Uber, but for Virtue

During the discussion with Sam, I thought of what psychologists call the “what-the-hell effect” observed among those attempting to maintain a diet. Here’s Roy Baumeister’s description of it:

The researchers gave it a formal scientific term, counterregulatory eating, but in their lab and among colleagues it was known simply as the what-the-hell effect. Dieters have a fixed target in mind for their maximum daily calories, and when they exceed it for some unexpected reason, such as being given a pair of large milkshakes in an experiment, they regard their diet as blown for the day. That day is therefore mentally classified as a failure, regardless of what else happens. Virtue cannot resume until tomorrow. So they think, What the hell, I might as well enjoy myself today—and the resulting binge often puts on far more weight than the original lapse.

What’s more, such dieters also show a marked decline in their ability to even estimate how much they have eaten during this period, relative to control samples of non-dieters.

This is why I resist Sam’s argument that we ought to treat good deeds or good acts as something to be budgeted “the same way” as “household wealth”. Psychologically, we’re always looking for a reason to be let off the hook. Whether it’s dieting or simply holding ourselves to a minimal standard of decency in how we treat the people around us, we look for excuses and will even construct caricatures to neutralize our culpability or the blameworthiness of our actions. And thinking of moral budgets strikes me as providing just such a recourse. I’ve done X good thing, therefore it’s OK for me to indulge in Y. Only the what-the-hell effect implies that once you’ve indulged in Y once that day, odds are you’ll indulge it in a fair bit more, if given the chance. Especially if Y is something (like cutting people off in traffic) that it takes a degree of restraint to avoid doing.

Now, willpower—Baumeister’s area of study—definitely needs to be budgeted. Actively making decisions, resisting a tempting choice, and similar actions burn glucose in the body. The result is ego depletion, where self-control is harder, and sloppy mental shortcuts are more likely than careful deliberation. There are many reasons why it is important to economize on willpower, not the least of which is so that you can deliberate carefully about the most significant choices when they come up. Baumeister has several suggestions for how to go about this, including making a lot of decisions (like what you’re going to wear each day of the week) up front rather than on the day of. And forming good habits—if you get in the habit of driving a certain way every single day, it won’t feel like you have to resist the urge to cut someone off. It will no longer feel as natural to do so, so avoiding it won’t deplete your willpower, and you won’t be looking for excuses to do it. Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson also talk about how external and social environments can help or hinder people trying to economize on willpower.


A lot of this turns on the difference between self-control and the virtue of temperance.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about enkrateia, which is self-control as we understand it today, and akrasia, which is its opposite. This is very much in line with modern discussions of willpower and impulse control; there’s a desire that we wish to resist acting upon. For Aristotle, enkrateia is the ability to successfully resist this desire; that is self-control in the modern sense. On the other hand, akrasia is giving in to that desire even if we judge it to be the wrong thing to do. This fits into modern discussions of lacking impulse control or being weak-willed.

But being encratic is not the sample thing as being temperate.  In Aristotle’s ethics, virtue involves a unity of emotion and reason. So with regard to, say, food, the temperate man is not the one who desire to eat more than he should, but resists. That is merely the encratic man. The temperate man feels most comfortable eating the right amount of food; eating in moderation is not only judged to be the right choice, but it feels right.

This is probably the most controversial aspect of virtue ethics. In our post-Hume world we are much more used to think of emotion and the passions as being these wild, uncontrollable things. They are “givens” which must be compensated for in some way or simply given in to. Reason is, at best, the meek adviser, at worst, the slave, providing the “how” for achieving a goal in which passions provide the “why”. To the extent that we prefer some passions over others, an exercise of will is necessary to restrain the unruly ones.

Straddling both visions, my father once wrote of the virtue of self-rule:

Self-rule means an intelligent organization, not a renunciation, of desire. The self-ruled man knows that desires can be noble or base, and turns one kind of desire, lever-like, against the other. Self-knowledge — knowledge of our weaknesses rather than narcissism — is, therefore, a requirement of self-rule.

This description is in line with Aristotelian virtue but, interestingly, not necessarily at odds with the modern Humean vision of the passions. For Aristotle, a chain of reasoning leads us to realize that what we want most is happiness in our life as a whole; that is, eudaimonia. He speaks not of desire but of having “reasons” for seeking this, but it’s clear that these reasons are motivating.

Aristotle’s taxonomy is much more nuanced than Hume’s simple dichotomy of passions and reason, and we need not get bogged down in it here. If you’re interested, Martha Nussbaum has a thorough review of Aristotle’s understanding of emotions, as well as that of rival Hellenistic schools, in The Therapy of Desire.

In any case, there are signs that we can strive towards temperance rather than mere enkrateia. What we know about neuroplasticity, for example, suggests that we are capable of going from reading long texts through an act of will to doing so because it feels natural to. This is precisely the distinction between enkrateia and a true virtue; you need to have the former in order to set yourself on the road to the latter.

For our part we can say that this is another reason it is important to economize on willpower; doing so allows us to apply it in strategic ways the help us to cultivate new skills and character traits.



In Give and Take, Adam Grant discusses a highly generous type of person which he labels simply “givers”. What excited me about the empirical work that Grant summarizes in the book is that it seems to provide a detailed look at what Alasdair MacIntyre presents as a theoretical concept; the “network of uncalculated giving.” Grant talks about how givers (unsurprisingly) give more than they ask for, and how their behavior actually encourages the people around them to act more generously.

Moreover, the networks they create are not networks of reciprocal giving (those are for what Grant calls “matchers”, tit-for-tat types, and to an extent for “takers” as well, who just try and get what they can for themselves in all exchanges). Instead, they create networks of people who will help one another; when the giver isn’t the one providing help directly they are acting as a node between people who need help and people who can provide it. Some people end up giving more than they get out of the network but as a whole more good ends up being done.

One big risk that givers face, unsurprisingly, is burnout. They’re more likely to give their time to anyone who asks for it, no questions asked. He used the example of what the teachers at Teach for America often have to endure—students from very different backgrounds from their own, with no respect for them and no desire to participate in the class. The TFA teachers’ ideals collide with reality very quickly, and just coming in and trying to manage their students in a minimal way every day requires a great deal of willpower.

What’s interesting, however, is that the teachers who avoided burnout weren’t the ones that had low expectations from the start or put in minimal effort. Instead, they—to use a now abused phrase—leaned in. But in a very particular way. One case, Conrey Callahan, added to her weekly workload rather than reducing it. Only she didn’t add to her TFA load; she volunteered in other programs tutoring promising but poor students individually. According the Grant, the more favorable circumstances and the more direct feedback, coupled with the fact that it was directly related to her TFA work, helped her maintain her motivation at her main job.

I do not know how far this logic can be extended. I’m not expert and I’m not familiar with the literature the way Grant is. But to me, the Callahan example (the generalizability of which Grant defends with further citations) suggests that we should be very careful with what we apply budget metaphors to. Willpower definitely needs to be budgeted. I’m skeptical, however, that goodness does.

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