Tuesday, December 06, 2011

More on convictions

In response to my recent post, Sticking by your convictions, commenter Randy writes,
You need to distinguish between short and long term desires. Short term desires may be intense and you might have trouble controlling yourself. But if it conflicts with a long term desire you should do so. So self control is a virtue even in a purely materialist sense.
Now, my particular attitude might be unique or in the minority, but I don't seem to have any special problem reconciling short- and long-term desires. Not only do I not worry about the value of self control, I don't even think about the concept seriously. The only exception is momentary irritation or anger, but the process of controlling my passion to not act hurtfully is nearly automatic. The process requires no abstract moral philosophy: I don't think about the virtue of self control; I am, rather, convinced — really convinced — that I am the sort of person who does not act harmfully, so I never choose to do so.

Randy goes on:
I am not sure about your convictions vs your commitments. You were committed to marriage until you were not. So convictions and commitments are things you stick to until you change your mind?

Well, sure. Why not? If I change my mind, I am no longer convinced, n'est pas? Why should I make an agreement contrary to my present or future best interests? Of course, I always want to act honestly and forthrightly, so I don't abandon agreements covertly; before I exit an agreement, I make sure I've adequately negotiated the exit with the other party or parties. I see no virtue at all in making an agreement that I would keep even if it conflicted with my best interests. I certainly do not expect anyone else to keep an agreement in conflict with their own best interests; to do so would seem exploitative and oppressive. I do, of course, expect that they would exit the agreement overtly.

Then changing your mind would be something you might do to try and indulge in the short term pleasures.

So what? If I really believed the short-term pleasure was more important than the long-term agreement, then I am ipso facto not convinced that the long-term agreement is in my best interests. The problem is not that I'm unable to act according to my convictions; the problem is that I'm not really convinced. I'm sufficiently self-aware that I know what I'm really convinced of. I do not, for example, so much "promise" to remain faithful to my girlfriend; I know that I am convinced that I want to remain faithful, and that, barring brain injury or disease, I know my conviction is extremely unlikely to change. I don't have to exercise self-control to act according to my wishes.

It is like the spender and the saver. Saving comes naturally to some. For others it is work.

Never use an economic metaphor with an economist. ;) Saving is not a virtue in any sense. For every saver, there has to be a spender.

Where religion comes in is knowing what is your long term good. The notion that there are some timeless principles that lead to long term good. That there is a trustworthy teacher of said principles. That we can know these principles are true even though they might be contradicted by our thinking, our impulses, and our experiences. It essentially takes the short and long term thinking and creates a super-long term thinking.

I do not, of course, agree with this statement in either the literal or metaphorical sense. In the literal sense, religion is not true. There is no God to proclaim any "timeless principles", any extrinsic long-term or super-long-term good, and there are no "trustworthy teacher[s] of said principles."

Metaphorically, why would I want to externalize some belief that I was internally convinced of? It seems to me that pushing some desire on a magical sky fairy, even as a metaphor, is evidence that the person is not convinced, that at best he is convinced only that he ought to be convinced, which seems like the sine qua non of outer-direction.

I am a completely inner-directed person. While my wants and desires have to a large extent been socially constructed, I act only according to those that have become fully internalized. I might do something just because someone else wants me to, but I will want something, and want to want it, ad infinitum only if the primary want is entirely internal. I find it tedious when someone demands not only that I do something (which I might do indirectly because it furthers my other, internal, desires), but that I want to do it.

Randy closes:
Thinking about it, it is not always time based. Sometimes it is depth-based. We have shallow desires, deeper desires, and super-deep desires that we don't even know about ourselves. So you could draw the same distinctions in that direction as well.

I dunno. It seems incoherent to talk about "super-deep desires that we don't even know about ourselves." But, then again, I'm not a psychiatrist.

Especially because Randy invokes religion, this seems not as much a conversation about moral philosophy, but about the psychology of authoritarian outer-directedness and libertarian inner-directedness (excluding "neurotics", who I will perhaps idiosyncratically define as those who have radically incompatible desires). Are you the sort of person who wants and needs someone else — a fearless leader, a guru, a priest, a captain — to tell you what to do? Or are you the sort of person who, having reasonably integrated desires, does what you want? I am the latter sort of person.


  1. Super deep desires.....
    This has caused me so much fckin pain and stuff.

  2. And how hard do you stick to your convictions? What circumstances? Lets say I state I am an atheist. The area I am in is controlled by islamic fundies. They point a gun at me and ask if I am islamic? I will say yes and stick my butt in the air and bow to mecca. Have I betrayed by atheist convictions? Not at all I have lived another day to continue my atheist live. For an Xtian who really want to get to heaven, all he has to do is stick and say No! I am Xtian and meet his g0d(err disappointment).
    Now how about a hot Xtian babe who asks me(atheist) if I'm Xtian because she will (hypocritically) only have sex with Xtians. Will I stick to my convictions? You bet! right after I say I'm Xtian and we get done.

    Convictions are just as flexible as morals, I learned that as an Xtian from fellow xtians.


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