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The instructor for my summer class on free will brought this story to our attention today. Weakness of the will – or, doing what we know and even firmly believe we shouldn’t – is one of the most fundamental issues for exploration when it comes to the philosophical notion of autonomy. This particular news item, however, reminded me of questions that have struck me in the past, questions regarding what is the most “righteous” way to approach (or not approach) those actions and behaviors we consider to be morally wrong. If you’re uncomfortable with the religious overtones of such language, then consider the more neutral question of what is the most appropriate or correct way to approach (or not approach) those actions and behaviors we consider to be socially or even personally abhorrent.
Let me give an example to illustrate, an example that will hopefully ring true to many of us. Suppose you are driving on a highway where the speed limit is 65 mph. Suppose most people are driving somewhere between 70-75 mph, yourself included. Next, imagine that someone zooms past you at approximately 80 miles per hour. Suppose you think to yourself, “What a jerk! That person is clearly a selfish scumbag!” Maybe your character is such that the particular words you choose would be much gentler or harsher than this, but regardless, imagine that you consider the person going 80 mph to somehow be “in the wrong.”
Now, suppose you consider 79 mph to be an acceptable speed to drive under these current conditions. That is, you do not think someone driving 79 mph is to be regarded as socially or morally deviant. 80 mph, on the other hand, is crossing the line. If that is how you feel, then it makes sense to go 79 mph yourself. But would it be all the more praiseworthy to go only 75 mph? 70 mph? How about actually keeping the speed limit and going only 65 mph? Assuming you do not believe that actually abiding by the speed limit will cause any traffic problems (remember, this is just imaginary!), would it be morally better to go 65 mph? Or is anywhere between 65 and 79 mph equally good, given that you do not believe 79 mph is “bad” in the first place?
The point – it does not seem we often view morality on a scale. That is, while we may view certain acts as worse than certain other acts, we generally consider most individual actions to be either right or wrong, either good or bad, either acceptable or unacceptable. As far as these labels go, it is not intuitive that two actions that are both acceptable – wholly acceptable, mind you – can differ in the degree to which they are acceptable. If there is nothing unacceptable about action X or Y, then X cannot be more acceptable than Y. Perhaps X can be more preferred, or easier to achieve, or otherwise be given the upper hand if one must choose between X and Y. But X cannot be more morally acceptable than Y if both X and Y are entirely morally acceptable.
But is this analysis correct? Would it be better to drive, say, 70 mph if you (a) believed driving 70 mph was morally permissible, and (b) although you believed driving 79 mph is also morally permissible, you recognized that it is closer to being morally impermissible? Would it matter? Could it matter? Would it matter if you thought driving 79 mph was morally permissible but would also tempt you to drive 80 mph?
You may be wondering what this has to do with the compulsive gamblers. When my instructor brought up this news story, I asked (somewhat rhetorically) whether or not legally banning themselves from a gambling hall should be regarded as a sign of weakness on the part of these gamblers or as a sign of their strength. On the one hand, it seems that it is a sign of weakness. In effect, these gamblers are saying, “I am so out of control that if I do not take these drastic measures, I will keep gambling. I cannot do it on sheer willpower alone.” On the other hand, these gamblers are recognizing their weakness and taking steps to overcome it. They are, in a manner of speaking, driving 65 mph to avoid going 80. And can that possibly be bad??? Or is it merely courageous?
I used to think that the weaker you were about resisting temptations, the further away from those temptations you should stay. That may be good advice – but it may also be true that this is what the strongest people should and would do. It might actually be a strength to humble oneself enough to drive only 65 mph when there is no obligatory reason for doing so. To drive 65 mph when you know driving 79 mph will tempt you to go 80 may be a greater exercise of your strength (and faith?) than being able to drive 79 mph without crossing the line into the 80s. After all, perhaps driving 79 mph is just a way to sacrifice as little as possible, a way to approximate defiance as much as it is morally possible to do so. Should that be commended?
Some other interesting thoughts came up during our brief discussion of these gamblers, but I will save those for another post. Keep watching and you’ll see it soon. In the meantime, check out these two different takes on the