Self-Control

Creeping Moralism

There is no one-to-one relationship between self-control and morality.

Posted Jan 23, 2016

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

One indication of a creeping moralism is the application of a religious gloss to activities or phenomena where previously there had been none. ~ Cullen Murphy

What is the relationship between self-control and morality? This is a fair question. In a new paper in Current Opinion in Psychology, Roy Baumeister and Nawal Alghamdi declare that moral behavior is self-controlled and that “self-control failure [promotes] immoral and unethical actions” (p. 66). To many, this may be a reassuring message because it taps into folk psychology. The feeling “I knew it!” lies close to the surface. This is so, as Baumeister and Alghamdi (hereafter “BA”) themselves explain, because the Judeo-Christian tradition, which has shaped moral sensibilities in the West, vigorously and unwaveringly equates immorality (sin) with the failure to suppress behavior that may appeal to the person’s desires but that is loathsome to the social group and to God. Many of the proscribed behaviors are consumptive: eating, drinking, and loving with glee, while other behaviors involve the violation of property rights: theft, adultery (which the ancients construed as a violation of a husband’s exclusive claim to his wife). On this view, a civilized person must learn to keep personal desires in check. If this is successful, there is not only the promise of acceptance by the group, but also the prospect of a long and healthy (if somewhat boring) live [and afterlife].

The empirical base of BA’s case is the research program on ego-depletion. Most studies conducted under this banner challenge people’s ability to resist the temptation to consume an appealing good (e.g., a cookie). Eating the cookie itself is seen as a failure of morality only under the broadest definition. What matters in the paradigm of ego-depletion is that after having successfully resisted eating the cookie, research participants are less likely to resist other temptations, such as to cheat. In other words, the capacity to exercise self-control (willpower) is limited. Morality begets immorality. The greater cheating among the ego-depleted participants in the second phase of the experiment is the basis for the conclusion that the comparative lack of cheating among non-depleted individuals is due to their use of willpower to resist the desire to cheat.

Studies manipulating the resources available for self-control while using behaviors like cheating (vs. not) as an expression of (im)morality can establish a correlation. Imagine an experiment with 100 ego-depleted participants and 100 non-depleted participants. Suppose that among the former, 60 individuals cheat, whereas among the latter, 40 individuals cheat. The correlation between self-control (non-depletion) and morality ([not] cheating) is .2. If this seems low, suppose that 80 non-depleted individuals did not cheat and that 80 depleted individuals cheated. Now the correlation is .6. But the size of the effect does not really matter for BA’s argument or my critique, as long as it is not zero and as long as it points in the ‘right’ direction.   

One might now think that self-control plays a role in bringing about moral action, and that a lack of self-control opens the gate for immoral action. In other words, self-control is implicated in moral behavior as a sufficient cause. What do BA make of this evidence? Let us look at some assertions we find in the text. I have chosen the following quotes (shown in italics) because they reflect the storyline clearly. In this sense, this set of quotes is selective. The selection is not biased, however, in the sense that it misrepresents the meaning of the article as a whole. I ask the reader to read the paper in full. It is quite short, and the bibliographic reference is given below.

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

BA in quotes (and commentary]

[1] Moral virtue depends on self-control to override immoral impulses, so self-control failure can impair moral action. p. 66

This statement is highly restrictive; it assumes that moral virtue by definition consists of the inhibition of immoral impulses, and that [only] the exercise of self-control can provide this inhibition.

[2] Moral rules often press people to do things that are detrimental to their self-interests, extending even to the most basic goals of survival and reproduction. p. 66

This statement assumes a strong mutually exclusive relationship between self-interest and morality. The implication, in conjunction with [1], is that self-control is not exercised in the interest of the self, but only in the interest of the group.

[3] Why did people evolve into moral beings, if that required overcoming impulses to act in ways that would increase reproduction? The answer is almost certainly that moral action would in most cases improve survival and reproduction via other, more round- about routes — especially acceptance into social groups, including cultural societies. p. 66

Here, the conflict of interest between the self and the group is denied, such that it is claimed that interests converge in the long run. The group and its moral code know better than the individual him- or herself what is good for him or her. Part of what makes this statement true is that the rewards and punishments for moral and immoral behavior, respectively, lie in the hands of the group. A group that executes traitors proves the point that it would have been in the traitors’ long-term interest not to "trait."

