Nietzsche on Self-Control

Looking for free will in the wrong place

Posted Jul 01, 2012



Science “can no longer allow us to doubt that man, with all he has and possesses, be it mental or corporeal, is a natural product like all other organic beings.”

~ Ludwig Büchner, 1855

It is becoming fashionable again in psychology to say that the study of self-control and self-regulation is relevant to the question of free will. It is assumed that since self-control and self-regulation occur, there must be some freedom in the will. In other words, it is assumed that self-control implies free will. From this it follows that if research can find out how humans control themselves, it can find out how the will is free (not whether it is free; that is already assumed to be true). I do not tire to point out that this type of reasoning is question begging. No outcome of a study on self-control can address the question of whether the will is free. The assumption that it is free is derived illogically. Even if we can agree that “If the will is free, people will engage in self-control,” we cannot infer that “If people engage in self-control, the will is free.” There are other, e.g., deterministic, ways in which systems self-regulate. Individual animals, colonies of animals, and natural systems like the climate do it all the time. Your own body regulates its temperature without freely choosing to. 

But that is where the notion of self-control subtly differs from the notion of self-regulation. Self-regulation is a beautifully neutral term. In contrast, the term self-control carries all the baggage of our moralistic culture. Self-control evokes ideas of temptations resisted, impulses checked, and gratifications delayed. Successful self-control is a victory over the self. But by whom? A higher, better self? Bah humbug!

We ignore Nietzsche at our own risk.

In section 109 (Self-mastery and moderation and their ultimate motive) of Daybreak, Nietzsche considers six different ways of “combating the vehemence of a drive.” The first one, for example, sounds reasonably behavioristic. “Avoid opportunities for gratification.” The third has the opposite flavor. “Give oneself over to the wild and unrestrained gratification of a drive in order to generate disgust with it.” The last method is to “weaken and depress the entire body [to thereby also weaken] an individual violent drive.”

All these methods fit current psychological and commonsense notions of self-control. Yet, Nietzsche notes that “that one desires to combat the vehemence of a drive at all, however, does not stand within our own power; nor does the choice of any particular method; nor does the success or failure of this method. What is clearly the case is that in this entire procedure our intellect is only the blind instrument of another drive which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is tormenting us. [. . .] While ‘we’ believe we are complaining about the vehemence of the drive; at bottom it is one drive which is complaining about another; that is to say: for us to become aware that we are suffering from the vehemence of a drive presupposes the existence of another equally vehement or even more vehement drive.”

I wish Nietzsche had stopped there. But he continues to write that there is “a struggle in prospect in which our intellect is going to have to take sides.” What happened to the intellect being a drive’s blind instrument?

Pragmatic justifications of free will also get bogged down in question begging. A popular argument is that “We can’t give up the assumption of free will, because if we did, we would also have to let go of other moral categories: responsibility, blame, punishment. And if we did that, society will collapse.”

I find this line of argument incomprehensible. Again, perhaps we can agree that “If there is free will, there’s also responsibility and punishment.” But why should we conclude that “If there’s no free will, there can’t be responsibility or punishment”? Not that I am sold on the ideas of responsibility and punishment, but if you are, you can keep them without carrying the burden of free will. If you can train a non-human animal with well-placed punishments, so can you train human animals. Better though to use rewards whenever possible. You can administer rewards to shape behavior because the person is a seat of agency. If an organism responds deterministically or probabilistically to rewards, why not use them? A hundred years of research says that rewards (and punishments) work without the presumption of free will. In fact, one might argue that if people had free will, why would anyone expect rewards and punishments to work? They work, presumably, because they compel an organism to change its ways. They work deterministically (perhaps probabilistically), and we are not free to ignore them. Think about it. If you believe people have free will, you cannot expect them to mend their evil ways because you punish them. They will change only if they (not you) want to. The only reason why you would still insist on punishment is retribution. Retribution is vengeance. It is hard to stay on that high moral horse with no other support.

I can see the following counter-argument, as it may be presented by a compatibilist, that is, by someone who believes that the notion of free will is compatible with the notion of determinism. The argument would be that you can have it both ways. Rewards and punishments work as shown by deterministic-probabilistic psychological science. Yet, they never work fully, thus leaving elbow room for free will. My counter-counter-argument is that if that is so, the compatibilist cannot escape the negative correlation between the mechanical workings of consequences (rewards & punishments) and the size of the elbow room. The better the consequentialist mechanisms work, the less room there is for the will to act freely. This necessarily negative correlation (e.g., computed over contexts or behaviors or people) is enough to eviscerate the notion that we must demand free will in order to justify rewards and punishments. This linkage, it seems to me, requires a positive correlation. A last-ditch, post-consequentialist, counter-counter-counter-argument might be that regardless of the mechanical effects of rewards and punishments, people freely choose to respectively repeat and supress the behavior in question. This idea cannot possibly hold water, though, because it does not tell you how to avoid attributing free will to everything, your dog, the fly on the wall, or planet Jupiter.

An analogue to the discreditable argument that the presumption of free will protects us from chaos is the argument that the presumption of divine creation protects us from chaos. If evolution is the name of the game, would we not all turn into selfish beasts?

A lateral thought

A blogger colleague, Eric Charles, notes that undergraduate students in psychology are irresponsibly coddled into thinking that their own intuitions could recover most findings in social psychology “if they only thought about it.” I agree with this concern and note old-fogeyishly that it has been around for a really really long time. Festinger famously disdained bubba psychology, which means he agreed that much of social psychology is trivial, but that he, Leon, knew a better way. Festinger did not hold self-report methods in high regard. And we can see why. If our data are self-reports, then the undergraduates, who are sampled from the same population as the research participants who provided the self-reports, can intuit what those self-report data look like, by and large, and particularly in hindsight.

Dr. Charles is rightly worried about instructors suggesting to their students that subtle, behavioral, and theoretically sophisticated findings are also little more than demonstrated common sense. I like Dr. Charles’s choice of the famous “wobbly bridge study” (Dutton & Aron, 1974) as an example. Excitation transfer is theorized and shown to be a non-conscious process. Students and their half-witted instructors are not entitled to think that it’s all intuitively obvious. If it were, the finding would be self-eliminating. The research participants too would have to understand the effect at the moment of truth, thereby making it impossible to experience it. The effect requires a mistattribution of arousal. If that were obvious, there could be no misattribution, and hence no effect to report in a textbook and lecture.

Looping inelegantly back to Nietzsche et al. I wonder why it is that if the existence of free will is to terribly obvious to people who have had minds all their lives (paraphrased from Dr. Charles’s post) there is no good research to show it.