to order a kale smoothie instead. When you find yourself in these situations, there’s often a bit of shame, a bit of guilt, a bit of frustration. In many cases, the subsequent conviction that we’re weak-willed shapes our entire approach to motivating ourselves.
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Yet it might not be that simple. There’s a very long history in philosophy of being puzzled by the mere possibility of weakness of will. If it’s really the case, as it seems to be in the sorts of situation I’ve just mentioned, that we sincerely believe that a particular choice is the right one to make, all things considered, then how is it possible that we can voluntarily do something else? How is it possible to hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off when what we really want, all things considered, is to get out of bed? Usually, we’ll explain this sort of situation by saying something like, ‘Well, yes, all things considered I really do want to get up early, but at the moment the alarm goes off I lose sight of that and just want to go back to sleep’. This sort of explanation is satisfactory in the sense that it does a decent job of capturing how it feels to be in that situation. Of course the lure of a warm bed is hard to resist, regardless of how well the rest of the day (and maybe even the rest of our lives) would go if we were to get up. But that hasn’t been enough to satisfy philosophers.
This puzzle goes all the way back to Ancient Greece, and to Socrates, who didn’t believe in the possibility of weakness of will. In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates says ‘nobody does anything under the idea or conviction that some other thing would be better and is also attainable, when he might do the better.’ What does this mean for you, lying in bed, rudely awakened by your alarm, and reaching to hit the snooze button? Well, it means that, at least at that moment, you don’t really think that getting out of bed would be better, all things considered. You can’t think that, according to Socrates. What you really think is the best course of action is going back to sleep. There’s no weakness of will involved. You’re just doing what you value most. It might be that, at times when your alarm is not buzzing at you, you value something different. But that’s irrelevant to the question of what you do at the moment your alarm is buzzing.
We’re rational beings, acting in harmony with our values - at least, with the values we hold at that moment
Someone who agreed, more or less, with Socrates on this was the 20th-century British philosopher, R. M. Hare. According to Hare, in order to find out what a person’s values are, it’s better to look at how that person behaves, rather than what they say about what their values are. When it came to considering weakness of will, Hare reasoned in the opposite direction to the way most of us naturally do. Most of us would explain our hitting the snooze button as follows: all things considered, I believe that getting out of bed when the alarm sounds is the best thing to do. By hitting the snooze button, I acted contrary to what I believe is the best course of action, which reveals me to be weak-willed. In other words, we start by confidently asserting that we value getting up on time, and conclude from the fact that we acted contrary to that value that we’re weak willed. Hare would do it the other way round. He’d start by looking at our actions, and ask: what does this behaviour reveal about this person’s values? And he’d conclude that, since you hit the snooze button when the alarm went off, you can’t really value getting up when the alarm goes off, regardless of what you might claim. What you value is going back to sleep. That’s not to say that you don’t care at all about getting up early. It’s just that you value it less than you value going back to sleep - at least at the moment when the alarm goes off. There’s no weakness of will on this account. There’s just you acting on what you value most at that moment.
If we take Hare and Socrates seriously, we’re not weak at all when we hit the snooze button. We’re rational beings, acting in harmony with our values - at least, with the values we hold at that moment. Whilst counter-intuitive, this perspective is helpful when it comes to solving issues caused by procrastination and avoiding self-criticism. In this case, when we hit the snooze button instead of getting up on time, the problem is that our values at the moment that the alarm goes off are not the values that we have the rest of the time. When the alarm goes off, you value going back to sleep above all else. So, the next thing to do is ask: what can you do to ensure that your values at the crucial moment are the values that you hold the rest of the time? In other words, what can you do to ensure that even at the moment when the alarm is sounding, you value getting out of bed more than you value going back to sleep?
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You can think of what’s going on here as playing with a set of scales: on one side you’ve got the choice that you think you ought to be making, and on the other side you’ve got the choice that seems more attractive in the moment. The problem is that, at the crucial moment, the second side has more weight. And you can try to counteract that by removing some weight from that side, or adding weight to the other side, or both. One course of action would be to make hitting the snooze button less attractive than it currently is. Perhaps you could go to bed earlier so that you’re ready to get up when the alarm sounds. Perhaps you could put the alarm on the other side of the room so that you can’t reach the snooze button. Alternatively, you could make getting out of bed more attractive than it currently is. Get in something really nice for breakfast. Spend some time the evening before making your workspace nice and welcoming so that it’s more inviting the following morning.
Sometimes it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper into why our values are liable to change at the crucial moment. Let’s take another example: scrolling through cat videos when you think that really you ought to be writing. Now, you can approach this the way I suggested you approach your snooze button habit, by tinkering with the weights on each side of the scales. You could, for example, block Instagram on your phone so that you can’t look at cat videos. You could do something to make the process of writing more rewarding - one good resource here is the website, focusmate.com, through which you can pair up with a stranger via video call for short sessions during which you both commit to get a certain thing done, and then share at the end how you got on and congratulate each other. But sometimes we avoid writing for complicated reasons. That might be because of things like anxiety and ADHD and fear and having staked our entire sense of self-worth on our writing project. When we respond to our lack of progress by beating ourselves up about being weak-willed, we miss all of this. So, what is it that distraction activities like cat videos are giving you, that you don’t get from working on your writing project? In a lot of cases, they’re attractive because they soothe the anxiety that arises because you value your writing project so much - and in that case, that’s something that you’d benefit from tackling head-on.
When we respond to our lack of progress by beating ourselves up about being weak-willed, we miss all of this
Essentially, the lesson we can learn from the way that Socrates explains away weakness of will, and the view that Hare takes of it, is this: we need to do better than simply yelling at ourselves ‘I shouldn’t be making these choices!’ when our choices don’t align with the values that we most strongly identify with, like finishing a thesis or getting up on time or eating healthily. Instead, accept that we’re making these non-ideal choices. Accept that they happen, and that they’re going to keep happening. And then, following Hare, ask: what do these behavioural choices reveal about the values we hold at the moment we choose to engage in that behaviour? Dig deep. Try to understand what’s going on. Write down what those values are - just describe them, don’t judge them - and if you find it hard to stop judgment from creeping in, try shifting your perspective and asking yourself what you’d conclude about someone else’s values if they were behaving in the way that you do. Once you have that list, think about whether you identify strongly with those values. If there are any on the list that you hold only at odd moments - like when your alarm goes off - but not the rest of the time, have a think about what action you can take to bring them into line with your more enduring values. Treat it as a problem-solving exercise. You don’t solve a problem by standing there shaking your head and bitching about how lazy and weak it is. You solve a problem by coming up with a course of action that you believe is going to make a change in the right direction. It’s cause and effect; it’s not good or bad.
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