Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay CC0 Public Domain
Source: Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

In Stephen King’s sinister story Quitters Inc. Dick Morrison is struggling to quit smoking.  He is unexpectedly given a dramatic new reason not to smoke. (Spoiler alert…you may want to read King’s short story first.)  

If Morrison is caught lighting up, then his wife and young son will be given electric shocks, or even beatings.  Morrison is initially horrified by his situation, but, driven by his desire to protect his loved ones, he manages to quit smoking.  By the end of the story he is recommending the services of Quitters Inc. to others.

Luckily for smokers’ families, Quitters Inc. is pure fiction, and any entrepreneur with ideas in this direction would be breaking the law.

Yet most of us have used a milder version of the Quitters Inc. strategy when trying to achieve a tough goal in the face of temptation.  Think of a time when you told a family member or close friend about one of your goals, hoping to get motivated that way.  Maybe you were just hoping that saying it out loud would help, or that your friend would offer some practical or moral support along the way. 

But sometimes when we share our goals it’s because we know that our loved ones will be disappointed, even hurt, if we don’t follow through.  If your mother would like you to go back to school, or visit her more often, or quit smoking, then telling her that’s your plan will raise her hopes.  And raising her hopes will raise the stakes for you.  Failing now would be even worse than if you’d said nothing at all.

More positively, making yourself accountable in this way adds a bonus to success.  If you reach your goal, you’ve also kept a promise, made someone else happy, and strengthened your relationships with those around you.

Raising the stakes in this way can be an effective means of fortifying yourself against temptation.  But if we are to treat our loved ones with fairness and respect, we also need to exercise a little caution, so that we don’t start down the slippery slope towards Quitters Inc.

When is it okay to put someone else’s happiness on the line, in the service of your own goals and desires?  It’s a tricky calculation, but here are three factors which can help make this ethical:

  • When your loved one shares your goals.  Does your mother really want you to go back to school, or does she just think that’s what you want?
  • When your chances of success, given emotional support, are fairly high.  Is this just wishful thinking, or will you really get motivated this time?
  • How hurt or disappointed will your loved one be if you don’t achieve your goal?  This is a delicate issue, since if there’s not much at stake, you won’t be very motivated, but if there’s too much at stake, that seems unfair to your loved one.

When we’re lucky enough to have strong relationships, we can join together to try to get things done, holding one another accountable for our goals.  This can work with exercise buddies, with support groups, or simply by sharing our New Year’s resolutions with friends.  If you and your friends or family can shoulder these burdens together, helping keeping each other on the straight and narrow, that can be the most rewarding way of battling temptation.  And it’s definitely preferable to Quitters Inc.!

Find out more: Florida State University hosts a project on The Philosophy and Science of Self-Control, funded by the John Templeton Foundation.  Their website has lots of useful resources.

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