Implications of the Folk-Psychology of Willpower


Michael Anissimov, Fundraising Director for the Lifeboat Foundation in North America,
with Michael Vassar in March of 2007

Michael Vassar’s writings on the impacts of molecular manufacturing and other transformative technological trends have been featured on, and the Lifeboat Foundation website. He is the author of “Corporate Cornucopia: Examining the Special Implications of Commercial MNT Development” and Lifeboat Nanoshield with Robert Freitas. He has been a transhumanist since he read “How and Why: Genetics” at age 7.

Michael Vassar spoke at the May 2007 Bioethics conference entitled Human Rights for the 21st Century, organized by the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. In his presentation, “Lead Me Not Into Temptation: Implications of the Folk Psychology of Willpower,” he offers plausible explanations for the long-standing hostility towards conceptions of cognitive liberty presently found throughout the world.


The following transcript of Michael Vassar’s Human Rights for the 21st Century presentation “Lead Me Not Into Temptation: Implications of the Folk Psychology of Willpower” has been revised and approved by the author. An audio recording of the talk is available at the IEET archives.

“Neither Liberal, Conservative, nor Libertarian political philosophies usually give much explicit attention to the concept of willpower (entirely conceptually seperate from “free will”). However, some examination shows that variation in how it is concieved of appears to be the basis for ideological conflicts between the partisans of different views.”

“I think it is fair to say that nothing is ever a dogma and believed. People have no reason to make the blueness of the sky or the yellowness of the sun a dogma. “

Implications of the Folk-Psychology of Willpower

My talk is called “Lead Me Not Into Temptation: The Implications of the Folk-Psychology of Willpower to Political Philosophy.” We’ve been talking about cognitive liberties, and I think I am going to provide an explanation for why there is so much hostility toward cognitive liberty throughout the modern world. Since the 1918 in the United States, a huge number of drugs have been made illegal, and I think that the US has used its influence to impose this throughout the rest of the world. But I think that there is a broader narrative in which this can be embedded, which has to do with examining the nature of dogma, and examining how seemingly irreconcilable differences can arise from basically non-verbalized differences in one’s underlying assumptions that one grounds one’s policy theories in.

In everyday life, we frequently consider ourselves to be engaged in inner conflicts, sometimes between ourselves and temptation. Discussions of such conflict often involve the identification of the self with the relatively rational, relatively long-term oriented, verbal, deliberative and pro-social (meaning both for the benefit of society and also in accordance with social norms) elements of our personalities. Ironically, these are approximately the same mental functions that are suppressed by alcohol, yet, in many cultures, alcohol is considered to be an important social lubricant, because you can get to know someone’s true self by seeing them drunk, stoned, or whatever… Something strange is obviously going on here. Either we are not being honest with ourselves, or we are employing multiple inconsistent metaphors within our implicit theory of inner conflict. Most likely, we’re doing both.

Revealing the entire metaphorical structure, or schema, of our psychological model of self would be a huge endeavor. But it may be that the schema employs a few important concepts or terms that will offer major insight for minimal effort. It’s even possible that the differences between the frequency or ease with which people employ the possible features of their mental structures may lead to important differences in the ways in which they judge common life situations, which they have not been able to explain or communicate across persons. I believe this in fact to be the case. And also that one fairly accessible source of such differences lies in the frequency or strength with which elements of the local metaphorial schema associated with our normally opaque concept “willpower” are invoked.

Earlier I mentioned that in different contexts, different mental processes are identified as the self. Clearly in reality all of the person’s metal functions are in some sense the person’s metal self. But it is also clear that in actuality the unitary self is a toy mode, a polite fiction, and a gross simplification of the complex interactions of the neurological subsystems, each of which have varying degrees of autonomy, and are organized on different scales and possibly in certain scale-free or fractal relationships.

Let me point out some of the implications of a unitary self. If the self is unitary, it is necessarily rational, for if you drive rationality from a unitary self, then rationality has no place left to go, and argument collapses into incoherence. If the self is rational, and unitarily rational, then all selves are equal in their rationality, which implies to some degree equality of moral agency, the contradiction of that statement, mentioned in the earlier presentation, of people having differences in their levels of competence and culpability. This implies equality of rights as well as equality of responsibilities, and is a basic foundational undercurrent in the Enlightenment project. This is why threats to this toy, this recognized illusion, are so dangerous, and why they are attacked so aggressively by putting, in the Unites States, about a million people in prison, for instance.

