Bioethics Blogs

Self-control and Public Policy.

I have just finished a series of lectures at the University of Oxford on the topic of self-control, the culmination of my first stint in Oxford as a Leverhulme visiting professor (for which I am very grateful to the Leverhulme Trust). My theme has been self-control as a problem of self-management; taking ‘management’ seriously. The idea is that we need to think strategically about ourselves: rather than deciding how to act as temptations arise, we ought to plan for those occasions, or avoid them. That, I’ve argued, is how people who are successful at avoiding temptations when they conflict with their longer-term goals actually do it.

I don’t want to rehearse those arguments here (if anyone is interested, the podcasts of the lectures will be available online, and several people have kindly blogged about them). Instead, I want to think about its implications for policy.

In the lectures, I remained mainly at the individual level, asking what can each of us do to increase our self-control. I said there are three basic strategies worth pursuing:

(a) we can structure our environments to avoid temptations;

(b) we can alter the relative costs of temptations when we encounter them;

(c) we can exercise various skills to distract ourselves from temptations or to think of them in ways that make them less tempting.

Once we start to look for them, we can easily find examples of the first two strategies. A very banal example of the first: if you find doughnuts tempting but are worried about sticking to your diet, you might choose a route home that doesn’t have you walking past the bakery with its tempting smells.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.