MIT, Philosophy

What are you doing when you are controlling yourself?

What is self-control? To a scientist, this question amounts to: what is the mechanism that explains this phenomenon? This way of thinking about self-control goes along with thinking about human agents as objects of study. What makes it the case that some people exhibit self-control whereas others do not? Can we identify a breakdown in the mechanism that explains this difference?

I believe the deepest philosophical question about self-control is fundamentally different from these questions. It arises from the perspective of one who is undertaking to control herself. From this standpoint, the question is not, what is happening when I (attempt to) control myself? Rather it is, what am I taking responsibility for, insofar as I am taking responsibility for controlling myself? This question is not about the nature of self-control, regarded as a scientific phenomenon; it is a question about the nature of the task we all face, the job we find we must do. In my talk, I will try to show you why you probably don’t have a clear answer to the philosophical question, and why answering it is genuinely difficult.