In this second post I want to reflect on issues about willpower in light of my sketch, in my previous post, of an approach to a planning agent’s self governance over time. (In the background is Holton 2009.)
Suppose you know you will be tempted to drink a lot at tonight’s party. Since you now think that would not be a good thing to do, you now form the intention to stick with one drink at the party. You know, however, that at the party your judgment will temporarily shift and you will at least initially judge that it would be better to have many drinks – though you also know that if you did give into this temptation you would later regret that.
If you stick with your prior intention there will be an important continuity in intention; in contrast, if you give into temptation there will be a break in this intention continuity. This suggests that such willpower may be a form of diachronic self-governance. However, continuity of prior intention helps constitute a planning agent’s diachronic self-governance only given synchronic self-governance at times along the way. But if your judgment shifts at the time of the party it seems that sticking with your prior intention would not be a case of synchronic self-governance: given the judgment shift, where you stand at the time of the party seems to favor drinking more.
Is there an end of the agent’s that favors relevant intention continuity and thereby can help re-shift her standpoint at the time of the party back in favor of stopping with a single drink, as she had intended? This would open up the possibility that sticking with the prior intention is indeed a case of synchronic self-governance, and so also potentially a case of diachronic self-governance.
What end? We don’t want to appeal simply to an end of intention continuity. (An idea along these lines is in work of Jordon Howard Sobel and Wlodek Rabinowicz.) Such an appeal would face a diachronic version of a worry (from Niko Kolodny) that we are simply appealing to a kind of mental tidiness. A natural proposal, instead, is to appeal to the end of diachronic self-governance itself – where that is not merely a matter of mental tidiness. This end would potentially help support willpower in the face of temptation, since such willpower would involve a continuity of intention that is itself a potential element in diachronic self-governance. And given the support from this end, the agent’s standpoint at the time of the party might well shift back into favoring willpower in a way needed for synchronic self-governance (and so for diachronic self-governance).
Indeed – as Sarah Paul has emphasized in conversation -- problems of temptation, and related problems about procrastination, pervade our lives. This supports, by way of a kind of inference to the best explanation, the conjecture that the presence of this end of diachronic self-governance is a central element in ubiquitous cases of a planning agent’s diachronic self-governance.
This suggests that the end of diachronic self-governance is essential to the general exercise of the capacity for such self-governance. And since diachronic self-governance essentially involves synchronic self-governance at times along the way, it is plausible to infer that this end of diachronic self-governance will induce an end of synchronic self-governance. So an end in favor of synchronic self-governance will also be an element in the general exercise of the capacity for such self-governance.
Some may think that the end of self-governance is a kind of necessary, constitutive end of agency quite generally. But this seems to me to overburden (to borrow a term from Barwise and Perry) our descriptive and explanatory understanding of our agency: there are just too many cases of our agency that seem not to involve guidance by that aim. The connection to an end of self-governance instead goes by way of our model of self-governance over time. Further, it is interesting to note that to get to this result we needed to go beyond a focus on synchronic self-governance and turn to diachronic self-governance.
Would this model of a planning agent’s diachronic self-governance entail that sticking with one’s intention to drink the toxin, in Gregory Kavka’s case, is in the same way a candidate for diachronic self-governance? Not if we are careful in our formulation of the model of self-governance over time. In the temptation case one anticipates later regret at giving into the temptation. So the discontinuity of intention involved in giving into temptation is a discontinuity both with earlier resolution and with expected later assessment. In contrast, the discontinuity of intention involved in abandoning, when the chips are down, the prior intention to drink toxin is only a discontinuity with earlier intention – at least on the plausible assumption that one expects that would later be glad that one did not drink the toxin. We need to be careful to understand the intention-continuity aspects of diachronic self-governance in a way that tracks this difference.