Toga-wearing party-pest explains why people do dumb things

By Matt Perryman

In Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, we find Socrates giving his usual party-ruining lecture. This time, he’s going on about people who know what is best to do, and then don’t do it.

Even though Socrates is an obnoxious troll, he often brings up a good point. In this case, he’s talking about the problem of akrasia, which means “loss of self-control”. Another term is “weakness of the will”.

Here’s the puzzle:

Let’s say I know it’s best to eat modest portions at the buffet. Allegedly knowing this, I end up stuffing my fat face and paying for it the rest of the day.

Now, you might think this is no problem at all. Maybe I do judge that it’s best to eat in moderation, but once all those tasty foods assault my senses all bets are off.

Good judgment loses against a raging appetite. The will is overwhelmed.

That sounds believable enough.

But consider this. We often do painful things, like lift weights or run for a few hours, in order to achieve a more pleasant future goal. And it’s pretty clear that we judge indulgences with food, sechs, drugs, and gambling, as short-term payoffs with long-term costs.

Deferring immediate pleasure for a greater future payoff is considered both wise and admirable.

So how can you do wrong knowing that you’re doing wrong?

Simple. You don’t believe it’s wrong.

The weak-willed person does not truly judge that indulging in the moment is the bad or wrong choice.

Nobody is “overwhelmed” by their appetites. Weakness of the will isn’t a problem of will at all.

Here’s why:

Anyone would experience more pleasure, in intensity and type, from taking care of their bodies, enriching their minds, and taking responsibility for their finances.

What we have here is bad judgment about pleasure and pain. Judging that the short-term experience is worth more than the long term pain. Failing to see that short-term discomforts will lead to long-term wins.

Socrates put it flat out:

Like a practised weigher, put pleasant things and painful in the scales, and with them the nearness and the remoteness, and tell me which count for more. For if you weigh pleasant things against pleasant, the greater and the more are always to be preferred: if painful against painful, then always the fewer and smaller. If you weigh pleasant against painful, and find that the painful are outbalanced by the pleasant—whether the near by the remote or the remote by the near—you must take that course of action to which the pleasant are attached; but not that course if the pleasant are outweighed by the painful.

Giving into cravings when you “know better” means that you don’t actually know better. Social scientists today call this “revealed preference”. Don’t listen to what people say — watch what they do.

People will say all kinds of things in order to look better. In extremes this is known as virtue signaling. But it’s an ordinary face-saving behavior.

Judgment, good or bad, depends on how you perceive sources of pleasure and pain.

Bad judgment is like looking into those funhouse mirrors, seeing things all out of proportion. The present looks exaggerated, “bigger” and closer than it is, and the future seems further away and smaller.

Which makes bad choices a kind of ignorance.

Good judgment, good decisions, and good choices result from seeing things as they are.

Was Socrates right? Who knows. We’re still debating this 2500 years later. But there’s a lot to chew on.

How do you see the pleasures and pains that rule your choices?

Matt Perryman 

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