The Enlightenment project, although it is based on this simplification, has been incredibly useful. It has been vastly, vastly more successful than any previous way of organizing society. It is, in a sense, the fortress to which earlier Enlightenment rationalist programs retreated and entrenched themselves after essentially facing defeat in the attempt to quickly form a comprehensive and humanistic conception of the mind capable of competing with a complex but frequently arbitrary structures of the high-Medieval conception of the soul. We see the last legs of this retreat in the change of emphasis between Adam Smith’s two compatible and complementary masterpieces The Theory of Moral Sentiment and The Wealth of Nations. The timing of the transition strongly suggests that the transition was in fact successful. After all, The Theory of Moral Sentiment did not, while The Wealth of Nations did, become the foundation of the academic superdiscipline that includes microeconomics, economic history, macroeconomics, much of political science, game theory, etc.

In the same year as The Wealth of Nations was published, the Declaration of Independence bound this humanistic late Enlightenment model of a unitary self to folk psychology. Much of the world came to instantiate this idea of equality implicitly. Although the idea of equality drifted from the roots in equality of rights, grounded in the equality of rationality, into equality of opportunities, outcomes, wealth, and in that manner became in some way diluted. This has benefits and costs, because if the claim is itself a dogma, the diluted claim has less strength to preserve fairness doctrines, economic growth, and free inquiry. But it also has less strength to force cognitive dissonance and the psychotic, spasmodic oppression that people respond with when their dogmas are typically threatened.

I think it is fair to say that nothing is ever a dogma and believed. People have no reason to make the blueness of the sky or the yellowness of the sun a dogma. No one would ever be punished for claiming that the heart does not pump blood or that zebras lack stripes. People are, however, routinely punished for claiming that there aren’t any big old men in the clouds, or that men don’t die when they drink the blood of a bull, or perhaps that the equality concept is a useful simplification… admittedly, a very useful one. So this equality conception is taken more or less seriously depending on the nation, and probably most seriously, if conceptualized as an equality of rights, in the United States. This results in certain costs in the rigidity of United States policy, leading to us having so many people in prison, and to tendencies for our laws to be in some respects draconian.

There is some evidence in the Declaration of Independence about this equality doctrine, implying a unitary soul, implying equality of rights. It is claimed that the right of representation in the legislature is inestimable to the governed and formidable to tyrants only. This is a claim that being treated as equals is a spiritual value, not possible of being traded off against other benefits, and likewise that only tyrants have anything to fear from a full-empowered folk, a full-empowered populace. Now, if everyone was, in fact, equal and incompletely rational, this at least quite plausibly would be the case, although I don’t think this has been decided definitively. I’ll have to talk to Bill Hibbard about that, because a wholly rational and nearly omnipotently insightful mind might be extremely dangerous. But in actuality, wholly rational people voted for drug prohibition, the internment of the Japanese, and in the most dramatic case of course voted for the abolition of democracy and the establishment of an all-powerful fuhrer.

So the infallibility of this practice, the idea that only a tyrant need fear the right of representation, is obviously not technically true. Minorities of all sorts have long rightly feared it, while in fortunate cases tyrants have established minority rights as did, for instance, Napoleon. Jefferson does however in the Declaration leave open the possibility that rationality can be compromised, even if that does contradict his overarching framework, by saying that George III held legislation in unusual locations and at times in order to fatigue representatives into compliance, indicating that at the very least, fatigue can in principle undermine rationality. What it undermines it with and what comes up in its place have not been elucidated, but in this particular case one might suggest simply complicity.

If fatigue can undermine your rationality, what is it that resists that undermining? One common sense term for what resists this undermining is willpower. But willpower is not all that well defined a concept. For one thing, people often confuse it or conflate it with the religious concept of free will, while the two are actually quite different. willpower is at least closely related to psychological, measurable concepts, while free will is a concept having to do with a theory of radical freedom. It’s a metaphysical concept. What is willpower? says willpower is the strength of will to carry out one’s decisions, wishes, or plans, but also notes that Nietzsche used the term to refer to any internally motivated action or creative spark, and suggested that actions taken at the behest of others in conformity or in compliance were not willpower. Related terms that are suggested are “self-control,” which in the narrow sense is strongly correlated with very important life outcomes, especially life expectancy. argues that self-control can be improved through the course of life. This claim I think is extremely important, because it is at the root of a conflict between the political right, left, and libertarians.

