Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Good Resolutions and How to Keep Them

I am a major fan of New Year's resolutions. Though, of course, it depends on whether the individual is resolving to do something that has real significance. An individual who binds himself to a set of resolutions admits that there is more that he can do to make the world a better place for himself and for others. People who actually do more to make the world a better place for themselves and others are the types of people that I certainly want to be surrounded with.

A resolution is a decision to behave differently. However, behavior exists in the world of cause and effect. We cannot simply ‘wish’ to behave differently and then do so, any more than we can ‘wish’ for a lead statue to be gold and have it turn into gold. In order to behave differently, one has to understand the causes of behavior, and go to work altering the actual real-world causes.

A resolution, at least in desire utilitarian terms, has to do with the realization that some of our current desires are bad for us – that we would be better off if they did not exist, that they were weaker than they are, or that they were more frequently outweighed by greater (and healthier) concerns.

Two ways in which we can recognize that an action is bad (that it thwarts desires) and yet still act on it, involve actions that threaten to thwart future desires and actions that tend to thwart the desires of others.

Future desires have no effect on present actions. The only way in which a future desire can influence an agent’s current action is if the agent has a current desire that future desires be fulfilled. That desire that future desires be fulfilled ends up being weighed against the agent’s other desires, such as a desire to smoke or a desire to eat. The desire that future desires be fulfilled may be significantly weaker than the future desires themselves. When this happens, an agent can knowingly sacrifice greater future desire fulfillment for the sake of significantly less current desire fulfillment

It is also the case that the desires of other agents have no direct affect on our current behavior. We act so as to fulfill the desires of others only to the degree that we have a current desire to fulfill the desires of others, a current desire that the desires of others be fulfilled, and current desires that fulfill the desires of others as a side effect.

Resolutions are (or should be) meant to strengthen those desires to fulfill our future desires and the desires of others, desires that our future desires and the desires of others be fulfilled, and desires that tend to fulfill our future desires and the desires of others.

Resolutions are hard to keep. Why is that?

It is because people act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires, given their beliefs. Neither their beliefs nor their desires undergo a miraculous transformation at midnight on December 31. The wiring in the brain is not substantially different. Therefore, the behavior is not going to be substantially different.

The idea of "will power" as it is commonly spoken of is a magical concept. It is like "the force" in the Star Wars universe - a power to simply wish that the laws of nature would shift, and they do. Will power is the power to merely wish that a person's desires were to change (so that he will do things he has not done in the past, or not do things he has done in the past), and to have them change so that the new behavior emerges.

One of the major problems with ‘will power’ theories of behavior is that they distract people from finding solutions that actually work – solutions that fully respect the fact that behavior exists in the real world of cause and effect.

Magic does not exist. A person will have as much success drawing upon "will power" to affect a change in the real world as he will have drawing upon "the force". People who live in the real world will realize that this change will take place only when something in the real world is made to change.

One of the ways in which resolutions can work is by bringing new desires into play on the scale that weighs existing desires. A person, for example, might make a resolution to lose weight or quit smoking. At present, the desire to smoke outweighs all other desires.

Remember, future desires have no direct affect on present behavior. The only way that a future desire can affect present behavior is through an intermediary mental state. For example, the agent may have a present desire that his future desires be fulfilled, a present desire to live to see his grand children graduate from high school, or a present desire to avoid future pain.

So, when it comes to overeating or smoking or any of a dozen additional bad habits, the future aversion to cancer is not even on the scales. Only the current aversion to have cancer in the future is on the scales - and this desire might not be strong enough to outweigh the desire to smoke or eat.

So, one of the things a person can do is to add another desire to the scale on the side of not smoking or eating. For example, he can add a desire to keep promises - and promise somebody that he will quit smoking.

The trick associated with adding the desire to keep promises is that the act of making a promise does not thwart the desire to smoke. In fact, a person can make the promise to quit smoking at a later date while he is smoking. Therefore, the desire to smoke does not weigh against the act of making a promise.

After the promise is made, when the promise comes due, the weight of the desire to keep promises will be added to the desire to live to see one's grandchildren graduate from college and other desires that smoking would thwart will be put up against the desire to smoke. Then, we get to see which group of desires has the greater weight - we will see whether smoking best fulfills the more and stronger of the agent's desires given his beliefs.

We are all familiar with other tricks that people use to make it easier to keep a resolution. Keep the fattening food out of the house, get rid of the cigarettes, and avoid situations where overeating or smoking becomes more likely.

