Temptation and Playing the Odds

Only 52 of Pennsylvania’s approximate 124,000 gambling “addicts” have signed up for a program that makes it illegal for them to gamble within the state. And why would these obsessive gamblers want to voluntarily restrict themselves from being able to engage in the recreational activity they love so dearly? To rid themselves of any incentive to gamble, and therefore to free themselves of an otherwise overwhelming temptation. You see, once you’re enrolled in the program, you’ve legally forfeited your right to any winnings.

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 Pennsylvania self-imposed gambling ban. The first is from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, though it is simply the Associated Press story that most newspapers covering the story ran verbatim. The second link is the official release given by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. According to the former, “few” people are signing up for the self-imposed ban. According to the latter, “many” people are signing up. Both acknowledge that the number of volunteers falls in the 50s, in which case I find the different spins to be somewhat amusing.

Associated Press news story via Post-Gazzette.com

Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board May 21, 2007 Official Release


Jak said...

"a way to approximate defiance as much as it is morally possible to do so"

I never thought of my own going 79 mph that way. It's easy for me to think of other people for examples of coming as close as possible to "sinning" without actually doing the act. I, of course, think I would never be so callous. But perhaps by making these distinctions, between 65 and 79 mph, that is what I'm doing. Perhaps I'm being lazy in my convictions and doing as little as I can to still "stay within the boundaries," however I've determined them.

I've often thought that recognizing our own weaknesses is one of the strongest things we can do. Perhaps by strong I meant taking charge or doing the best we can, because to force ourselves into doing the right thing (or not doing the wrong thing) does feel weak to me. Judging myself, if I had to be restricted by outside means from doing something I know I shouldn't, doesn't feel like I have any merit in saying I've controlled or avoided it.

I keep thinking of gastric bypass surgery that people have to lose weight. They literally force themselves into not being able to over eat. This is one of my pet rants about how wrong this is to do, for many reasons. But in this context, I am understanding that someone may feel like that is their only hope. They are so far beyond being able to control themselves, outside restriction is the only option. Aren't they just recognizing their weakness and taking control of it?

This would make me have to change my mind about this surgery and say "good for you! You did what you needed to do to take control. You recognized your weakness and did something to overcome it."

But that's not all it's about. I have a problem with the fact that people can be so unhappy with themselves, that society can be so against them, that they would feel their only hope is to go to such an extreme. I think it's an unhealthy way to treat your body, restricting you caloric intake to that of a baby's! And, morally, I just think it's wrong for us to tamper so much with what God's given us when really what it comes down to is what we look like (even though there are arguments for health reasons).

Perhaps it is for these reasons that I would say no; forcing yourself to avoid a behavior is weak. To really show moral fiber and integrity, it needs to come from the inside.

But then I think of other behaviors: the alcoholic that has to avoid bars to stay sober, the pedophile that can't go near places where kids gather, a smoker who needs some kind of other habit to keep him/her busy. In these examples I think great! If there is a way to restrain yourself, do it! These people need help (or, in the case of the pedophile, execution! :) and recognizing this and being willing to take those steps, shows great strength of character.

Aha. Perhaps that's it? There is a difference in the alcoholic using his will to avoid temptation and the gambler surrendering her will so that she no longer has to choose to avoid the behavior.

Not that I actually know anything about any of the examples I've used here.

What really intrigued me and made it personal was this distinction between moral right and wrong-ness. The speed limit is 65, but I think it's okay to go 79 and the guy who does 80 is a big jerk. What makes me think I can make that distinction? And why am I making it?

I like to think I'm just doing the best I can to travel the road of life with all the jerks that are around; staying as close as I can to my speed limits without getting comletely run over by those who have none. But maybe I'm not as diligent as I'd like to take credit for. Maybe I am living as close to the edge as I can get away with... and for what reason? My pride. Because people make fun of you if you drive 65 and not 80. So I'll go 79 and try to satisfy it all.

And then I'm no better than all I just said about giving up my will, rather than using it, to control my actions.

mudder said...

It must take quite a lot of courage to make that decision and subject yourself to it. I believe it shows strength. Persons of weak character might have excuses for not doing something like that, which demonstrates further weakness. At least the others are doing something. It is too bad that we don't/can't exercise adequate self-control to just live by the rules, but that seems to be what life is mainly about. Everyone needs help with something. That is also what life is all about...helping and supporting each other. We need to learn to do both.

The Damsel said...

I agree with JoAnna about the difference between self-control and avoiding responsibility. I have a friend who smokes illegally and he is trying to quit before his birthday because he knows if he still smokes when it is legal, he will never quit. At first that logic seemed strange to me but now I get it- maybe we just have to think of things we don't want to want to do as out of the realm of possibility for us. And maybe that needs to be our job, not someone else's.