Struggling With Temptation?
How to feel better about battling your darker side.
Posted Apr 25, 2017
It isn’t easy being green, and it certainly isn’t easy being good. Many of us navigate life with the best of intentions, hoping that we’ll prove to be brave, honest, kind and fair. But temptation is everywhere, and even the best of intentions can begin to wobble in the face of ordinary frustrations or sudden crises. It’s harder to be honest when you know you can get away with a lie; it’s harder to treat your kids with kindness when they’ve been acting up all afternoon; and it’s harder to take only your fair share of the food when you haven’t eaten all day.
Still, that’s what restraint and self-control are for, even if we aren’t always as successful as we’d like. Part of growing up is learning to resist temptation, in order to do the right thing, serve others, or achieve your longer-term personal goals.
Self-control isn’t always admirable. When it’s not integrated with other positive character traits, self-control can be used to further sinister aims: the stereotypical evil genius or master criminal uses restraint and patience in carrying out their loathsome plans. And on the lighter side, it’s harmless fun to cut loose now and then, whether that’s on the dance-floor, over a gossipy coffee with friends, or just taking some me-time. You don’t have to be in control all the time.
But in general we tend to admire people who overcome temptation, who struggle with their demons and manage to do the right thing. That seems like strength of will, something we’d like to emulate, and to encourage in our children.
Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle took a strikingly uncompromising attitude towards temptation. A truly virtuous person, said Aristotle, would not even be tempted to do the wrong thing. You don’t need self-control to keep you on the straight and narrow if you fully embrace the value of doing what’s right. So people who successfully struggle to overcome temptation are not as admirable as those who simply sail through and do the right thing with ease.
It’s hard to sympathise with Aristotle’s views. For one thing, if you’re battling temptation, being reminded that you’re less than saintly isn’t exactly encouraging. And for another, what about the fact that some people live much more stressful, demanding lives than others, often through no fault of their own? Surely we can recognise the moral achievement of someone who restrains herself from stealing food when she’s starving, compared to the well-fed person who isn’t even tempted to steal?
The twentieth-century thinker Philippa Foot reinvented Aristotle for the contemporary world, by cutting her way through this knot of ideas. She pointed out that we sympathise with people whose difficult situations tempt them to do wrong, much more than with people who are tempted because of weakness in their character. Hunger is a more sympathetic plight than greed.
How we can we turn Foot’s insight into practical advice? One tip is to recognise that self-control isn’t just about developing an iron will. It can also be about shaping your day, and your life, so as to reduce the temptations you encounter. Keeping your business dealings above board so that you know any dishonesty will soon be discovered. Trying to get outdoors with your kids, or to get a short break from them when possible, so that you’re less likely to lose your temper. Trying not to make tough decisions when you’re hungry, or tired. We don’t always have good options, but planning ahead can sometimes make this easier.
We may not be the paragons of Aristotle’s dreams, but if we recognise the different challenges we all face, and cheer each other on when we manage to overcome temptation, we can muddle our way through to better living.
Foot, Philippa (1978): 'Virtues and Vices', in Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, Blackwell Publishers.
'Aristotle's Ethics', in the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy. (Article by Richard Kraut)
Hursthouse, Rosalind (1999): On Virtue Ethics, Oxford University Press. Especially chapter 4.