Here, too, we take advantage of the fact that putting the sources of temptation out of reach does not directly thwart the desire in question. A person can be smoking his last cigarette while he destroys every other cigarette in the house. A person can take his fill of the last chocolate cake he will eat while he goes through the house throwing out the last of the unhealthy food. The desire that future desires be fulfilled, or the desire to keep a promise, or the desire to see one’s grand children graduate from high school motivates the removal of temptation, and the desires that generate the temptation have no weight against those specific acts.

We are familiar with other tricks to make it easier to keep resolutions. We remove fattening food from the house, and throw away the cigarettes. These put other desires in conflict with the desire to smoke or overeat by requiring additional effort. Effort comes with a cost - lost opportunity to fulfill other desires. Those other desires are then put on the scales against the desires that one has resolved not to fulfill.

Here, too, we are talking about things other than magic. We are talking about taking advantage of what we know about the relationships between beliefs, desires, and states of affairs in order to more successfully bring about that which we wish to bring about.

No magic.

No wishful thinking.

No countra-causal free will.

No praying to imaginary beings for intervention that will never come.

Now that I have said a few things about resolutions, I have one resolution that I would like to suggest.

This resolution is to take an activity that is substantially a waste of time - like watching sitcoms or sports on television, or playing computer games - and replacing that activity with one that will have more of an effect fulfilling future desires and the desires of others. An example of the latter is to become more involved in activities that condemn and counter those who do harm to others using poor reasons - reasons based on myth and superstition. Not only will you be preventing others from suffering harm for no good reason, you may well be protecting yourself from suffering harm for no good reason, or obtaining benefits that will otherwise be blocked.

Come on. A couple hours of week switched form an activity of the first time to an activity of the second time. The world will be a better place as a result.

That's what I'm doing this year.


Atheist Observer said...


While I cannot argue that fulfilling a desire that helps fulfill future desires and the desires of others is not more utilitarian than fulfilling a desire that does not do these things, to call any such desire lacking this characteristic a waste of time is rather curious. If desire fulfillment as an end is a waste of time, it would follow that desire fulfillment as means would not derive any value from facilitating it.
While televised sports or comedies may indeed fulfill no more desires than those of the people watching it, the same could be said of watching a glorious sunset, or quite mediation, or perhaps reading a novel. In all of these cases there is no sure desires of the future or others being fulfilled.
If anything not done for the future or for others is a waste of time, it leads to the rather odd conclusion that nothing for the present or for the self is worthwhile. Is this really the point of view you hold?

Miguel Picanco said...

It would seem like the activity you pick to replace would fall lower on your own sense of values than others. Fyfe seemed to me to be suggesting that a gradual moving away from leisurely activities that you deem more of a waste of time to activities that you deem more beneficial to society.

If you don't consider playing computer games a waste of time, then is there any other current action that you would consider a waste of your time? Most people can name at least a few such activities they pursue in their lives. I think Fyfe's suggestion is to try starting there.

Atheist Observer said...

I agree with you that Alonzo’s main point is to resolve to waste less time. I have no quarrel with that concept. Probably everyone has something that they consider a waste of time. I consider time spent unpleasantly with nothing to show for it to be a waste of time.
On the other hand if I experience something that makes me laugh, or simply feel good about life, I don’t consider that a waste of time, even if it doesn’t fulfill future or other’s desires.
While it wasn’t Alonzo’s main point, his suggestion that computer games or television sports are a waste of time seemed to imply there is something in these pursuits that is inherently worthless.
Since many people derive real pleasure from them, to dismiss them as worthless, it appeared as though our desire utilitarian may believe that the only goals worth pursuing are those contributing to the future or to others. I wanted to give him an opportunity to comment on his views on the value of desire fulfillment which involves only an end, not means for other ends.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

One has to keep in mind the distinction between the value of an activity relative to some set of desires, and the value of the desires that the activity fulfills.

Certainly, we engage in these activities because they are such as to fulfill our desires.

But the real question is: Should we desire these things? Is it not better to have desires that are fulfilled by actions that promote truth and reason, than desires that are fulfilled by watching fictitious entities move around on a screen?

The ultimate reason for my closing sentence is that the forces of darkness and superstition are 'winning' in politics precisely because, while they are spending their money and time promoting darkness and mysticism, those who would oppose them are watching American Idol and playing World of Warcraft.

Though I have no objection to spending some time playing the fiddle, it may be better to be doing this at a time other than when Rome is burning.