[4] Human beings may have a moral conscience, but they also have the more basic impulses to do what brings immediate benefit. Hence performing morally virtuous actions typically requires the person to overcome these selfish inclinations. Self-control is what enables people to override impulses and responses so as to do something else, especially something that is more highly valued. Self-control is thus vital for morality, because it is the inner process that enables people to resist impulses and over- come selfishness so as to act in morally desirable ways. In an important sense, self-control is the psychological foundation of virtuous action, and morality would be ineffective without it. p. 66

This passage brings all the claims, assumptions, and arguments together once more. The critical point is that the reader is invited to accept the idea that self-control is both a necessary and a sufficient condition of moral behavior.

[5] Many moral rules consist precisely of forbidding behaviors that may appeal to people in the short run but are detrimental to group living. p. 66

The Bible casts a long shadow - all the way to the psychological laboratory. Its moral code is mainly proscriptive. Most moral standards (the 10 Commandments, the 7 Deadly Sins) are about what not to do. And the anticipated punishments are severe indeed for those who believe it.

[6] The primary function of self- awareness is to make self-regulation possible. p. 67

If, as claimed, the psychological capacity of self-awareness, i.e., of ‘having’ a self emerged under evolutionary pressures to manage life in a group with the exercise of self-control, then this is a heavy burden to carry. The studies performed in the ego-depletion program presume awareness of the temptation and of the effort needed to resist it. This does not mean, however, that self-regulation cannot occur outside of awareness. Nor does it mean that self-awareness didn’t evolve – at least in part – in response to other types of evolutionary pressure (e.g., keeping score of debts and obligations, plotting revenge etc.).

[7] When willpower is low, therefore, virtue suffers and immoral behavior increases. p. 67

This conditional statement reaffirms the deterministic effect of low willpower on immoral behavior. It denies the possibility that, under certain conditions, morality may go up with low willpower or that immoral behavior may go up for reasons other than low willpower. [1]

A broader view

A correlation between a manipulated variable (e.g., self-control) and an observed measure (e.g., the number of instances of one type of moral behavior) can only establish that the former is a sufficient cause of the latter.  A broader view requires a broader set of data. In the context of the present discussion, it would be useful to gather examples, observations, and experimental data over a sample of different types of moral behavior. If we looked beyond the definition of moral behavior as the suppression of impulses that are personally gratifying but offensive to the group, we would find that small children and  some non-human primates engage in what seems to be moral behavior. They share, help, empathize, and are offended by inequality, and they do all this instinctively and intuitively. In other words, there is plenty of evidence of moral behavior that is spontaneous and positive. Empathic helping, for example, is not negatively defined as the absence of anti-social self-indulgence. If this type of behavior amounts to a significant proportion of the moral behavior in the world, then self-control is not necessary for morality.

We should also ask if there are cases of self-control leading to immoral behavior. Indeed there are, and these cases involve the most disturbing kinds of immorality: namely, harming others for the sake of ingroup loyalty. The soldier, the spy, the executioner, and all other henchmen of the Grand Inquisitor act in the name of ingroup morality. They serve the greater good of the group, or so they are told. Often they don’t believe it right away, and they must effortfully suppress their natural instinct not to harm another person. Herb Simon and Robyn Dawes stared this nasty topic down in a pair of essays discussing the likes of Rudolf Hoess, the Kommandant of Auschwitz, and Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucratic engineer of the transportation logistics that fed the extermination camps. These men were revolted by the sight of blood and human suffering. They had to make an effort to carry on with what they perceived as their moral duty to the Fatherland. These cases are extreme, but they illustrate that there is a conceptual and empirical separation between self-control and morality. If self-control can also be a sufficient cause of immoral behavior, then knowing only whether self-control is high or low reveals little about the morality of the behavior to come unless there is information regarding the context.

A broader, and less moralistic, view suggests that the capacity for self-control evolved in an environment that presented our ancestors with difficult challenges. To master these challenges, they had to be able to comprehend and weigh qualitatively different kinds of considerations, such as visceral desires, personal values, and the moral standards of the group. A simple equation reducing morality to self-control is misleading at best and dangerous at worst.

Baumeister, R. F., & Alghamdi, N. G. (2015). Role of self-control failure in immoral and unethical actions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 6, 66-69. 

Murphy, C. (November 2005). Fatwa City: Behavior modification gets down to business. The Atlantic.

[1] This one sentence [quote #7] shows up another paradox that pervades the literature on ego-depletion. On the one hand, willpower is curtailed by mechanistic forces such as prior effort, while on the other hand the will is assumed to be free. In other words, the will is free except when it's not.

Note. I would call this essay a Gegendarstellung, which an alternative, perhaps even contrarian, presentation. My google translator settles for 'reply.'