When people talk about “self-control”, what do they mean? On the face of it, a “self” and something else that “controls” that self sound like two separate agents. But every agent is in reality just a single agent. What is going on? I think some buried philosophical assumptions and mistakes lurk here.

[Edit: I see no real difference between a core part of the “self” controlling unruly peripheral parts, versus its being controlled by them. The main idea of self-control is that the “self” is “divided against itself”, or at least divided into more than one part that can be treated as an agent in its own right.]

When we say someone should control himself, we mean first and foremost that he has conflicting desires. Then we go further, and give one of those desires a superior status as being “more genuinely his own” than the other one. His “gaining control of himself” is then a matter of the desire that is “more genuinely his own” resulting in action, overruling the desire that is “less genuinely his own”.

Now it seems to me that this decision to regard one of the conflicting desires as “more genuinely his own” is not taken with reference to what the agent himself most strongly desires, but instead with reference to what is considered more laudable — in other words, with reference to what society at large approves of. This might be anything regarded as valuable — such as good heath, prudence in financial matters, scientific rigour, religious piety, whatever. You can see the difference in terms of “is” and “ought”: what the agent most strongly desires is a factual matter to be decided by considering his own choices, whereas what is laudable is a matter of value decided by the likes and dislikes of society at large.

It’s important to see that the factual matter is a completely trivial one — whatever the agent actually ends up doing is what he wanted to do most in the first place. What makes one desire stronger than another is simply that it “wins” any conflict between them by issuing in action. [Edit: So if we look at what an agent most strongly desires, there is no question of one part of himself controlling any other part of himself. He will have to compromise with other agents, of course, and that may involve agents controlling each other to some extent, but that is an everyday fact of life.]

So I would argue that the word ‘self-control’ is to this extent inappropriate: whatever “control” may be involved is not really “self-control” so much as “control by society”. Now please don’t get me wrong here: I don’t mean to say that that sort of “control” involves actual coercion by society. But it does involve guidance from outside the self — with the agent’s tacit approval, of course. He takes his lead from what society approves of rather than from himself in isolation.

Some will protest that self-control usually involves pursuing longer-term gaols and deferring immediate gratification. If longer-term goals are more “genuinely an agent’s own” than mere passing whims, perhaps longer-term goals are more rationally entitled to direct conduct. Perhaps longer-term goals represent an agent’s character more faithfully than whims, so that the latter can be considered “out of character”, and thus a suitable subject for the “self” to exercise “control” over.

I think that’s a red herring. Spontaneity, impulsiveness, even capriciousness are aspects of an agent’s “true” character just as much as stolidity or lack of imagination. Rational action involves the pursuit of all sorts of goals, with an eye both to how desirable this or that goal may be, as well as to how confident one may be that this or that course of action will achieve it. If someone chooses to pursue this shorter-term goal rather than that longer-term goal, say, it simply indicates that on balance he prefers this to that, and/or he has more confidence in achieving it. So there’s nothing intrinsically more “rational” about the pursuit of longer-term goals.

That isn’t the only red herring. We tend to discount pursuits that seem to undermine an agent’s integrity or harm him as being less “genuinely the agent’s own” (I’m thinking of activities such as smoking and drinking). But what counts as “harm” here? Inasmuch as he is able to pursue something he really wants, he is not harmed — and inasmuch as he is prevented from pursuing what he really wants, he is harmed. If we regard something an agent freely pursues as undermining his integrity or as harmful to him, once again we are appealing to values of society at large rather than values of the agent in isolation. And once again, we’re not talking about “self-control” here so much as “control by society” — or, as I said above, at least “guidance by society”.

So far, no harm done. An agent is still doing what he wants to do, even when what he wants to do is determined by the likes and dislikes of other agents than himself. But I think our understanding has taken a sinister turn. We are using misleading words, and in doing so we are turning a blind eye to a possible source of genuine coercion. By treating something that lies outside the agent as if it were the agent’s own, we slide inexorably towards thoughts such as that “society can help a person to control himself”. There are monsters about.

[Edit: One such monster is Rousseau’s idea that people must be “forced to be free”. That slogan expresses the most insidious and dishonest form of paternalism, which goes beyond simply forcing people to do what they don’t want to do “for their own good”. The greasier version — embraced by anyone who appeals to “false consciousness” or the like — involves pretending they do in fact want it by virtue of the fact that it’s for their own good.

The idea that an agent can “really” want something although superficially seeming not to want it is at the heart of the “positive” concept of freedom. As Isaiah Berlin noted, it involves the self’s being divided into two — the “empirical” self and the “real” self — and obviously so too does the idea of self-control.]