Libertarians, although seen as the non-conformist, contrarian, radical party, are actually the political party that is most committed to the dogma of unitary self and equality. Metaphorically, they conceive of willpower as an abundant resource. They conceive of people having unlimited power for self-control, and thus not needing paternalistic protection. That is the simplest conception of a unitary self in conflict with the conception of willpower: simply deny the non-unitary self. The second simplest possible conception is to conceive of willpower as a limited resource, something that is expended and never recovered, having been expended.

If you believe that willpower is expended and never recovered, it follows logically that a virtuous person should consistently avoid temptations, and should respond to temptations by submitting, lest they deplete their willpower and be unable to resist further, later, more important temptations. This might perhaps be an explanation for the greater rates of adultery, violent crime, and pretty much all forms of anti-social behavior in the red states, and more generally the extremely strong positive correlation between declared political conservatism and negative outcomes of pretty much all varieties. If you hold that willpower is permanently depletable, this also suggests that it is important to attack very intensely anyone who is tempting people: anyone who is advertising, or promoting a potentially false religion, or most especially promoting substances that directly act upon the mind and on the will, or sex and possibly other not well modeled social or psychological forces.

In some psychological research, self-control has been studied fairly intensely, and the idea that self0-control can be depleted has been confirmed by studies where executive function was impaired in subsequent tasks after people engaged in willful activity. For instance, people were given the option of eating cake or of not eating cake. Those who choose not to eat their cake then performed worse on a Stroop test, which is a test that requires that you look at color words written in colored ink, where the color of the ink differs from the color of the word, and read the words. There have been a number of studies of this sort, on all sorts of tests of executive function.

The implication here is that resisting temptation is costly so people cannot be free to tempt. The conservative bugaboo or fear is that by having prostitutes walking the streets and advertisements telling people that they have to drink booze and smoke cocaine that soon everyone will have their willpower either depleted or simply submit to anti-social activities, and we will be left with a society of non-volitional agents with no rationality, no culpability, no ability to participate in a civic process, make decisions, or be held responsible for their actions.

Unfortunately, the extreme of protecting people from temptation is epitomized most perfectly by the Taliban’s Afghanistan, where women are radically isolated from men to avoid sexual temptation, and women are always held accountable for causing temptation, because it is much more sinful to create a slight temptation like by letting someone see your ankles or letting someone vaguely infer the shape of your body than it would be to rape someone or kill them. A third metaphor, which I believe may be foundational to but unexplored in modern liberalism, is the metaphor of willpower as a muscle, or perhaps more realistically in a cognitive science/ society of mind framework, willpower as social relationships, because both social relationships and muscles are depleted through excessive use in the short term, but are built up by heavy use, and damaged by extreme disuse in the long-term.

A society based on the metaphor of willpower as a muscle would want to isolate people into different regions or different social settings so that they can control how much exercise their self-control is faced with. You would want the existence of a Salt Lake City, where people are faced with very little temptation when they want to raise children and when they want to do things that are demanding, and a New York, where people can be faced with a higher amount, and even perhaps a Bangkok, where people can really go overboard in terms of the experience of temptation, which might be physically or informationally separate from one another.

I’m going to propose that the computer role-playing game, with its different towns surrounded by different types of monsters, each town is filled with different weapons at different prices, where, as you move forward, you fight more powerful monsters, get more gold pieces and more experience from them, and are able to deal with the more powerful monsters at the next stop over, is within this muscle framework of willpower. Something analogous to this would be the ideal liberal solution to social order.

One thought on “Implications of the Folk-Psychology of Willpower

  1. Taking the idea of willpower as a muscle, then rather than aparheit would not be better just to have people be aware of the implications of their limitation and train accordingly? In a way, they are responsible (or at least, their parents) of not building their self control in their youth.
    Shoudlnt we get something like this in our educational system, in case the parents suck?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>